Image from www.unviolencestudy.org
There are times when reality barges into my safe world and I don’t always know how to respond. Balancing the tension of the imperfect can be uncomfortable and disorienting. How does the Gospel make a difference here? Do I step up, step in? How? What do I say?
The bus was late, and I had a raging headache. It crossed my mind to stay home from our Tuesday night small group, but seeing those people has quickly become one of the high points in my week. After being away for ten days, the idea of joining them for a home-cooked meal and a rousing discussion about the Bible and last Sunday’s sermon was too tempting for me to skip. Raging headache and all.
Five minutes late, seven minutes late… now we would be late, too. Note to self: take the subway to small group, and the bus home.
I shared the bus stop bench with two men. The one sitting in the middle was tall, sturdy and talkative. The other was older, frail, with a beard and a curved wooden cane. When the taller man sat down, he greeted the older man as though he knew him, handing him a piece of fruit out of his white plastic grocery store bag. They carried on a lively, mostly one-sided conversation in the evening chill. Mike stood to my right, in front of the large illumined H&M store ad featuring two blond women wearing surprisingly inexpensive clothing.
I heard a noise behind me, as though a scuffle had broken out, and now someone was crying. I twisted around on the bench and saw two kids on the ground about four feet away: a little girl in her pink coat, hood up, backpack strapped to her back, was struggling to get up from the wet sidewalk. A young boy, maybe junior high age and wearing what looked like a thin navy blue jacket was on his back with an open-mouthed wail. I think I saw tears. Two women were standing over them. The one with her hair slicked back looked angry and was yelling at the boy.
My heart skipped a few beats and I turned to my right to look at Mike for reassurance or explanation. He looked down at me and softly said, “She pushed them down.”
I swiveled back around to my left, protected from the wind by the bus stop shelter, and looked at the scene again. How could that be? The older woman had the young girl by the hand by now, walking down the hill ahead while the angry woman and the boy were standing still on the other side of the clear bus stop partition. She was yelling at him, but he was wailing louder and had a hand on his head.
I turned back to Mike and asked him to repeat what he had said because I simply could not work out the mechanics of it. It didn’t seem to be an accident. Anger radiated from the scene and I was glad we had the clear plexiglass of the bus stop to shield us from that angry woman. Mike said the woman pushed the girl into the boy and knocked them both down. I can’t imagine the force she used, for when I first looked, the kids were splayed out on the ground like bowling pins after a someone throws a strike.
Now the angry woman grabbed the boy by the collar, pushing him backwards over the black wrought iron railing. Unfortunately for the boy, the railing was made up of vertical black poles of varying heights. It had to hurt to be forced backwards over that fence.
I felt sick to my stomach and glued to my seat. This wasn’t an episode of Law & Order. This was really happening in front of me. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted someone to intervene. What do I say? What do I do? My mouth felt clamped shut. Would anyone say anything? What would the angry woman do next? Would she turn towards her audience at the bus stop and unleash her anger on us? I was scared and shaken.
The pair walked away: the boy holding his head, still wailing with an open-mouthed cry and his unzipped jacket also wide open in the chill wind, the angry woman still shouting unintelligible words. I think she was oblivious to us, though we were only four feet away.
I sat still, shocked, feeling ill, unsure of what to do next. The large man on my left made comments about how a boy can’t stop crying when a woman is hitting him.
That’s when it hit me hard: this is reality. For many people. This kind of abuse is an everyday occurrence. With more than 8 million people living on an island 13 miles long by 2 miles wide, you’re going to run into all sides of humanity. How had I lived here for over a year and not yet run into situations like this?
I’ve seen the sad, fallen side of society like poverty and the plight of the homeless. I’ve volunteered time and muscle to help. Jesus said we’d always have the poor with us. But this scene was energized by anger and incited fear in me. Now my raging headache was accompanied by a churning stomachache.
When the M11 bus finally arrived, I climbed on in a shell-shocked state. I took a seat near the back, next to the window to search the passing sidewalks for the foursome. But they were long gone. Do they live in the apartment complex across the street from my place? Will I see them again? Was the boy at home, cowering from the angry woman? What was it like for him everyday? Scenes from the movie Precious punctuated my questions.
Two and a half miles south on Amsterdam the happy hum of conversation greeted us in the Upper West Side apartment, along with the comforting smells of homemade lasagna. People smiled and called out warm greetings as I wriggled out of my puffy down coat. It was the kind of scene that a movie director could use to close out a film, complete with clusters of conversation around a big table, soft lighting, with a few people in the kitchen washing the dishes while a sense of joy and fullness radiated from everyone in the place.
But this isn’t the end of a movie. This is the tension of living in the now and the not yet, believing in a Redeemer who binds up the wounds of the broken, restores what was stolen, and brings justice, yet not seeing the complete fulfillment of these promises in the lives of other people, or even in my own.
Oh Lord Jesus, I want to live out the truth, righteousness and hope of your Gospel, but I don’t know how to reconcile the harsh reality of our fallen, broken world with what I know to be true about you. I live sheltered from so much of the hurt others experience. Lead me. How do you want me to live?