Saved in the City
Updated: Mar 23
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
“Mysteries, Yes” by Mary Oliver
The night before Weenr’s big reveal to the Big Apple, I got to experience Manhattan as a first-time tourist. Since Kimberly Ketchup and I could not afford to stay in the city on our skimpy hotel stipend, we had to settle for accommodations across the Hudson River in Secaucus, New Jersey. Secaucus is to New York what Newark is to the area’s airports—close to the city, full of fast food, and seemingly the only reason to go there is the promise of lower prices. We arrived in Secaucus at about nine o’clock on a Thursday night in early October. Even though we had to be up early the next morning for our downtown debut, the Big Apple beckoned, and I had to go.
A short bus ride through the Lincoln Tunnel from Secaucus to the city terminates at the Ninth Street station, only a few blocks from Times Square. Passengers exit the terminal by walking up steep steps to street level. Emerging from the dark below to the bouquet of big city lights above, I reached the top step and saw the city for the first time. Manhattan announced itself to me with a radiant and transcendent energy, exploding upon my consciousness like a Jager shot at a college party. Life before that moment became bland in hindsight and everything ahead proclaimed possibility. The city exclaimed a one-word response to my soul’s deepest yearnings: “Yes!”
I experienced the inebriating energy of the city like a deep gasp for air after being underwater for just a little too long. Subliminally I had arrived at the center of the universe and felt as though I was the center of the universe. Emerson could have been in the exact spot where I stood as a tourist, looking up in awe, when these words came to him: “The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” Such is the seduction of the city, that you are at the heart of it all because you are the heart of it all. You are nothing; you are everything. You are lost; you are found.
As I took in a deep breath of the crisp, invigorating fall air, time seemed suspended, and possibility felt like a palpable thing. Exiting the Ninth Street Station, I began meandering among the masses of fellow tourists and New York City residents. A few blocks from the bus station, set up on the corner of Ninth and Union, I came across some sort of religious demonstration.
They called themselves the “Tribe of Judah.”
On a stage that stood about four feet tall and fifteen feet wide were four Black men donning dark green military garb. The taller man in the middle was clearly their leader. He seemed to stand about six feet tall, no taller than I, but on the platform he towered over the crowd amassed to hear him preach the Tribe of Judah’s truth. He was clean shaven and his skin glowed from the makeshift spotlights that were hung on poles attached to the stage. He looked to be in his mid-thirties and wore a black beret, camouflage fatigues, and black army boots tightly laced. Standing beside him was a younger and shorter man dressed similarly but without the beret. As the leader's right-hand man, his role was to bellow aloud certain texts from the Bible when prompted to do so. Book-ending these two men were two more. They stood at attention, silent and still, stoically staring straight ahead. They looked as though a Black Panther had mated with a Buckingham Palace guard, resulting in twins. These two wore all black: berets, tight-fitting jackets, button-down shirts, chinos, and army boots. Their Malcolm X meets Queen’s Guard posturing conveyed a strength rooted in truth, a purposeful polish, and a righteous anger. Their grandiose pageantry also hinted at satire, as though the entire affair could also have been a clandestine Saturday Night Live skit.
I would have walked by the demonstration and dismissed the men in the name of New York City sensory overload had it not been for the large crowd—almost all Black—gathering to listen. I stood in the back but as more passersby paused to tune into the Tribe of Judah’s message, I quickly found myself in the middle of the masses. I was one white Minnesotan among a multitude of Black New Yorkers.
The leader shouted, “the white man is the devil and will be punished in hell for eternity!”
With that proclamation, my WASP ears perked up a bit. After his right hand man boldly read a few Old Testament texts, the leader explained how the Bible teaches that Africans are the chosen race and that God looked upon all white people with disgust. He went on to explain that heaven awaited Africans and hell was the future home for all with white skin, whom he referred to as “the white devils.”
Many in the crowd around me shouted various affirmations of the leader’s message, almost as if they had been planted there strategically. It was as though I had stumbled upon a church meet up and now I, the antagonist in their religious story, was standing among the faithful.
“Yes!” “That’s right!” “Down with the white man!” the protagonists exclaimed almost in chorus.
I reluctantly raised my hand.
The Tribe’s leader ignored me long enough for my arm to start to tire. It was as if he was the boss and I was that annoying employee who at the end of a meeting always has just one more question. Eventually he pointed at me defiantly and shouted: “Yes?!” The crowd turned to me as if I had just unplugged the jukebox during their favorite song. For a second I questioned my own sanity, yet I trundled on tongue tied. Sincerely and with a slight stutter, I asked:
“What about grace?”
I had asked the question with such trepidation that I could only muster a whisper.
The leader shouted: “What?! Speak up, white man!”
“What about grace?” I asked again with increased volume and decreased confidence.
