We were standing on the subway platform at the 88th Street station just off Lexington Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side. We were vacationing; spending just a few days of the fall enjoying the sights and sounds of the city, but this sound was anything but welcoming.
"Somebody help me!" "I'm blind!" "Somebody help me!"
The voice that rose above the din was that of a large, middle-aged, African-American woman. As people backed away from her in the crowded station, we could make out that she was wearing a black sweatsuit and dark glasses.
"Help me, please!" "I am homeless, and don't have nobody!" "I am a diabetic, and I haven't eaten all day!""I need to get to 59th Street, but I am blind." "Will someone help me get to 59th Street? It's only three stops."
The woman was rapidly becoming hysterical. Mom handed her some Lance-brand peanut butter and crackers, but the woman didn't seem to notice.
"Oh, God!" "Oh, God!" "Oh, God!"
The more upset the woman became the more people began to fear her. No one looked directly at her, and though blind, she seemed to notice our aversion. To be honest, she looked seconds away from violence. She wailed and pushed her way through the crowd now begging for any sort of assistance.
Since this scene had begun to unfold, more and more people were filling the station.
It seemed as if the train would never come.
"Oh, God!" "Oh, God, help me!" "Oh, God!"
"There is no god."
The voice that spoke up from the back of the crowd was that of a small Pakistani man in a jacket and tie carrying a backpack. He moved forward as people parted to let him pass. He took the woman by the shoulders and said in a voice that was both kind and firm,
"There is no god. God doesn't exist. All you have is yourself."
Strangely, this theological revelation seemed to comfort the woman. She became quieter as the man continued to talk to her in a calming voice.
Obviously, it was not the moment for a religious debate, and, honestly, everyone was just glad she was starting to calm down. This whole episode unfolded in the three or four minutes between the trains. The woman perhaps was comforted more by the man's paying attention to her than by his statement. The woman, of course, wasn't exactly calling on God as much as she was decrying the hopelessness of her situation. In times of great distress, great delight, or great excitement, people often evoke the name of God. What amazed me then, and amazes me still, is the fact that not one person on that platform (myself included) managed to speak to that woman any words of comfort taken from faith. For some reason all those church bulletin slogans seemed hollow.
"Bad things happen to good people."
"Everything will be ok. It's all a part of God's plan."
"You're too blessed to be depressed."
Not one Jew, not one Muslim, not one Catholic, not one Mormon, not one Protestant, not one otherwise religious voice in that crowd provided comfort to that woman. That woman was in a terrible circumstance; a frightening circumstance, but she didn't need a sound byte or a proverb. She needed someone willing to touch her, to speak directly to her, to comfort her - but we were all afraid. We were all more focused on what would happen to us if we dared to intervene than what would happen to the woman if we did not help. Only the voice of unbelief spoke. The only comfort came from the humanist - the secular. Any believer gathered there could have just as easily said,
"God loves you. He sent me to help you. Let me take you to 59th Street."
I think the woman would have been just as comforted if not more so by that statement.
People in the world are looking for interaction, for stability, for comfort. If we as Christians are too timid or out of touch to provide it, there are plenty of other faiths (and non-faiths) that will attempt to. We should never be afraid to speak up for God, but what we actually need is to be willing to act up for Him. Until we couple our faith with action, all those platitudes ring empty.
I don't know what happened to that woman or to the gentleman who helped her or to anyone else gathered in that station that day, but I do know that the atheist denied God with his voice, but served God with his actions while the believers present stood silent and passive. Providence gives each of us countless opportunities to speak up, to act up, and to make a difference. We have good news for the world, but they will never hear it unless our words confess and our actions speak. May God help us to do a better job of being for Him and may we see in every situation an opportunity to proclaim His love.
Have a great weekend!