James Martin, S.J.August 19, 2014

‘If you want to meet the poor, take the bus.” That’s a saying I’ve heard many times from my brother Jesuits. It refers not so much to transportation within cities (though it certainly could) as to long-distance travel. My own preference, especially here in the Northeastern United States, is traveling by train: in these parts Amtrak is quick, reliable and relatively inexpensive if you plan far enough in advance. As for planes, well, to be charitable, I’ll pass over that in silence. But generally speaking, those who are poor and need to travel from city to city take neither the plane nor the train—but the bus.

So a few months ago, when I was invited to speak at an event sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Springfield, Mass., I happily accepted their suggestion to return to New York City by Greyhound bus, or “the Dog,” as some of my friends call it.

Before continuing this tale, which takes some surprising turns, I would like to say three things. First, I love the Sisters of St. Joseph, no matter where they are—from Springfield, Mass., to Chestnut Hill, Pa. Second, I admire women religious in general: they are my heroes. Third, on that particular Sunday, there was only one convenient way to travel from Springfield to New York: the bus. The trains were not running at that time, and of course I don’t own a car; so when a bus ticket was offered, I eagerly accepted. In short, none of what I’m about to recount was the “fault” of the generous Sisters of St. Joseph.

In any event, after my afternoon talk, a friendly S.S.J. dropped me off at the Springfield bus station. The sisters had even packed me a nourishing dinner in a brown bag: a ham sandwich, a ginger ale, a bag of peanuts and a banana. I located a comfortable seat on the bus, took out the latest copy of The New Yorker from my backpack and looked forward to an enjoyable and economical drive back to New York on the Dog.

But it was not to be. Directly behind me were two people who, it soon became clear, were a prostitute and her pimp. (I’m not sure if “pimp” is still the correct term: I’m not up to date on prostitution slang.) From the moment the bus pulled out of Springfield station, the two started arguing loudly. The woman was furious at the man, who was also her erstwhile boyfriend. She recounted in lavish detail his cheating on her. For a good hour she shouted, over and over, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” while hitting him. In response to her invective and her punches, he unleashed his own fusillade of foul-mouthed rage, all the while dropping the “F-bomb” liberally.

Since the bus driver seemed largely unconcerned, I thought of saying something. At the time, I was in my clerical collar, and so I thought perhaps a glance might effect some sort of change. But given that the two of them seemed as high as kites, I figured that they might (a) have a gun, (b) freak out and punch me or (c) have a gun, freak out, punch me and then kill me. So I figured I’d wait it out. How long could it last, anyway?

It lasted the entire trip.

But in the midst of this seedy drama was grace. Sitting beside me was a dark-haired, middle-aged woman, wearing a white nurse’s uniform, who read her Bible through the entire trip. She gave no indication that the commotion from behind us bothered her at all.

As the Dog raced on through the night and the two continued their very public battle, my traveling companion calmly pored over her Bible (Romans, I noticed). Once again, I was reminded that the poor put up with such indignities all the time. It filled me with admiration for the woman seated next to me, and I wondered if her serenity might not be the result of long experience. It was probably not the first, or last, time she would endure something like this.

Talking about “the poor” is very often misleading. They are, after all, individuals, as was the woman on the bus. So it’s often inaccurate to generalize, and say, “The poor are like this.” On the other hand, many are the things we can learn from people with personal experience of poverty. Many are the experiences that they take for granted that others would find intolerable. In their patience, in their fortitude, in their dignity and in their hard work, the poor can often be our models. And so blessed are they.

Women religious, then, aren’t the only women who are my heroes. Now I have a new one: the woman who sat beside me on the Dog.

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Nicholas Schmidt
6 years 9 months ago
Awesome read! This actually reminded me of a mindfulness exercise I learned where I imagine that I'm driving a bus with all sorts of rowdy people on board (in the analogy, these "rowdy people" are my own thoughts/emotions/memories/experiences). Choosing to continue value-guided action (e.g., reading the Bible) in the midst of this is something I find very difficult, and I believe is definitely a grace! Thank you for sharing.
Mary Vaghi
6 years 9 months ago
I am trying to get started on guided imagery and your example really spoke to me. Often my brain resembles a rowdy bus of unruly emotions and thoughts. I will use this, gratefully. As to the story and point made I think about this often. What we might consider an indignity might be another person's daily life or even an opportunity for them (travel! To the big city!) . We should always try to act as that woman did with grace and self composure regardless of where we find ourselves. We should also consider the circumstances that forced the " pimp and prostitute " into that life. How hopeless and what few alternative paths they must feel they have. I will say a prayer for the whole of the bus - including you Fr. Martin.
Kim Nebel
6 years 9 months ago
I worked many years as a caseworker for the department of human services, and was reminded daily of the truth in your perspective. I always viewed my clients as individuals, and learned alot from many of them about dignity and strength in difficult circumstances. Alot of the values we regard as old fashioned are still practiced by the poor leaning on your neighbor and family etc. I always understood that God placed me in that position for what I could learn as well as for what I could give to others. It's always important not to come across as critical or judgmental if you want to communicate effectively. Offering to share your lunch and remarking on how thoughtful and kind the sisters who made it for you were, may have quieted them for a minute anyway while they ate, and opened a door slightly giving them a glimpse inside. The next time they walk by a church, they may think of the priest who shared his lunch with them on that long bus ride, and want to step inside. Thank you for reminding me of the opportunities in choosing a bus over a plane.
brendan kolbay
6 years 9 months ago
But I have a question: in the first place, why do you assume that woman sitting next to you was "poor"? and why would her economic or social status matter? I would submit the very use of this term, "the poor" in and of itself sets up (or buys into) a social construct laden with all sorts of presuppositions and a kind of otherness that I have to say I find a bit offensive. you speak of "the poor" and the lessons we can learn from "them" as if "they" are alien creatures -- 'other', 'different' from 'us'. hmmm...
Sara Damewood
6 years 9 months ago
Dear Fr. Jim, I love your authenticity in sharing your story. I can relate. As a clinical social worker, I often encounter similar situations and similar emotions. As I was reflecting on your article, the thought "familiarity breeds content" popped into my mind... & I thought about how it is easier to love and serve marginalized people as you get to know them. Then, I realized that this was a subliminal experience, because the article "Familiarity Breeds Content" from May 28, 2014 has a link underneath your article. I followed the link to rediscover Helen Alvere's article. I think that she and I are very differently politically, and (at the same time) I was touched by her words that validated the experience of social activists. It made me realize how very important it is to try to understand another's world view, whether it is a prostitute on "the Dog" or someone on the other side of the political fence.
Craig McKee
6 years 9 months ago

