Church Of The Underground

Written by Michael Cline : April 9, 2008

mindthegap1.jpgIt isn’t often that one gets the chance to watch an American myth crumble apart while simultaneously capturing a freshly decontaminated image of the Church. Just another day in “foggy London town.”

It happened on the Underground, or “the Tube” as it is descriptively known (it’s in a tunnel…get it?). Stretching some 250 odd miles, nearly 3 million riders take advantage of this massive public transit system. This past week was my second go around at maneuvering my way around the multihued diagram. Five years ago, half of my time in London was spent frustrated between the Picadilly and Central lines, and no where near the hotel I was purportedly headed towards. Where were all those skills that the seven years in Boy Scouts supposedly instilled in me? Apparently knowing how to use a compass hardly comes in handy when trains travel in circles and are identified by colors, not directions.

My recent escapade to England was much more a triumph in the area of transportation as I got into a rhythm of buying the all-day ticket, sliding through the not-so-iron gates, and picking the right platform to stand on. Resting in my new found know-how, I found time to open my eyes to the passengers around me, rather than burying my gaze at the Underground mini-map found in every car in fear I would miss my stop. What I saw was a somewhat opaque but beautiful icon of what the Church can become…what the Church should be. Grabbing hold of the metal bars that line the outskirts of the shuttle was a Sikh man dressed with his traditional dashtar. Sitting across from him was a middle aged woman reading the latest headlines in Russian. There were single moms and common laborers riding side by side with more outwardly visible “power players” of the same local economy. The C.E.O shared space with the janitor.

And there was no escaping it. Unlike what happens when communities become absolutely dependent on individually owned and operated modes of transportation (referred to by some as “automobile dependency“), there was no option of lessening my proximity to other passengers. The Church of the Underground would constantly subvert any notion of a gated community and keep open the avenues that allow for unstructured social encounters with “the Other.” In the London Underground, there existed a phenomenon that is rarely duplicated in the numerous cathedrals throughout the United Kingdom–a space to come face-to-face with the neighbor. And in doing so, the alterity of the Sikh and of the C.E.O. called into question my very being; the encounter with the Other challenged my own identity in God’s kingdom and made demands on me that I cannot recall from any three point sermon or well-meaning Bible study. The Tube transformed into a sanctuary.

After exiting the car, a conversation broke out among my traveling partners. There was an extravagantly dressed young woman seated across from us in the last leg of our journey. Decked out in brown Gucci boots, tinted Versace sunglasses (it must get really dark in the Underground), and a Louis Vuitton purse, the woman was wearing more than my wife and I make in a month. When this subject was brought to the center of our conversation, one comment rose above the rest: “Yeah, but it’s not like she can have that much money. She’s riding the subway.” An American myth was being challenged by the day’s journey. This speaker was simply commenting out of her deeply held presuppositions, opinions that have been significantly shaped by the hyper-consumerist narrative we all swim in every day. Her sentiment is summed up by another post I ran across commenting on a proposal for a new public transit system in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area:

And yet it is a multi-billion dollar plan with big tax increases. All to use an existing line and provide more buses. This will do nothing to ease any congestion. It is simply a taxpayer subsidized way for poor people without a car to get to work.

In other words, only poor people need public transit. Only the down-and-out among us who can’t afford a Toyota Camry (new or used) really use the subway system. The rest of us have “moved on” and used our money for a private mode of transportation. But the myth is shattered in London, where the high-class investment banker can be seen riding next to the hotel housekeeper. That designer-wearing woman probably was rich. But she was in the same car as the rest of us, utilizing the same means to get to her destination as the Sikh immigrant. Not even her Versace sunglasses could shadow her gaze enough to distance herself completely from her own experience of the Other. Church was in session, and she was getting blessed…even if she didn’t know it.

As the prerecorded woman with the thick British accent reminded us at every stop along the way, we were to “mind the gap.” Once reckoned for what it was, the gap between myself and my neighbor was somehow less intrusive last week on the London Underground than it will be in church this Sunday.

*Author’s note: Much of the philosophical underpinnings of this post can be found in the writings of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas*

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