Looking over 2019, one thing stands out from the rest—the 8 months I rode the public bus to work. Like most people I can tell you the exact cross streets of the boundaries I live life in. Rarely do I venture from my chosen grocery store, drug store, Walmart, and Target. Even when eating out my husband and I tend to eat at the same restaurants. Five days of the week I drive the same roads to the office in my climate controlled bubble. It’s rare to come into contact with people outside of my routines. So, last year I wondered if it was time to change something.
The church I attend and work at has a mission, simplified into three statements. Get God. Get Real. Get out there. At the end of 2018 I was thinking a lot about “Get out there”. Every few years I go on a mission’s trip to remind me the world is bigger than my existence, to do what I can to help those in need and to let people know they are loved by God. It didn’t look like I would be able to do a mission’s trip in 2019 so I started thinking. How could I, in my everyday life, put myself in a position to meet different people, to open my eyes to the world around me, or to be in a place where I could see a need for help and be there to act on it? That’s when the little idea came.
I don’t remember exactly how the idea came but I remember the persistent thought that didn’t leave me. “Ride the Bus”. I’d never ridden a bus, wasn’t sure how to figure out which one to get on, where to get off the bus, or how long it would take to get to work. But the idea stuck with me. I prayed about it, then I began talking to Kirk who had some experience riding the bus. One week after Thanksgiving 2018 I purchased my first bus ticket, loaded my backpack for the trip in to work, and bundled up for the chilly morning air.
For three mornings I waited at the stop near my home, rode 1 bus south, waited at another stop, then rode bus 2 the rest of the way to work. Inside my backpack were extra bus tickets and an extra bottle of water in case someone was thirsty (I live in a desert). I didn’t wear headphones but instead carried a book to read so I could hear what was going on around me to be available if someone asked a question; I loaded the bus app on my phone in case someone needed help finding their stop. I waited. I prayed. Nothing happened. Then morning three came.
The second bus stop on my route sat in the shadow of a Circle K convenience mart. I was sitting on the cold metal seat with my hands wrapped around a hot coffee I’d purchased at Circle K when I noticed a woman walking toward the bus. I made room for her on the bench. After a few minutes she asked me about my weekend. I told her a little bit about a family gathering, then she started telling me her story. She had one boy with severe mental handicaps whom she talked lovingly about. Worry crept into the conversation over bullying at school.
Then she looked directly at me, “But I believe in God.” I was taken back by the sudden admission but quick to reply, “I do to Sharon (not her real name), trusting Him is the only way I’ve made it through life so far.” She teared up. “It’s true isn’t it?” I smiled, “Yes.” She wiped a hand across a stray tear on her cheek then seemed to wonder out loud, “Maybe I should go to church.” I asked her where she lived. Her cross streets were near a church I knew of so she could walk to it. I told her about the church and encouraged her.
The bus arrived. We sat together on the bus and I listened to more of her story. At one point she stopped to ask me where I was going. I told her work. When she asked where I worked, I told her the name of the church where I worked. Her face lit up. “You work at a church? And I randomly asked you if I should start going to church again?” More tears came, “I think God sent me to that bus stop today.” God was up to something all the time. This never would have happened if I had driven to work so I decided I was going to keep riding the bus to see what would happen next.
For 8 months I rode the bus. Before the end of January 2019, I sold my car because I knew at some point I would be discouraged by adverse weather or the amount of time it takes to ride in to work. I didn’t want to back out. The minivan sold; I was all in with no other way to get to work. The following are some of the stories that happened during the 8-month period and the things I learned:
Interrupted Plans. Some mornings I struggled to reach the first bus stop on time. One morning in particular I was unprepared for the day. My phone displayed just enough time to get to the first bus stop so stuffing my lunch into my backpack I ran out the door. I arrived at the stop as the bus was pulling up. When the bus door opened, I stepped up to the ticket machine then reached into my backpack for the ticket. It wasn’t there. I looked at the driver, “Can I look in my bag while we go to the next stop?” He nodded. I sat down with my bag on the seat next to me. I checked every pocket. It was gone. The next stop was near the grocery store so I apologized to the driver and de-boarded so I could purchase a ticket.
