The Gay and the Godly

A man on the train this morning was witnessing for Christ hoarsely and vociferously. It was one of those moments when you curse the express trains out of Queens, because you know you’re stuck with it for a good number of stops. He started out collecting change for a “food program” for the homeless, which was dubious enough. (It’s how to be a Christian, he explained.) But he soon made it worse by lurching headlong into a tirade about Gee-zus.

You can be saved, he was telling us. Just say a prayer. He was generous enough to share that prayer with us. I won’t remember the words now, but we’ve heard it before: some combination of biblical quotation and plea for salvation in exchange for eternal allegiance.

“Boom!” he said. “You’re saved. Now how long did that take? Seven seconds. That’s all it took to save a crackhead like me. That’s right, I said I was a crack head.”

Somehow it didn’t surprise me that he had been a crackhead. What did surprise me was that seven seconds could save anyone. (Even Madonna had four minutes!)

“A good-looking man like me.” (I can’t confirm how good-looking he was. I was avoiding eye contact.) “I did some terrible things in my life. I did some despicable things in my life. Sold my grandmama down the river for a rock of crack.” (He said “crack” with the same fervent rhetorical emphasis as “Gee-zus” in a way that made me absolutely believe that he was very well acquainted with both, crashing through each consonant and elongating each vowel as if the words were struggling to escape from their sentences.) “But if I can be committed to crack, I can be committed to Christ. If I can be committed to crime, I can be committed to Christ.” And so on and so forth.

He was very interested in us committing ourselves to Jesus immediately. “Everyone believes when they’re dying,” he said, “because you got no choice left. You’re desperate. But you gotta do it now. You could die any time.”

“Yeah, but ain’t no one dying here right now,” one young woman said to her friend.

I have never been much for street preaching and missionaries. It’s sort of a pessimistic approach for a religion to take, if you ask me. No one will believe this unless we convince them by all means necessary. If Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light, these guys apparently have very little confidence that we’ll find him. Have they given up on teaching by example?

At the same time, I absolutely respect their convictions and the strength of their faith. I just sometimes wish they’d go get saved somewhere else. But you ride it out until you leave the train or he does. In this case, he backed out the door at Queens Plaza, still preaching his good word, and walked to the local track to transfer. We heard every word until the doors closed and reduced him to a muffled echo.

One night a while back, I saw one of these religious experiences turned around in a way I’d never seen before.

It was the end of the night for me and my boyfriend, and we were on our way home. We were comfortably lit and a little sleepy on the subway seats, not particularly in the mood for anything remarkable, looking forward to bed.

Three women stepped into the train and assumed spots standing directly in front of us. They looked very well put together, if not a little gaudy, like they had just come from a wedding, all long, gleaming fingernails, iridescent lips, bright brown and beige tones across their cheeks, gold and silver synthetic fabrics.

One of them had her eyes closed, and she was bobbing her head like she could hear music that the rest of us could not. When it became too much to contain in her head, she began to sing. It was “Amazing Grace,” and yet… it was not.

The other ladies perked up and sang along:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

It’s a beautiful song. Or, rather, it can be a beautiful song. But after the first verse, she ad-libbed the rest, singing simply “I love the Lord, I love the lord…” over and over against the same melody. It seemed spontaneous — and unplanned, judging by the uninventive lyrics. Occasionally one of the other women would join or take over the “song,” none of them contributing much but the odd vocal flourish or worshipful gesture of the arm. It must have been past midnight, so I guessed they had just come from some sort of day-long worship service — Methodist or Southern Baptist, by the look of it, if my sense of stereotype is anything to go by — and they were still a little touched by the holy spirit.

Unfortunately, very few of the other passengers seemed to be feeling it. I was annoyed by their righteous and presentational self-indulgence. What’s worse, it was all very monotonous.

Many people just looked away. Some glared up at the women. A gay couple across the aisle from us were rolling their eyes. I closed my eyes and sighed and hoped it would end, or that at least she would break out of the trance and sing something different. But rather than merely being annoyed, or telling them to shut up as we all wished we could, Jeff looked up and tapped one woman’s arm. “Hey, excuse me. Excuse me. Do you know ‘On Eagles’ Wings’?” he asked.

“On Eagles’ Wings” is one of those post-Vatican II hymns from the ’70s. It’s taken from Psalm 91. Everyone raised on Catholic Mass knows it.

No, they said, they didn’t.

Jeff stood up. “Can I sing it for you?”

I wasn’t sure if I was amused, pleased or embarrassed, but I looked at the floor for a moment. Not only was he responding to a pack of crazies, but he was actually participating. I was preparing to be mortified, but he began singing the refrain:

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His hand.

And just like that, they were totally disarmed.

Ooh! they said. They did not know it, but they certainly liked it. How does it go?

So Jeff sang it again. It was like a walk-off for Jesus. The ladies enthusiastically tried to sing along with him as he stood there with his hands outstretched like a youth minister. All that was missing was a guitar and a tambourine. The gays across the aisle were laughing. Almost everyone in the car had a smile. And we were — what bliss! — approaching our stop.

“That boy has the Lord in him!” one of them called out as we stood to leave.

“Yes he does,” said another.

I had never thought of that before, but I supposed it was true. Jeff had succeeded in undermining their annoyance in their own language and in a way that was not disrespectful. It was brilliant and accidental, an unlikely connection between people very unlikely to cross paths outside of the Great Equalizer, the New York City subway system, and I have rarely been so amazed by him as I was then.


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the untallied hours

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