The first time it happened I admit I was a little scared. Gary and I had just settled down for a long ride on a New York City subway train when a man in our car started shouting, “I am homeless, and I need help. I want to give each of you a chance to make a donation.” Making his way to each section of the car, he asked aggressively, “Anyone here? Anyone here?” I sensed that people were sympathetic, but almost everyone kept their head down and listened to music or read a book. Several people gave the man a bill, and he moved on to the next car.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed learning to use the subway system wherever I travel, but I’d never experienced panhandling in an actual subway car. Knowing that we were a captive audience with a person whose mannerisms made me very uneasy, I had visions of this man pulling out a gun or knife to harm anyone who refused to give him money. I breathed a sigh of relief when he left.
The next day I asked our son if our experience was unusual. Garth, who spends up to 90 minutes a day commuting on the subway, said, “No, this happens all the time. You get used to it. It’s just a part of subway culture.” If you visit any major city around the world, you will discover an amazing underground way of life as millions of people travel beneath the surface of the earth every day. As Gary and I became part of this culture for 6 days, I decided to embrace every aspect of subway life. In the process, I discovered 2 things:
- God is very much present below ground as well as above ground.
- I yearn for a subway faith.
What are the characteristics of a subway faith?
- A subway faith delights in diversity.
Coming from Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was utterly amazed at the variety of people sitting around me. It seemed as if every country, language, hair and clothing style in the world was represented. And if I (looked underneath the surface) observed closely enough, I could discern that everyone had a story. People looked sad, bored, hopeful, unhealthy, stressed, jubilant, tired, expectant, unbalanced, and alert. Each one was a child of God, created with gifts to offer the world. I can’t think of a greater foretaste of the celestial banquet than the subway car.
- A subway faith is a great equalizer.
In Acts 10:34, the apostle Paul tells the centurion Cornelius and his friends that God shows no partiality between Jews and Gentiles, for anyone who fears God and does right is acceptable to God. There is no partiality shown on the subway, either. No one will get there sooner than anyone else. We all pay the same price and sit on the same kinds of seats. If the car is full we stand, and if the car is about to leave, the doors will close on us no matter who we are.
- A subway faith realizes that the journey is just as important as the destination.
When we travel, it’s not usually the famous landmarks at the end of the journey that teach us the most; it’s the observations that we make along the way. As I watched people wait for the subway and then sit in the cars, I sensed that most folks were disconnected from their surroundings. They were either listening to music on their ipod, talking on their cell phone, reading a newspaper or book, or talking with a companion.
A subway faith is not so intent on getting some place that it misses the lessons that can be learned from interacting with subway culture, including street musicians, panhandlers, murals, ticket sellers, advertisements, children, students, professionals, and tourists. In the same way, the goal of the Christian life is not to get to heaven, but to live fully and faithfully every day.
- A subway faith softens hearts and is open to surprise and beauty.
I am always surprised by the quality of street music that I hear in our major cities. On Sunday afternoon 2 men from the African country ofSenegalwere playing native stringed instruments as we waited for our subway. They attracted quite a gathering of people who smiled, clapped, and encouraged a little girl who was dancing to the music. I put a dollar in their hat. In those few moments, musicians and travelers experienced community.
- A subway faith notices the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Unfortunately, in the rush of everyday life, it’s easy to give in to the mind and heart numbing tendency to become indifferent to our environment, especially on the subway. On a cold January morning in 2007 a street musician played 6 violin pieces by J.S. Bach in an indoor arcade at the top of aWashingtonD.C.subway escalator. During that time 1,097 people passed by him, most on their way to work. Only 7 people stopped long enough to listen for a brief time. 27 people gave money but most continued walking. He collected a total of $32.
That man was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world. He was playing a violin worth $3.2 million and just 2 days before sold out a theater in Bostonwhere tickets averaged $100. Only one person out of 1,097 recognized Joshua Bell. His subway “performance” was arranged and videoed by the Washington Post as an experiment.
Race, ethnicity, gender, and age did not distinguish who stopped to listen. The only constant was the children. In every single case, when a child walked by Joshua Bell, he or she tried to stop and watch, but a parent led them away.
Watching the video weeks later,Bellwas mystified by only one thing. He said, “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!” He wondered whether people ignored him because they didn’t want to feel guilty about not contributing.
- A subway faith calls us to wrestle with the needs of the world rather than ignore them.
At the next stop after the man asked for money in our subway car, a woman came on board with a similar rehearsed speech, “I used to be like you. I had a job, money, and security. Now I have nothing, and I can’t even feed my children. Do you have a candy bar or even a bag of chips that I can take to my family?” A few people gave her money, and she, like the man, moved on to the next car.
Two women sitting near me were quite cynical about this plea for money. “I’ve heard this before. How could she get her fingernails done if she doesn’t have any money? It’s a scam.” A few stops later, the same woman came back in our car and began reciting the same story! She looked around, paused, then said, “Oops! I already did this car.” One of the 2 women replied, dripping with sarcasm, “Yes, you did.” The pan handler quickly moved to the next car, whereupon the woman apologized to the rest of us, “I’ve had a long day.” The hidden grief and sadness in both women screamed out for understanding, compassion, and grace.
Are you moving toward a subway faith in your life?
- Are you willing to detour beneath the surface of your existence to walk with those who are living underground rather than see them as an annoyance?
- Can you recognize your fear, guilt and irritation when other people “get in the way” of your secure and sheltered route through life?
- Will you stop along the way to smell the roses as well as the rotting trash?
- Are you open to experiencing God’s grace in unexpected places?
- Are you more apt to throw a dollar into the hat when a person “performs” rather than simply asks for money?
- Can you see the genius around you in the octogenarian, the gay man, the street person sitting in the back pew, or the autistic child?
- Is a subway faith merely a means to an end or a means of opening your heart?
“‘It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington. Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?’
When it was over, Stacy Furukawa introduced herself to Belland tossed in a twenty.” (Stacy Furukawa, the one person who recognized Joshua Bell – quoted by Gene Weingarten, Washington Post staff writer, April 8, 2007)