Published originally June 25, 2010
The METRO was packed. To the regulars, I’m sure it was normal: Washington, DC at 5 o'clock is not, after all, the most deserted place in the world. But I was a tourist from Smalltown, NC and subway trains are scary enough to me when riders all have room to spare. Slightly motion sick and seriously wide-eyed, I sat-tight beside a stranger as the train rushed to stop and more weary workers flooded the aisles. They reached to the ceiling, grabbing hold just as the train sped on to its next destination.
In front of me, a man had been snoozing on and off throughout the journey. I'd watched him, amazed by his commitment to rest despite the chaos that surrounded him. (A devoted sleeper myself, I was impressed.) But as we took off this time, he sat up, eyeing the older woman who stood holding the pole in front of him. He watched her until she met his gaze.
“Here,” he said, gesturing to his seat and starting to rise.
She shook her head smiling unspoken thanks, “Next stop,” she said, pointing to the door.
The man nodded, pulled his cap back down over his eyes, and went back to sleep. When the train stopped again, the woman exited and went on her way.
And that was that. No big deal. No one called the police. No one staged a riot.
An African American man offered his seat on the train to an elderly Caucasian woman. They had a polite exchange, and life went on as if nothing had happened—as if what I had just witnessed was not, in fact, a little miracle.
That exchange illustrated for me what the students in the Mississippi Freedom School knew back in 1964 when they penned their “Declaration of Independence from the State of Mississippi” in which they listed their grievances against Mississippi’s government. They enumerated injustices common in the Jim Crow South and then they closed with a remarkable statement. They said, “That no man is free until all men are free.” (MLK said it too. So did many others over the years.)
See, the man on the subway could offer his seat (or not) because he was free. And the woman, well because he was free to offer it, she was free to refuse. Sixty years ago, they would not have been on the same train at all. Fifty years ago, they might have been on the same train, but few would have questioned it if the woman had awakened the sleeping man and demanded his seat. Forty years ago, tensions ran so high between the two groups, that no one knew what to do. And we still don't know. We still have so, so far to go.
But last week, two people passed each other courteously, respectfully, and peaceably. And in their faces, I think I saw the face of Christ.
Aileen Mitchell Lawrimore is a mother x 3, wife x 28 (years not men), minister, speaker, writer, retreat leader, and lover of beagles and books. She has a lot to say.
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