Happy to read about Fr. Martin's support of the Springfield SSJ's who got me thru 8 years of Catholic education in the post-Vatican II 60's relatively unscathed. He seems to be learning -albeit a tad late in life- what many of his heroic women religious and some fellow Jebbies have known for years: the poor ride the bus. I was a bit surprised by his naivete in thinking his Roman collar might effect some kind of social change on the bus, instead of pulling out what has been his strongest suit: his sense of humor. During my own lengthy Greyhound jaunts (from central Florida to the Trappists in Georgia and even boarding school days when I changed coaches in Springfield to head to the Berkshires just a stone's throw away from the Jesuits' Cranwell in Tanglewood town) I always found that a well-placed bit of jocularity or a shared snack from my own bag worked wonders with pesky fellow pilgrims of all ages. Perhaps Fr. Martin's child-like amazement after the comforts of Amtrak might be inspired on his next trip to Springfield with a visit to the Dr. Seuss memorial at the public library?

Sara Damewood
6 years 9 months ago
Oh, that is so cool, Craig! I need to put that on my bucket list.
Jason Villarreal
6 years 9 months ago
I could not agree more with Brendan Kolbay here in the comments section. I'm a nurse who frequently travels in the northeast, always by bus. I think that talking about fellow pilgrims in this way, as "the poor," sets up an aura of distance and superiority. I have heard this in parishes, even homilies, and it always rubs me wrong. It has made me feel uncomfortable, as "other" in my own parish at points in my life when I was struggling financially. Perhaps, I'd humbly suggest as others here have hinted, Jim (and all others reading/commenting who feel so moved) you take the bus always from now on, and listen and take to heart? And that we all try to find ways to speak of "us/we" instead of "them/they"?
Claire Bangasser
6 years 9 months ago
This is quite an interesting reflection. Thank you. Frankly, I'm very impressed you did not ask the couple behind you to be less loud. I'm not sure I would have kept my cool as you did. I would probably taken the side of the prostitute, which of course would not have helped anything. Undoubtedly, I would have prayed for them (to stop). I would have sighed very loudly. I would have gotten up, turned around and taken a good look at them. Had I been prepared for this, I would have come along with my iPod and earphones. Or maybe I would have changed seats. At the end of the trip, I would have complimented the lady who had read her Bible all along... and would have asked her how she had done it... :-)
Jim Englert
6 years 9 months ago
You might metaphorically have missed the bus here, Fr. Martin. It may have been precisely your not being poor that focused your attention on the commotion immediately behind you; the genuinely poor around you were quite likely more capable of detaching from that. Had your attention been less riveted, it's quite possible that you might have overheard any number of exchanges of charity, and hope, all around you. At least that's been my experience. Your fellow pilgrims here could easily have been my neighbors, indeed, my housemates. I find myself struck almost daily by the commonality of exchange of the theological virtues. The lectio going on beside you may very well have been grace, if it was enabling the kind of detachment from noise that heightened sensitivity to such exchanges likely going on elsewhere in the dog's entrails. But it might also have been more a defense against intrusion of everything going on all around, grace as well as noise. Much intrudes into the lives of the poor, and such defenses are of inestimable value. You're probably quite right that grace traveled with you. I'm just not so sure that you actually recognized it. Which isn't a critique, by the way, just a suggestion for reflection. Getting to such recognition doesn't come with purchase of a single ticket. It takes a lot of travelin'. Happy trails. Literally.
brendan kolbay
6 years 9 months ago
Boreta Singleton
6 years 9 months ago
Thanks Jim for this story. I have been on many buses ( and other modes of public transportation) where the same type of disruption happened over the course of a long period of time. I completely understand your reticence to speak to the noise makers. Indeed, the woman reading her Bible was the grace in the midst of the turmoil. I was once on a bus when an elderly African American woman began to hum the hymn" Blessed Assurance" whenever the noise started. She clearly understood the importance of bringing God to the situation. And I affirm your praise of the Sisters! I too am grateful to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia for giving me an excellent high school education.
Jane P McNally, Ph.D.
6 years 9 months ago
I will never forget a speech at the DNC by Jesse Jackson. Speaking to the stereotype of "the poor" as being lazy, he said: " Poor people work. I know they work. They take the early bus. " There was a split second of silence, and then the attendees roared their approval for about 4 minutes. I have often remembered this when I ride public transportation.
James Schwarzwalder
6 years 8 months ago
Father, The brown bag lunch was OK. But the New Yorker in the backpack? The New York Post would have been a better choice.

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