He growled his response: “There is no grace for you or for any white person.”
The crowd cheered.
I raised my hand again.
The leader leered in my direction, and as he did, the crowd grew quiet. The silence and searing eyes granted an unspoken invitation for me to give voice to my next and last question. The leader seemed eager to silence and rebuke me anew, seemingly standing on his toes like a bird of prey perched on the tip of its talons right before taking flight to claim its next kill.
“How do you view me?” I asked.
The leader looked directly at me, seemingly into my eyes, my soul, and responded with certainty: “You? Since God looks at you as dirt and I attempt to be like God, then I too, look at you with disgust and hatred.”
Again the crowd cheered and a few people around me began calling me the devil. Feeling hate toward me and my heart pounding in my chest, I stood frozen and bewildered. The Tribe of Judah moved on mercilessly without me.
As shocked as I was by the group’s message, I stayed for a few more minutes and listened on anyway. I was captivated by how they supported their claims by using the same Bible I had studied in Sunday School back home in a lily white Minnesotan Lutheran church. Was my own view of God built on similarly specious scriptural assertions? Did what I believe I believed sound as offensive and outlandish to others as the Tribe of Judah’s beliefs did to me? At the heart of even Minnesota Nice Christian theologies, wasn’t there an exclusionary belief system of some going to heaven and others being sent to hell?
I was tempted to patronizingly dismiss the Tribe of Judah’s beliefs in the name of lunacy or lack of education, but the excessiveness of their claims proved a whistleblower for my own. So I walked away disappointed and discouraged and disgusted not only with the Tribe of Judah, but more so with myself. We both offered fidelity to a God who granted the reward of heaven to a few and damned the rest to eternal torment. If their theology was absurd, then so was mine. Wondering how a loving God could ever give up on anyone, let alone allow them to endure neverending torture, I calmly recoiled from the crowd and wandered away from the Tribe of Judah and toward the lights emanating from Times Square.
As I turned a corner, still licking my wounds of whiteness and wondering how any religion can claim to represent the entirety of universal truth, I heard a woman say: “Would you like to have a date?”
“Excuse me?” I replied, hearing her words yet not fully comprehending the fact that I was being propositioned by a prostitute.
She repeated gently, “Do you want to go on a date?”
My memory of her is an amalgam of the prostitutes portrayed on the evening television shows I watched as a child alongside my parents. She presented herself as part Taxi, part Hillstreet Blues, and part the Jeffersons. This was the late ‘90s, and she looked like she was a mid ‘80s prom queen who was now holding on in desperation to her glory days by not altering her look in the least. Her tight fitting, teal mini skirt, adorned with worn-out sequins, could have been a decade-inspired costume bought at a second-hand store for a Hallween party. Her voluminous hair was heavily hairsprayed, and I couldn’t tell if her wavy curls were natural or came from a crimp iron. It was cold that October night, near freezing, so in addition to her skirt, she wore a white winter jacket with a furry hood and tights. Her high heels looked like a hand-me-down and made her nearly my height. She seemed to be in her early thirties, but she could have been younger, as her face wore an unfair share of life’s lessons. She possessed a prettiness that fell short of attractive.
Her soft blue eyes and gentle voice made up for her fashion faux pas and suggested an authenticity I had not previously known. It was as though she had just seen me berated by the Tribe of Judah and felt pity for me. Or maybe it was just a skill that came with her craft—to quickly connect with another in a way that makes them feel safe and cared for, to offer convincingly a hint of hope, no matter how far off. With warm words and a tender nudge of my elbow, she gently guided me in the direction she wanted me to go.
Comforted more than dismayed by her invitation, I shared that I was not interested in that kind of a date, but would be more than happy to buy her dinner.
She agreed to a cup of coffee.
We sat down together at a table for two in a dimly lit coffee shop, a candle flickering as a mutual friend between us. I remember her introducing herself as Mary, and if not Mary, her name was something equally wholesome and pure. We behaved like any two new acquaintances might. It felt like a blind date—same uncomfortable nervousness, same outlined niceties, same cliché get-to-know-each-other questions. And the same deep hope to connect, to know and to be known.
I shared with Mary that I was from Minnesota and was in town driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. She stridently refused to believe my story, perhaps filing it away among other tall tales told to her along the way.
Sometimes even the truth is hard to trust.
Mary shared her story with me matter of factly and without spite, regret, or shame. Where triumph was missing, wisdom and warmth were present in a way that the Velveteen Rabbit would name as “real.” Mary was originally from Nevada and came to New York City about five years prior with whom she described as an abusive boyfriend. After they broke up, he kicked her out of their apartment. Penniless and with no one to call on for help, she found herself homeless. Prostitution was nothing she sought or wanted to continue, rather her survival depended on it. Trying to save enough money to move back to Las Vegas, she was now living with a few other hookers in what she called “a crash pad.”
