If I’m confused, or upset, or angry, if I can go out and look at the stars I’ll almost always get back a sense of proportion. It’s not that they make me feel insignificant, it’s the very opposite, they make me feel that everything matters, be it ever so small, and that there’s meaning to life even when it seems most meaningless.
(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)
“Travel in the ministry” covers the gamut, from the sublime to the ridiculous and often both. Sometimes you think you’re doing ministry and discover you’re receiving it, like the time a man in North Carolina pulled me aside to teach me about angels and to caution me—“don’t become the courtroom prophet.” Sometimes you think you’re just enjoying a cup of tea, and suddenly the woman next to you is talking about her daughter, who was nearly kidnapped yesterday. And sometimes you’re deep in the thick of things and the building closes and you wind up finishing the work in a parking lot.
I have trouble drawing a line between “ministry” and “not-ministry.” I’m not prepared to say that everything is ministry, because brushing my teeth, for example, most definitely is not, and also saying that everything is ministry seems to me to devalue actual ministry. But it certainly happens at unexpected times and not always in ways that we could have anticipated.
Here are three stories of moments that taught me—“everything matters, no matter how small.”
In Cairo after an overnight flight, I have a seven-hour layover. A video announces that those with a layover lasting more than four hours should report to the such-and-such desk, and so I do report to the such-and-such desk, where I’m informed I’ll be given a free stay in a hotel and a hot meal if I sit and wait for forty-five minutes. This does not appear to be a scam—the men behind the desk are in official airline uniform—but only I and one other passenger appear to qualify, and once we’ve waited our forty-five minutes, the employee who comes to escort us asks for our passports and starts to walk away without explanation.
I call him back over and ask him what’s happening. He offers a half-answer, and I follow up. Then I follow up again. He’s clearly annoyed, but I have no intention of being lost and stranded in Cairo, particularly without my passport. When I’m finally satisfied that I understand what’s happening, I follow him (as does my fellow passenger) through the airport and a bizarre series of queues; I’m asking questions all the while. “Which hotel? Will the shuttle bus bring us back? What time? Where do we check in for the next flight?” I have a feeling he’s going to repeat this story down the line, and I’ll be the “pesky American woman,” though I’m not at all sure he’ll use the word pesky.
Not until we board the shuttle bus do I get to know my traveling companion. He introduces himself as Samuel. He’s a Ugandan man who grew up in Rwanda who now works in Haiti while his family lives in Kenya. That’s where he’s going now—to spend a few weeks with his family. He speaks eight languages. He says, “Thank you for asking the questions you did. That man, he did not like you asking questions. But I also wanted to know the answers. And I did not dare ask. Perhaps we will find the returning shuttle bus together?”
I’m approached on a subway platform by a woman my age leading an old woman. The younger woman says, “Excuse me, but are you taking the A train uptown?”
As a matter of fact, that’s my plan, so I nod.
“I’m taking the E to Queens,” she says, “but this woman is going to 175th Street, to Columbia Presbyterian. I don’t know her. A police officer gave her to me. She’s a little confused. But that’s where she needs to go. Can you just make sure she gets on the right train?”
“Sure.” This falls into the category of things that have never happened to me before, but then, this is New York City, and I generally get at least one of those every day.
Young-Woman-to-Queens smiles and passes Old-Woman-to-Hospital along by the simple expediency of nodding and walking away. I don’t ask for her name because that’s not done here; we don’t trade names when we connect with strangers. But Old-Woman-to-Hospital needs no introduction to feel at ease and starts chattering to me. I can’t hear her very well—subways are loud, and this old woman isn’t—but she seems to be perfectly happy doing a monologue. Young-Woman-to-Queens disappears with the whoosh of an E train.
When the A train comes, Old-Woman-to-Hospital and I climb onboard, and she continues her soliloquy, completely undeterred by the fact that I’m seated across from her, six feet away, and the train is rumbling, and I wouldn’t even know she was talking except that I can watch her mouth move. She’s definitely talking to me and not to herself; she’s making eye contact.
