If Only I Weren’t Afraid
The train car was empty, save two others. There was a lady dressed from head to toe in orange and fur, a fiery, fluffy beacon blazing against the dark, snowy city beyond the glass and metal surrounding her. She was arguing with someone on her phone. There was a man in filthy brown coveralls leaning heavily against a silver walker tipped with street-worn fluorescent tennis balls. Every few minutes he’d ask if anyone had some spare change for the homeless. I obliged him with a few cents, and he said, “Happy holidays. God bless you.” It was nice there in that train car. Something of the world felt almost right in the little space we shared.
Then, a brown-skinned man got on the train carrying a small, sturdy, sealed black bag that seemed heavier than it looked. This man had the face of dangerous people I’d seen on TV, and despite the cold rushing in from opening doors, my bald head and neck quickly seared with nervous sweat. He sat right across from me, glancing at his phone and looking anxiously around. This is it, I thought. I’m here in the place where terrorist attacks will begin in Chicago.
On Black Friday, a group of us decided to opt out of shopping and pack up some Thanksgiving food to give to the homeless downtown. It was raining and cold, and as we made our way south along the Magnificent Mile, people’s emotions were mixed. Some were shivering and miserable, some desperate to make some cash, and some in good cheer, filled with hopeful visions of what may yet come to them – a buck, a job, a warm place of their own.
When we arrived at the Chicago River, Trump Tower looming in the background, a large group was assembling to march in protest. They were there to speak out against racism and police brutality, and to remember Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times by a CPD officer who now faces murder charges.
As we headed back down the other side of Michigan Avenue, we walked along with this group of activists and agitators, still passing out our food, listening to the gradual crescendo of their angry and urgent chants.
What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! 16 shots! 16 shots! 16 shots!
We stopped to chat with George, a man bundled in a pink blanket jingling loose change in a weathered red Starbuck’s cup. “Look at all this craziness,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I’d rather hang out with you.” And I meant it. I’m on these streets every week with guys like George. I know that most people have ignored him today, waves and waves of shoppers clutching their cash close, toting bags that George could really use – just the bags, not the stuff in them. And now, it seemed like waves and waves of protesters committed to a vital cause are unaware that while their pained cries drift up the high-fashion high rises, George’s quiet voice isn’t heard from the pavement. His story needs to be told, and someone has to listen.
“Hang with me? Oh, I ain’t nothing special.”
“Come on, George! You’re a child of God,” I said with a playful smirk.
“We’re all God’s children,” he said, eyes heavy but hopeful. And George meant it. Me and him, the shoppers and the protesters, Laquan McDonald and the cop who shot him, the woman in orange, the man in the coveralls, the brown-skinned man with an ominous black bag. All of us somehow important to the world, all of us somehow loved, all those faces, bright as Christmas lights in the radiance and love of God.
I’m going to die on this train. I just stared at him, heart pounding. When our eyes finally met, I expected explosions. I clenched my teeth and said God’s name over and over in my mind. But nothing happened. I examined his eyes, and I saw exhaustion, not anxiety. I saw weariness, not wrong intent. He was a person on the train, but so much more. I forced myself to smile and savor his goodness, to see his life wrapped in God’s grace. Finally, I said, “The weather sure turned quick, didn’t it?”
“I know it. I hate Chicago sometimes.” And that was that. Moments later, I got off the train fully intact, fully ashamed and fool-hearted. And he, whoever he was, may have gone home to his family after a long day of work, where he finally ate the lunch he hauled around all day: bologna, not bombs. Maybe he said a prayer before bed for someone like me, who still struggles to allow love to conquer his fear.
I need him to offer that prayer – to help me be more like George, to believe that we all belong to God. I desperately want love to conquer my fear. And I mean it.