Spirituality in the Subway

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What Chesterton might think of our underground evangelists

One of the benefits of working in the religious press is that I have learned, over time and experience, how to properly talk about religion. We’ve all been advised, of course, to “never discuss religion and politics in polite company,” and most of the time that serves us well in avoiding a wicked argument or boring discourse. But religion, like most complicated subjects, can be discussed in an objective, intellectual manner that makes for fascinating and enlightening conversations—as long as its speakers know enough about it to make it worthwhile, that is.

In my profession I have had many such conversations with a variety of people. I have discussed doctrine with cannon lawyers, scripture with theologians, and sociology with missionaries, and all of these have served to valuably enhance my view of the physical earth and celestial universe.

Now living in New York, I am also privy to a very different type of religious discourse: the strange and unusual characters who feel it their mission to speak the Word of God on the subway during rush hour, usually in loud erratic voices accompanied by horrible body odor.

It would be very easy to dismiss these self-made preachers as schizophrenics who have lost the wherewithal to continue medication. Most people do. But each time I encounter one I am intrigued by their motives, and in listening to their messages I often find traces of a deeper truth that make me think these people have a special place reserved for them in the next life. The broken bodies we live in now are, in fact, only temporary.

One thin, grungy homeless man I once listened to on the E train had a message to this effect, and zealously reminded his fellow passengers about the eventual return of Christ and the imminent coming of Judgment Day:

“You all are sitting here, coming home from work, thinking you be doin’ right by yourself,” he proclaimed, stopping here and there to consult an imaginary friend, the ‘s’ whistling between his broken teeth. “But you all are not doin’ right! We are all hypocrites. Hypocrites of the worst kind! Do you think Jesus would come back to a world like this? Where we live blind to the troubles of those around us? Why, in just a few minutes, you’ll walk into your front door, say hello to your pet bird, and then start cookin’ your chicken RIGHT NEXT TO HIM!”

This punch line did elicit smiles from the tired commuters. But doesn’t it echo a well-known proverb by our great Catholic philosopher, G.K. Chesterton? The modern city is ugly not because it is a city but because it is not enough of a city, because it is a jungle confused and anarchic, and surging with selfish and materialistic energies.

Anyone who has spent time in New York would agree it is a seat of gluttony. And perhaps in this completely man-made environment we have forgotten even the most fundamental instincts about living and eating. Doctors know that the human body was designed to be an herbivore, and yet arbitrary cultural establishments have put priority of one species over another in a food chain based solely on taste and enjoyment. Not to mention the “love of all creatures” virtue being completely out the window when it comes to mass food production. I had to wonder for a moment, what would Jesus have to say about all this?

A few weeks before the bird man, I had encountered a clean, plainly-dressed woman who, as soon as the R train doors had closed and assured our captivity, began preaching about the friendship of Jesus in a litany of sentences. What was most unusual was the way she drew out the word ‘Jesus’ at the end of each line, which created an almost soothing poetic rhythm:

“If you do not know what to do, turn to Jeeee-sus. If you have done something wrong, turn to Jeeee-sus. If you are addicted to evil, turn to Jeeee-sus. If you have hurt someone badly, turn to Jeeee-sus…”

She really did have a lovely voice, and it seemed like a gentle hypnosis was falling over the train after a few minutes of this plea to repentance. She was certainly speaking to the heart of a troubled society—in an age when accountability is unpopular (and spiritual confession even less so), there is a great desire to point out the wrongs of others while ignoring the sins of oneself. Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils, wrote Chesterton. But they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.

And so at the end of the day, even though I’ve already spent eight hours exposed to the works of great religious writers and thinkers, I can still find more to learn from these most unlikely sources. After all, Christians are called to be evangelists in their own way by using their own unique gifts. We can all learn something from one another. And if Chesterton were sitting next to me on the commute, listening to these misfit evangelists who hold hostage the train for a few brief moments, he would probably remind me that religion makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary, and the extraordinary man feel ordinary.

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