It occurs to me that although my only job, in theory, was getting her on the right train, I’m not convinced that she’ll have the ability to get off. I’m not sure she’ll recognize her stop. If she does, I’m not sure she can move fast enough to disembark before the doors slam. And my stop is at 168th Street.
It’s mid-day, so the train isn’t very crowded. It’s me and Old Woman and four young men. We’re nearly to Washington Heights, so odds are that those four young men are Dominican—or if not, Puerto Rican—and I stand and approach them and ask, “Excuse me, but do any of you speak English?” (This is not a ridiculous question. Most of my neighbors don’t.)
Only one looks up and says, “Yeah,” rather suspiciously, and I can’t blame him.
I try explain Old-Woman-to-Hospital, who is watching me cheerfully. “She’s going to 175th Street, to Columbia Presbyterian. I’m not sure if she can get off the train fast enough. Will you just make sure that she gets off the train? Somebody else can probably get her to where she’s going.”
“Where’s she going to exactly?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know her.”
“…Really?” And I see on his face the same expression I probably wore back on the platform, the expression that says, I’m not going to act surprised, New Yorkers don’t, but this is weird.
“Really. A young woman gave her to me back at 42nd Street, and she said a police officer had her before that.”
“Well…” He smiles a little. “Okay. That’s my stop anyway. I’ll get off with her and—well, I’ll make sure she gets off, at least.”
“Thanks.” I lean over to Old Woman and say, “He’s going to make sure you get off at the right stop, okay?”
Old Woman nods her head unworriedly. “Okay, you have a good day, sweetie.”
Strangest game of Telephone I’ve ever played.
My friend Lisa and I worked together years ago, but today we’re getting reacquainted. We enjoy a light lunch and a walk at Columbus Circle and ultimately, inevitably, we sit down to talk about the old days. She mentions a man we both worked with once, back in my theatre days: “I don’t know what everybody had against Vic. He always seemed like such a great, funny guy.”
I’ve heard her express that opinion before. Back when we were working together, I tried to avoid gossiping, figuring that a stage manager’s job is to promote unity in the company, and Vic made enough trouble for himself without my help. But he could be charming, until he felt he’d been crossed, and clearly Lisa had never seen him in that mode. And it was no longer my job to protect members of the company.
“Y’know, Lisa,” I say slowly, “I know you always saw him at his best. The thing is…well, one time, we had a daytime rehearsal, because the choreography wasn’t working for one of the numbers, so we called him and a couple of the other men in around noon. It was a small group, just the men and their understudies and the choreographer and me. But Vic was mad. He was mad that he’d been called in. He needed the rehearsal, but he was angry.
“You know how tall he was. A foot taller than me. Well, after that rehearsal, he got right up in my face. He screamed at me. And he swore at me. And he told me I didn’t care about anybody, that I was selfish and totally incompetent at my job, that I had no consideration for him. And he demanded an explanation for why he was called into that rehearsal—which wasn’t my decision, by the way—and then kept screaming at me and demanding an explanation but not giving me the opportunity to talk.
“So I told him the conversation was over, that I could not possibly give him an explanation that would satisfy him, and that if he had a problem with me he was welcome to take it to my boss. He’s not a good guy, Lisa. He used his size intentionally to terrify me. He scared me. And that was what he meant to do.”
“I’m so sorry,” she says immediately. “You’re right, he’s not. I had no idea he did that. That is not okay.”
It surprises me a bit how quickly she believes me, how quickly she turns her opinion around, how she doesn’t even try to justify his actions. I’m impressed by her faith in me, that she never doubts my experience, that she’s prepared to alter her own evaluation of this man based on my word. And I’m grateful.
We’re in a public place, and a man has sat down beside us; we’re sharing a bench. He has seemed to be absorbed in his phone, but he looks up at this point and says, “Listen, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I gotta tell you, I just have to say—that man is an asshole. I’m so sorry that he did that to you. Nobody should ever do that to you.”
I smile. “I know. But I appreciate your saying so.”
This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed.
If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.