Mystery of 'Church' can happen anywhere:
You never know when you will find yourself standing on holy ground
(NCR, March 8, 2002)
There's no doubt about it, it was the smile that grabbed me.
I was seated half-way toward the back of the bus I usually take to work. My attention was drawn to two men seated in conversation up front. The one on the left, an older black man, talking in a friendly fashion to a young black fellow seated opposite him. I couldn't hear the talk but it was easy to catch the tone of impish banter in the older man's voice. He had a head of gray nappy hair; his eyes had the whitish cast of someone with severe cataracts.
How old? I've discovered over the years that I'm not as good at guessing the age of black people as I am with whites, but I'd guess he was about my age. What people who shouldn't be blamed because they don't know any better might call old.
But then there was that smile. How to describe it? Pleasant? That, for sure. Engaging? Very much so. How then? Sweet! That's it, his smile was sweet.
Over the following few weeks I came to realize that he was the same fellow who shuffled across our parking lot occasionally in the morning, carrying his small plastic bag of trash to put into the dumpster. Before he reached the bin he would pull out a smaller bag from the outer one and shake out a batch of crumbs for the birds to eat.
A few weeks passed. Then one day as I boarded the bus I found him sitting there with no one in the next seat so I sat down next to him. It was easy to exchange pleasantries. A few days later I took a small initiative and we introduced each other by name. Gradually we took to talking, until one day he asked me what I did. I had learned that he had worked for many years in the post office, eventually becoming president of the employees' local. When I told him I was a priest he smiled that smile and said "Is that so?"
He asked me where my church was and I told him that though I wasn't a pastor and didn't 'have' a church I was a regular member at St. Agnes, a predominantly black parish whose church we passed each day riding on the bus. Chuck let me know that he had been Catholic as a child but hadn't attended any church for some years. Our relationship had become comfortable enough for me to suggest that he might come on a Sunday sometime and see how welcoming the community is. He was non-committal but also not put off. When I met him on later trips he would ask in a slyly teasing manner "Did you go to church this Sunday?"
Chuck lived alone, though I did learn that he had some daughters in Cincinnati and also up in Detroit.
After some more time he trusted me enough to tell me that he was being bothered in his apartment by some rough young studs in the building. They beat him up, and one day they took some of his things. It was clearly a preoccupying issue because he came back to it several times. Twice he mentioned that he had a weapon and would not be afraid to use it if they attacked him again. There were some oblique references to the FBI coming snooping around, and I began to wonder whether he might be paranoid. He may have been; probably was. But the evidence of his openness to strangers put a qualifier on that. He certainly showed no fear of talking to strangers on that bus.
One day he went so far as to confide in me that he had seen a vision of Jesus in his apartment. Now I have to confess that I don't do very well with reports of visions; guess I'm a bit too rationalistic. But here was a man honestly telling a bus companion about a most intimate experience, something you don't just blab to the world. I would have to allow my horizons to expand a bit in such a presence; more things going on in the world than all our philosophy, and all that. Turns out that Chuck had been troubled over something and the Jesus who visited him consoled him and said he shouldn't worry, that he was all right. Take off your shoes, Wilson, you're on sacred ground.
A time has passed. I haven't seen Chuck at the bus stop for several months. There is a clutch of black women who wait there every day with their little kids. They exchange stories about events in the city and in their own families, with pronounced positions on what's right and what's wrong in the world, how a mother should raise her kids, what the cops should be doing, and all. You name it. A regular Sophoclean chorus. One day one of the women asked us, "Have any of you seen that old fellow who comes and gets on the bus here, the one who goes and puts his trash in the dumpster?" When the others said the hadn't seen him either, she said, "I'm goin' ask up at the rental office if anybody knows what happened to him."
She didn't know his name the way I did; I guess for her it was just 'neighbor.' Someone to be concerned about, and ask after.
George Wilson, S.J. lives in Cincinnati and serves as an organizational facilitator for Management Design Institute. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.