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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Bound for Howard

We sat behind him on the Howard bound Red Line subway car as we rode to church last Sunday.  He lay sprawled and unconscious on two seats, legs stretched across the aisle.  Clothes dirty, unkempt, not stirring, I checked to see if he was breathing when we sat down, not wanting to be among the proverbial onlookers who are scorned in the papers the next day for walking around a corpse, unknowing, uncaring.  He made no movement or sound for most of the trip, though when a young man tripped over his legs he raised himself, confused, belligerent, mouth and fists clenched, prepared to lash out at whoever had violated his quiet tormented space, until he lapsed back down into near coma.  The seats around him on the crowded car remained empty, passengers getting on stopping in their tracks as they moved up the aisle to sit, screwing up their faces in disgust and going back to stand by the door.

There didn’t really seem much to be done.  After his hostile stare at the teenagers a few rows down the car no one wanted to risk rousing him again, even to ask if he was all right, if he needed help.  Call the police?  What would they do that wouldn’t likely make his life more difficult?  Hope he remained asleep until we got to our stop – which in fact was the case – avoiding not just the discomfort but also the possible violence he might unleash?

What tragic set of circumstances and choices had led to this sorry sight?  Unlike some of the well lubricated St. Patrick’s Day revelers we had seen on that same train the day before, this looked like a permanent condition, not a temporary overindulgence. Some riders looked away, determined to deny and avoid this unhappy presence.  Others were annoyed, irritated that we must be burdened with this ugliness and, who knows, threat?  Some of us, I suspect, were simply sad, imagining the trajectory of his life, sensing our own powerlessness.  Did anyone pray for him?

Was he born into poverty, an African American in a country where black men always face an uphill playing field?  Perhaps he had followed the cradle to prison pipeline that populates state and county jails across the country.  How many bad choices had he made, or had others made for him, making the worst out of a bad situation?  Was he drunk?  High?  Both.  Perhaps he was a veteran, plagued by PTSD.  May be he suffered from mental illness.  Did he have a name?  Of course he did, but did anyone know it, call to him by it, honor him with it?

What I do know is that no one starts out with this life as a goal.  No mother, no matter how ill-equipped for parenthood herself, imagines a lonely subway seat as the only thing that would embrace her son when he was grown.  Others dream and hope for their children just like the rest of us, and those dreams and hopes have nothing to do with the human wreckage in the seat ahead of us.  I thought of his mother yesterday, wondering how many tears she may have wept over the years watching her son sink into his sad condition.  Does she even know where he is?  I thought of other mothers, like Sgt. Robert Bales’ Mom near Dayton, Ohio, whose son now sits in a Fort Leavenworth prison.   I thought of my own sons whose path in life has been so different, whose destinies appear so much brighter.

Attention must be paid!  But how?  Is it the responsibility of the “1%” who reside so lavishly at the other end of the economic bell curve to ensure that someone cares?  Is it the ordinary folk who sit in relative comfort at the other end of the train car, heading for church, haunted by the story of a Samaritan whose capacity for goodness so far exceeds our own?  The children’s sermon on Sunday was about Zacchaeus, the children reminded that God, like a mother, will go anywhere to find us.  We can all be heaven bound, no matter how far we go astray, no matter how far others push us aside.

I said a prayer for this man when I got to church.  And I prayed for his mother, wherever she may be.  Too little?  Certainly.  Too late?  Who knows.  The children learned that God’s reach makes us all heaven bound.  I hope this means a passed out Howard bound passenger as well.

John H. Thomas

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