A street preacher made her way onto the train, walking down the aisles, calling people to repentance. The odor hovering around her made it clear that her newfound faith didn’t include regular access to showers. Her language was crass, naming all the sexual sins people fall prey to, including what makes them appealing. Substance abuse was a far second in what required repentance. My drunken neighbor said to no one in particular, “Well, she’s got passion. I’ll give her that.”
I knew her particular brand of fundamentalism well, chuckling to myself as she shouted some new tenet. Only one person took her up on her offer to talk. Graciously, I wasn’t close enough to hear any of the conversation. My neighbor continued to sip from his gas station cup, a whiff of what was most certainly not a soft drink wafting over occasionally. His running commentary on events continued for most of the morning.
“Get through the train, then start over,” he said of the man panhandling. It was true. I watched the man quietly make his way from one end of the train to the other, asking each passenger for some money. Even those who had in headphones to avoid conversation were asked repeatedly, until they took off their headphones and offered a response.
When he got to me, he told his story, “I haven’t eaten in two days. Do you have just a couple of dollars? Even some change?” Truthfully, I didn’t. The three or four dollars in cash I currently have are in the glove box of my car. As he spoke, the odor of cigarettes permeated the air around him. Looking into his eyes, I saw that they didn’t meet mine or focus as they should. It’s often that way with people who are chronically homeless. I’m not trained enough to recognize the whys, but I have the guesses of mental illness, low IQ, or lifelong trauma. Truth be told, in most cases, it’s the last one that means they can’t get off the street. They’ve lived under toxic stress their entire lives and there’s no way out.
Today, the light rail was more interesting than usual. My work and life don’t often give me an opportunity to use the light rail. When I can, I do, because I believe in systems created for the good of the public: public schools, public healthcare, public transportation. The world here is different than the one I inhabit daily. The homeless people I typically encounter are in a program. They’re not the chronically homeless whose struggles are so great that they will always be homeless unless offered free public housing. These homeless neighbors have been coached to be polite, to say thank you, to act how people who want to help expect people to act.
There is a rawness on this train, a rawness that grows as the day goes on. In the morning, it’s filled with commuters and college students. By mid-afternoon, it’s full of everyone. Get on a bus if you want to see truly raw, though. The bus is where people lug groceries, and coach their kids through boredom, and sit in pain. Buses that run late and clumsily roll down city streets are a different world than the reliable, well-policed light rail.
Here’s my confession: about every third ride on the light rail, I think about calling the police. So far, I’ve talked myself out of it every time. The conversation about my racism is one I’ll hold for another day. I know that’s part of it and why I must think through events to reach the conclusion that I’ve never been threatened in any way on public transportation. Instead, I’ve been taught to see people as dangerous even when they aren’t. To fix that, I need Jesus.
When I think, “Maybe I should call the police,” I start to tell myself, “These are the people Jesus loves.” It’s difficult, at first, to believe that Jesus loves the smelly street preacher, from her unkempt hair to her booty shorts. Jesus loves that man sitting across from me, in who knows what state of intoxication at 7:30 a.m. The man asking everyone for money, Jesus loves him, too.
Jesus loves the jerk who didn’t move from the handicapped seats until asked, even though she was obstructing the only place for a wheelchair to sit. Those noisy guys who were doing only God knows what, Jesus loves them, too. And Jesus loves the probably homeless guy who was overjoyed to find today’s sports section of the newspaper left on the seat of the train.
I don’t think that Jesus loves them more than he loves me, but am pretty sure he would be quicker to show them he loves them because they haven’t had enough people to love them. This in-between, nowhere sort of place is beautiful in its own Jesus-breathed way. On mornings like this, I am grateful that it pulls me closer to Jesus.