My first time riding a train was in Thailand.
In about 13 hours we made it from Chiang Mai to Hua Hin in the south.
This past weekend was my 2nd train experience. I left Chicago on the Amtrak and by 9am the next morning I found myself in the cafe car rolling through Pennsylvania with Amina, Ciara and James (not their real names).
We talked about religion and life. We gazed out the window and admired the garbage and abandoned buildings that littered the slopes. We mentioned what it felt like growing up on the streets in Philly. Then the discussion turned to jihad and how it can mean a crusade as in a holy war and also how it can refer to personal conflict or struggle.
I took a chance and asked the group, “What is your jihad? What is your personal struggle in life? We all have one.”
And this is what was said:
Amina was the Muslim and said that her personal struggle was that of wanting to follow the teachings of Islam but struggling because she is often ridiculed by her fellow Muslims. She does not constantly wear hijab (head covering) and her family is more “liberal” than traditional. I observed a deep desire to want to please God but a tiredness of all the religiosity that would keep her from him. I saw tears fall from her eyes as she recounted the feelings of being an outcast in her own society. I know how she feels. Amina is a dreamer too.
We jolted in our seats as the train shifted it’s weight back and forth on the tracks.
Ciara was the Artist. And an amazing one at that! She had converted an old dictionary into a sketchpad with the bottom hollowed out to store the writing utensils she used for drawing art on the pages. Ciara confessed to us that she was the daughter of a christian pastor and was ostracized from her family because she wasn’t the “perfect little pastor’s daughter” she was expected to be. She confessed her addiction to the whole spectrum of the drug world. She admitted to not eating for days just so she could get another high.
The train slowed down to a halt. The conductor mentioned on the overhead a five minute wait and something about federal regulation but the rest was lost in static.
James, the Felon. He didn’t say much but we learned that he was on his way back to Philly after having recovered from being shot. He mentioned that he was a felon and had a couple of kids. His struggle was the streets and all that comes with the territory. He did, however mention that he was one to avoid heavy drugs altogether. He had to have the city and couldn’t stand living in the country. He was a good guy but I felt his pain of the lack of direction in life.
The river continued to wind and bend. First it was on the right side then on the left. Would this trip ever come to an end?
All of a sudden, in the middle of our conversation, Ciara began to have withdrawals from her recent drug exposure. Felling extremely sick and getting the shakes she had to lay down on the bench right there. She mentioned having not eaten in three days but not wanting to eat either. I got her a bottle of water. She laid down and I began to softly cry. Amina asked what was wrong and I said that I felt her pain – all of it – the whole accumulation of her struggle with her family and life. I didn’t know what to do but I did sense in my spirit that she needed comfort so I sat next to her and put my hand on her right shoulder as she was laying down and rubbed as my mother did when I was sick as a child.
After the sweating stopped I felt she was getting cold. A few minutes later she got up and said that she was freezing and went to go get her coat. I got her a personal pizza to help her stomach.
When Amina left to take a phone call we made a plan to surprise her. When she got back we began to sing the happy birthday song to her and others in the car joined and clapped when we were done.
When I had returned after excusing myself to go back and get some bandages for Amina who was having fingernail trouble, the girls were discussing me and wondered if I was Jesus calling me the most compassionate person they had ever met.
My stop in Harrisburg came and we exchanged goodbye hugs on the platform where the two girls were having a smoke.
It was real. Just real.
In life we all have struggles. One lesson that was shared on the train was that of respect and not judging people. Just a couple of years ago I would never had engaged in the conversations that I did with these amazing people. I would have judged them for not being good little church goers like I used to be all perfect with my trimmed hair and nice little churchy tie. I would have prejudged them with damnation and condemnation without pointing toward Jesus.
It was the greatest compliment of my life up to this point being likened unto Jesus Himself – and I hardly said a word. But isn’t that what should be the norm? Is that not what Jesus taught – to love our neighbor as our self?
An open letter:
To “Amina”: You are a beautiful and amazing lady. Keep seeking God. He promises to be found by those that seek them with their whole heart. Continue to dream and dare to dream big! You will find the purpose and wholeness that you seek for in the purity of God that is unadulterated by man-made religion. You must seek the higher path and not let peoples opinions of you determine who you were created to be. You are relentlessly loved by God!
To “Ciara”: You are a beautiful and incredible lady. You have a shadow of truth on how to live in your heart. In this case, do go toward the light! Keep seeking God. He is waiting for you and desires to set you free from your past and present and wants to propel you into your future and destiny. You have a pure heart and will change the lives of many people around the world if you learn to humble yourself (which is easier than being externally humbled). You have nothing to prove to anyone. Remember what I said? I believe in you, but more important, God believes in you even more than I do so believe in yourself! Stay creative. You are so loved by God!
To “James”: Yeah, the streets are dark and difficult to navigate through. You must seek to find meaning beyond yourself. You will be a good father but you must be there for your children too. I saw greatness in you! Continue to develop it. Don’t give in to the easy road. It only leads to fulfillment. Keep seeking God; He loves you very much!