With a hint of exhaustion, she shared softly: “I just wanna get back home.”
As I sat with Mary, I felt an earned superiority, and I judged her with a twofold hubris. First, I believed that based on my own efforts, I was somehow less broken, less undone by life than she was, that somehow I had made better choices and therefore was on a higher human plane. Second, feelings of presumptuous pride were present in me, as I believed-I-believed that I had the solution to all of her problems, and the solution was Jesus. If only, for once in her life, she could make the right choice then all would be well in her world. If only she would choose to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior.
Believing that God most certainly wanted me to give voice to the words I was about to utter, like a proselytizing puppy who can cause pain unintentionally with its sharp baby teeth, I wagged my neophyte tail and asked Mary: “Are you saved?”
After an exhale that seemed to sprinkle a calm onto our conversation, Mary replied:
“Yeah, I got saved two years ago.”
Mary’s response communicated a casualness akin to how someone might recount what they had for breakfast that morning. Her salvation story did not seem to include such high stakes like mine or the Tribe of Judah’s, rather a prescient resignation that there was much more to the entire enigma of the afterlife altogether.
With a comfortable meekness, she then offered back to me, in reverent reciprocity, the same question I had offered her:
“Are you saved?”
Her emphasis on the word “you” felt like a warm summer wind; it had a hint of comfort that conveyed a knowing peace and genuine care. Like a lover’s long last hug signifying the finality of a breakup, Mary’s emphasis on “you” felt like an embrace that included both an enduring affection and a devastating-to-name truth: that all that had to be said had already been said and what came next unsettled us both. Words were no longer helpful. We now needed to let go and step courageously into the unknown of being alone, again.
Having my question repeated back to me verbatim but with the slightest emphasis on the word “you” also served as a loving admonishment in the form of a mirror. Seeing my absurd self and hearing no hubris in her, a more soul-searing question suggested earlier by the Tribe of Judah now demanded my attention:
How true is your truth?
As a child, I remember watching countless Minnesota Vikings’ games on television. Every Sunday as a field goal or an extra point was attempted, there would be a man behind the uprights waving a sign that read: John 3:16. I wondered what John 3:16 meant. My mom explained that it was a Bible verse. One Sunday, I decided to look up the scripture verse and read it for myself. Disappointed and a bit confused, I quickly learned that John 3:16 had nothing to do with football.
Later in life, I would learn that many believe John 3:16 offers the compendium of Christianity’s salvation recipe—believe in Jesus and you shall not perish but have eternal life. Just believe and you will be saved!
For some, being saved seems quite simple.
Saved from what exactly? From eternal damnation, where the worst permutation apparently is a fiery furnace called hell. Translated to twitter, John 3:16 could read: Choose Jesus, or else. Choose Jesus or else the God of love will punish you forever. The consequences couldn’t be more extreme or eternal. The theology couldn’t be more contradictory.
God is love.
As a child, I spent many of my Sunday mornings singing the song “Jesus Loves Me.” Maybe Mary did too. The lyrics communicate the most comforting and inspiring biblical themes:
Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak, but He is strong
Yes, Jesus loves me
Yes, Jesus loves me
Yes, Jesus loves me
The Bible tells me so
As a child raised as a Minnesotan Lutheran, I grew to be certain of only two things in life. First, that there was nothing redeeming about wind chill. Second, that Jesus loved me. Just as my disdain for windchill never wavered, I remained convinced and comforted by what I embraced as an immutable fact: God loved me; the Bible told me so.
During my freshman year of college, I became involved with a campus ministry that proclaimed a markedly different kind of divine love than that of my childhood. Instead of being the supernatural lover of all souls, I was taught about a God who, in some sort of abracadabra-way, shed divine blood to save humanity from eternal damnation—eternal as in forever, as in transcending time, as in millions upon millions upon millions of years, as in longer than anyone can even cognitively conceive. Talk about high stakes! Influenced by this group’s fervor, confident knowledge of the Bible, and a kind of insidiously inebriating vibe of all-the-cool-kids-who-seem-smarter-than-you-and-seem-to-have-life-all-figured-out-and-just-seem-so-happy, my emphasis on God’s love was replaced with a theology focused on the reality of hell and, more importantly, how to stay the hell out of it.
Like the Tribe of Judah, I took my newfound faith public and set out to save everyone I loved. After all, although the consequences of making the right choice about God were intense—being burned and tortured for all of time—all you had to do was believe! All you had to do was say a few magic words in the form of a prayer! With those words uttered, you would be protected from the God of love’s wrath.
