Hearing the voices on the Metro

715px-Rolling_stock,_open_door_-_Metro_CenterOne of the doctrines of this weblog is that to understand how ordinary people live their lives, journalists need to "get religion." You don't have to force faith into these stories. In most cases, it's already there. This has certainly been true the last few days here in the District of Columbia, where residents and commuters have been dealing with the worst crash in the history of the Metro subway system that binds together our common life inside the Beltway.

Actually, the Metro is what links the places of power in this region, while it is the city's buses that link the neighborhoods. You don't have to live here long before you realize that "Washington" rides the Metro, while "DC" rides the buses. I know that there are overtones of race and class in that statement, but it's true. At the same time, it is true that the Metro brings together a wide variety of people in one rushed, crowded, remarkable space.

This morning, a giant team of Washington Post reporters and editors assembled what can only be called a magisterial news feature on the nine victims -- alas, there may be more -- of the mysterious Red Line crash the other night at rush hour. This train was headed into town, instead of out to the suburbs, or it would have been even more crowded. Here's the opening of the report:

The people who stepped on Metro's Red Line cars on a warm summer evening were the perfect cross section of the careers and characters who make the nation's capital so compelling: a military general, a Bible school teacher, single moms balancing work and children. It was during that common gray space of their day, while they passed the time reading a book or fighting the urge to sleep, that a single event united nine of those diverse people in a common tragic fate. ...

At a memorial service yesterday at the transit agency, someone read Psalm 23. A black cloth was draped over the Metro symbol. People prayed for those whose life stories unfolded before them. Ana Fernandez, the woman who left behind so many children. LaVonda "Nikki" King, an aspiring beautician.

"It's a common bond. Everybody at some point uses Metro," said Phillip Barrett Jr., who paused to remember those who died. "Everybody was going about their everyday routine. Then this happened."

Faith details dot these story, as they should. But these details are not spotlighted and there are many other poignant details of human life that fall into place next to the Godtalk. Faith is very human and this is what it looks like when you meet it on the sidewalk:

Scores of children in different parts of the District were affected by the loss of Dennis Hawkins, 64, of Washington. Hawkins had no children of his own, but he was beloved by kids at the school where he worked and in the church where he taught, friends and relatives said. He was on his way from work at Whittier Education Center in Northwest Washington to teach vacation Bible school in Ivy City when he was killed in the crash.

A family friend, Christina Cobb, 23, was sitting in her Bowie bedroom early on Monday evening, chatting with a girlfriend on the telephone, when she heard the call waiting signal. It was her aunt. "Chrissy? Hi, it's Aunt Dora. Where's your mom?'' Cobb recalled. Cobb, who works at a consulting firm, got up from her bedroom, sensing her aunt's urgent tone, and headed toward her mother's bedroom down the hallway.

"She said, 'Dennis was on the train. Dennis Hawkins,' " Cobb said. Then she asked her aunt if he was okay. "She said, 'No. He was one of the fatalities.' That's when I dropped to the floor."

Members of Bethesda Baptist Church waited and waited for their Bible school teacher to arrive Monday night. Cobb's grandmother was enrolled. Finally, word from Hawkins's family reached a church official. And they began to mourn.

When I first moved to the Washington area to work on Capitol Hill, a decade ago, I rode the Orange line east into Maryland every night at rush hour -- through some very rough neighborhoods and out into middle- and lower-middle-class suburbs. I now ride a regular-rail MARC commuter train up to the south side of Baltimore every day.

800px-Washington_DC_Metro_in_carI soaked in the sights and sounds of Metro life, in large part because I have always been fascinated with the communities formed by mass transit (dating back to my newspaper and graduate school days on the great bus system in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.). One night, I witnessed a very unusual event that pulled it all together for me. With the encouragement of a close friend at the Post, I pitched a first-person piece about the experience to the Style section.

Well, there was just too much religion in the essay for their tastes. I ended up editing the essay way down, to become a rare first-person column for Scripps Howard. My archived copy of the full-length piece died a few years ago when a Sasser virus nailed the last Windows computer I will ever own. So here is the start of that Scripps column. If "Just another voice on the Metro" hits home, make sure that you read to the part about the Bibles:

The elderly black woman began preaching moments after the train left the Capitol South subway station.

"Praise the Lord. It's a good day," she said, starting a 20-minute sermon as her rush-hour congregation rolled toward the Maryland suburbs.

Her voice was calm, strong and serious. She was carrying a cane and, I wouldn't dare make this up this detail, a fragrant box of spicy fried chicken. I didn't take precise notes, but what follows is real close to what she said. My father was a Southern Baptist preacher and I have a knack for remembering sermons.

"God's grace is real, but that doesn't mean you can just keep on sinning and sinning and sinning," she said, gazing straight ahead. "God is watching all the time. God sees all of you. ... Our God is a Holy God."

People kept their eyes down, reading their newspapers and paperbacks. A young black woman across the aisle giggled. "Oh no, it's church," she whispered to a friend. New riders glanced around in surprise, as they boarded the crowded car. But no one challenged the preacher or asked her to stop.

It may sound strange, but the Metro is a very good place to pray. Right now, I urge you to pray for the people who work and ride on the Metro, day after day.

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