I settled into a copy of the sports page of the Daily News, plucked from an empty seat. At Fulton I looked up when I heard a gasp, and saw a man entering the subway car, the people around him stepping back and away, their eyes held wide like a shutter, peering at a dark brooding figure.
The tall muscle bound man stood for the briefest moment in the doorway, as if he wanted to be seen, willing anyone to step between him and the place he chose to stand. His shaved head was tattooed, along with most of his face, with studs piercing his eyebrows, cheeks, lips and ears. On both arms, long tracks of metal staples closed reddish swollen wounds. Yet, nothing seemed too out of place; New York has many like him, and the common fare of a subway ride rewards the curious. However, it was his angry scowl that had changed the morning straphangers into stunned voyeurs. When he moved past me, our eyes met for the briefest of moments.
In them I saw invitation.
I shifted my stance in his direction, and smiled. His face didn’t change, but his eyes warmly received my gesture.
“My name is Kevin.”
He shook his head sideways, as if he didn’t understand. To my left and seated, a young girl in a school uniform watched our interaction.
“Excuse me,” I asked her, “do you speak Spanish?”
“A little,” she responded weakly, using her fingers to show me just how little.
I pointed to the man standing alone in the center of the car.
“Could you tell him my name is Kevin?”
Her face drooped at the request.
“Please, I need to speak with him.”
She turned to face him, and relayed my message.
Looking back at me, she said, “His name is Juan.”
“Tell him God loves him, and that I would like to tell him more about that if he’s interested.”
She spoke, and this time Juan moved a step closer to me.
I noticed those around us had stopped to watch her straining for words.
Juan pointed to his arms, and then lifted up his shirt, to reveal another wound, at least eight inches, staples holding it fast.
“He says that he was in a knife fight last week, and it didn’t go well.” He was just released from prison, and wants things to be, to be… new…?”
“I think that’s what he said, oh I’m not doing so good here,” the girl bemoaned. Her eyes pleaded with me to end it.
“Tell him I’m sorry, and that I want to pray for him.” After she relayed my message, several things happened. The intercom announced we would be arriving at 42nd street, my stop. Juan moved closer to me, and looked into my eyes. I spoke to him face to face.
“Tell him Jesus loves him.” The girl haltingly spoke.
“Tell him I will pray for him.” Now her eyes didn’t leave his, talking louder as if emboldened.
“It’s no mistake we have met, God has a good plan for you.”
“This is my stop, and I have to leave now.”
The train slowed, and the young girl rose to move between us toward the door. Juan took one more step, and hugged me so tight it felt like the air rushed out my lungs. Into my ear, he spoke what little Spanish I do understand.
“Gracias Senor Kevin, Gracious…” Over and over, hugging me as if he didn’t want to let go. I wrapped my arms around him and returned his gratitude.
When the subway door opened, a wall of others waited as we exited. My little translator darted out, and up the stairs, her heavy backpack swaying. I looked back and Juan was staring at me, with his hand raised. I waved back.
I watched as the train lurched forward, north bound heading to the Bronx, toward a world Juan calls home, into the tapestry of a city whose colors, languages, styles and ethnic complexities foster distance, that only human touch can alter.
I remained on the platform, a little dazed. Did that just happen? Yes, I could smell Juan’s body sweat on me. What just happened? It’s wasn’t complex. God had simply used a single glance to close the distance between fear and love.
There at 42nd and Lexington, next to a girder with a sign “fresh paint,” I pondered why I felt such permission to befriend Juan. It’s the mandate God gives us all. The Great Commission is human kindness and fearless initiative creating human connection, so that we may bring Jesus concretely to another.
I prayed for Juan then, touched my cheek where his had brushed, and remembered his kind words, ‘Gracious, Gracious….’
No Juan, it’s I who need to thank you, because when Jesus sits as Third Party, it’s always me who comes out smelling a little like the world, but feeling alive in ways I could never dream possible.