In the religion (renamed the politically-correct Belief) section of the Houston Chronicle‘s Sunday, November thirteenth issue, there was an article entitled The Silent (Mis)Treatment: Show Hospitality to Everyone You Encounter by Ben Byrum. In it he talked about the experiment he conducted as a college freshman. New in town, new to the church and having difficulty making friends, he decided one Sunday that if after services had gotten underway no one had greeted him he would walk out. He waited for five minutes and nothing. Thirty seconds before the service, he began gathering his things.
I was planning to go back to my room and stay there for the rest of the day; after all, nobody seemed to pay attention to me. With fifteen seconds left, my math professor turned around in her chair, which was a couple of rows in front of me, and almost as if she had turned around just for me, she flashed a me a smile and said, “I’m glad you’re here, Ben.”
He stayed. He couldn’t tell you what the service was about, what songs were sung, but he remembers feeling noticed and how painful not being noticed was.
Further in the article, Byrum shares a tale from the seventies about a man in his thirties who wrote a letter, walked from his San Francisco apartment to the Golden Gate Bridge and jumped. Byrum said the man had left the letter in his dresser.
It was discovered by investigators when they searched his apartment. It was a suicide letter that read, “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I won’t jump.”
I wept when my mother told me about this article, these stories of invisibility. The writer had gone to that church on several occasions. He’d chosen it because it was the most popular among the student body. That man… I can’t even begin to imagine how his despair must’ve grown with each step toward that bridge.
Christ, how difficult is it to smile at someone? Just smile? That simple act of kindness could’ve been the light for that man. Could’ve meant LIFE.
Today, I spent my afternoon at Pappadeaux’s. I went to Barnes and Nobles for a couple of books. I got gas for the journey home. When I pulled into the station, I noticed a girl huddled on the corner of the curb. I asked her if she needed a ride. She asked me if I was going to Tomball. I wasn’t. That’s twenty minutes southwest of where I was, and home is Ten minutes north, but I told her I could take her wherever she needed to go. In my mind I’m praying Please God, don’t be some psycho bent on wreaking havoc. I mucked out my car, gave her a bag of chips, which was the only food I had on me. She’d not eaten all day. She had no money. Her phone was dead. Her friends had left her there. She was a twenty-seven-year-old psychology student and a mother of two. She reminded me a little bit of my brother’s wife: petite, blonde with pigtails dyed blue, dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans and chucks. Her birthday was in three days. Her friends had left her there. I told her she needed to get some new friends.
She’d been waiting at that gas station since ten a.m. When I’d met it her, it was half-past eight.
Now sure, a whole lot of bad shit could’ve happened. I can imagine all kinds of scary, yall. I knew the risks. I just kept thinking if someone had left me there, and I had no way of getting home, I would’ve been praying hard for someone to show me some kindness. I asked her if anyone had offered to give her a ride, thinking that maybe they’d asked and refused because it was out of their way. She said no. I thought of the story in the paper, of the man, and asked if anyone had even smiled at her. She said no.
I’m a Christian woman, but I don’t go around bragging about it. That’s not how I define myself. Those commandments? I’m pretty sure I’ve broken at least half of’m, some of’m I break with phenomenal consistency. I say God a hell of a lot more than I should, which means I break that third commandment several times a day. My faith’s a crazy mix of Catholicism, astrology and Greek mythology, which means I’m breaking the second one with pretty much every breath. and I love my mama and daddy, but I do not live the way they want me to, so… there’s three of’m that I’ve all but obliterated. But that passage in Matthew… twenty-five: forty: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me… I’m not always good about it, but I try to keep that one in mind.
So there’s that. But more… I’ve gone through too much of my life feeling as invisible as that author and the man who’d made that godawful trek to that bridge. Nobody should ever have to feel like they don’t matter.
Can you imagine how many had gawked at that girl today? How they’d thought so little of her?
Ain’t no way in hell I would’ve left her sitting there. Ain’t no way.
I’m not some social justice warrior. I don’t think I get up on my soap box too often. Not nearly as much as some of my friends do, anyway.
But good God, yall… we can do better. We can do so much better. It just takes one person… one kind word. One gesture. One smile. It just takes one.
Originally published November fourteenth, ‘sixteen.