The disconnect between love and wrath was lost on me, so strong was my fear of God and the potential of eternal torment. As a result, I championed an understanding of the unknown as unbelievably fanciful as the Easter Bunny and, considering damnation’s eternal ramifications, even more evil than genocide.
During my freshman year of college, I went home for Christmas vacation where I proceeded to declare passionately and sincerely to nearly everyone I encountered that if they did not “accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior,” they would be sent to a fiery furnace for eternity.
Somehow I did not manage to convert anyone.
Despite not understanding my newfound beliefs and being baffled by the claims I professed, much to the credit of my family and friends, no one cut me off or told me off. Instead they listened lovingly as one would a kindergartener talking about an imaginary friend.
Perhaps humbled by my year’s worth of zero conversions, the next Christmas I brought home similar beliefs but with a softened strategy. With an earned year’s worth of experiencing my new found faith, my family was prepared to welcome me home. In an authentic attempt to support me in whatever I chose to dedicate myself to, my family used our previous Christmas together to inform their gift giving. The result? A jackpot of Jesus tchotchkes.
Most memorable was a lapel pin patterned after a nail driven into Christ’s wrists on the cross. Most hyperbolic was a t-shirt of a crucified and bloodied Jesus that read, in a font that could have been called Jackson Pollock, “This Blood’s For You!” An attempt at a creative riff on the famous Budweiser beer slogan, “This Bud’s For You,” the shirt represented Jesus’ salvific power with an aesthetic akin to a horror film bloodbath.
Despite my proselytizing, throughout college I continued to question my proclamations. I wondered how I could make such ardent claims all the while knowing that followers of other faiths felt that I was the one who was in the wrong. I also recognized that my life really hadn’t changed all that much since being “saved.” I may have privileged third base over intercourse in the name of Jesus, but other than that specious moral manuevering, the pain of everyday life still lingered, and I still felt like a slave to the same shortcomings that dominated my life before my misconceived conversion.
What had changed was that I now feared God instead of feeling loved by God. The loving Father of my Lutheran childhood was replaced by a spiritually abusive step dad. The role I embraced was textbook dysfunctional family: to protect my loved ones from his wrath and rage.
I had become a white, Minnesotan, Abercrombie and Fitch, college kid version of the Tribe of Judah, proclaiming a Bible-supported faith that excluded multitudes in favor of a few. I was sold, and had been selling, a salvation without much substance, a salvation that presented God as primarily concerned with the hell in the hereafter, not the hurt and brokenness in the here and now; a faith that promised to save me from the fiery furnace of the afterlife but that did little to help me navigate the many pitfalls causing me pain in this life.
Jesus loves me; this I had forgotten.
Stripped of a solution to life’s struggles that seemed so perfect only a few years prior, sitting with Mary, I felt empty and alone. I felt lost and yearned for a home I had never known.
I had forgotten the foundation of any faith worth following: Love.
A love that once and for all, saves all and heals all and is available to all.
My time in Manhattan burst the meaning-making bubble I had been desperately trying to build for myself in college. My time with Mary in the city of all cities moved the stone at the entrance of my soul just enough to let in a few rays of the divine light I experienced as a child. It was with Mary that I began my journey back to a faith nourished by love rather than one fueled by fear, a faith found both in the Bible and beyond.
Perhaps at a low moment in her life, like me, Mary resonated with those so inebriating in their zeal and grasped at some sort of a relationship with Jesus. Perhaps, like me, in an attempt to make sense of her hurt and her loneliness, Mary also tried to pray and read the Bible in search of answers to the unanswerable. Perhaps, like me, Mary had a hunch that her yearnings for more had supernatural origins. Perhaps, like me, Mary sensed a sorrow lurking below the surface, something in her soul that ached for more, something just out of her reach, something beyond the beyond, a comfort, a hint of home. Perhaps, like me, Mary thirsted for a peace that transcends understanding and was willing to try just about anything for a sip of that placidity. Perhaps, like me, Mary’s conversion failed to deliver on the promises offered on the used car lot of conversion.
Unlike me, Mary didn’t presume any social or spiritual superiority.
Unlike me, Mary didn’t presume she knew the perfect prescription for my pain.
Unlike me, Mary didn’t presume I needed any fixing in the first place.
Instead, as Mary sat with me, her power was in her presence and her story was a salvation in and of itself. Gazing at her hands as they hugged her coffee mug, she seemed to sit in an accepting, sublime surrender meant for all to experience. Meanwhile, outside in the cold, the Tribe of Judah trumpeted their truth.
Inside, with a small candle flickering gently between us, Mary and I sat together with heads bowed. Basking in a warmth where words ceased to be spoken, time fell fallow, and for a brief moment, the now and the forever fused together into one. As two saved souls in the city, our silence rested where the sublime fell short, in a sacred space of answers still waiting to be named and known.