After glancing at the time I chose to run through the cross walk instead of walk. Near the entrance of the grocery store I saw a young woman and her dog sitting in the sheltered walkway near the carts. She was shoeless, wearing a thin coat in the chilly air. A piece of cardboard in her hand read “Recently homeless. Need food for the dog, and shoes please.” She wasn’t a regular, I’d never seen her before.
Inside I purchased my ticket then hurried outside again, hoping to make it to the bus stop before missing the next bus. I walked by the girl again. At the crosswalk I stopped to look at the time again. There was something about the girl. I was feeling a tug in my heart to turn around. There were no meetings at work this morning and I knew I could work later into the day. I texted by boss as I turned back toward the store.
When I reached the girl, I bent down to her level. “Do you know what size shoes you wear?” She thanked me but said someone had gone inside to get her shoes. I offered to get dog food or something for her. She said her dog needed something to eat. Inside I found a small bag of food that wouldn’t be too heavy to carry, a water bottle for her and a cup so she could give the little dog a drink too. At the register I threw in some M&M’s. I gave her the bag and a card with the Phoenix number to help homeless 602-262-6251.
Somehow, I still managed to reach the bus stop before the next bus arrived. Once I was settled on the bus, I realized my world had collided with this girl’s world because I lost my bus ticket. I looked for the girl over the next couple of days but never saw her again.
Overthinking Joy. I was sheltering at a bus stop with a young girl who was headed home from high school and an older man who was quietly smoking his cigarette around the corner of the shelter and a boy in a dark hoody who occasionally jumped in place or rubbed his hands together to warm up. A soft winter rain fell around us.
When the light at the nearby intersection turned red all our attention focused on the crosswalk. A young girl wrapped in a bright red blanket was hop skipping across the street, loudly chanting something we couldn’t decipher. Once she reached the sidewalk, she turned toward us still hopping and chanting. We all smiled when we realized she was chanting the word “walk” in exact cadence to the vocal cue at the crosswalk. She bounced onto the metal seat under the shelter next to the high school girl, happily chatting about the weather.
Everyone’s mood lightened in the presence of the girl. I knew she was a special needs adult headed home from a program she attended because I’d ridden with her before. On that dreary day under the bus shelter I realized how easy it was to become discouraged about life, to become grumpy about the weather. This girl, who could dance and sing to the tune of the crosswalk made strangers smile. In the middle of all the harshness of life, there are still a million little things to remind us of beauty and of God’s love to us in the simple moments of life. Who knew that day, it would be the cue of a crosswalk and a girl in a red cape.
I like your ink. One hot April afternoon after exiting the first bus, I headed toward a narrow square of shade the bus stop was providing. This stop was in direct line of the western sun which was already a little too warm for early April. Grateful for the shade I set my backpack down so I could find my water bottle. When I stood back up, I saw an older woman walking in my direction. She nodded to me as she entered the shade. As I took another sip from my water bottle, she took a second glance at my forearms. “I like your ink, what do they mean?”
Looking down at the tattoos on my arms, I pointed to the one on the right with the cursive word “free” then looked at the cross on my left arm. I smiled at her, “It means I am free in Christ.” Rarely does a conversation with a stranger start in that way but she asked so I answered honestly. She proceeded to talk to me about some of her spiritual seeking then looked at her phone, “I think the bus is late again. I’ve been on 3 buses already and it’s too hot.”
A text came into my phone from Kirk that he was exiting the highway and could pick me up if the bus hadn’t already arrived. When he pulled into the parking lot, I asked “Karen” where she was headed. It was near where we were going. “Would you like a ride?”
Hesitant at first, she accepted when I offered again. As Soon as she got in the car she asked where we worked. When I mentioned my church she gasped, “that’s where I go! I was going to be baptized this Sunday but I’m not ready yet. I’m so glad I bumped into you today.” Calm on the outside, on the inside I was excited, thankful for the people God was crossing my paths with.
Kindness is a big deal. It was a nice spring afternoon. The bus heading home was full. At one of the stops an elderly woman came on board with her stroller. The only seat left was the one to my left. Attached to the stroller was an oxygen tank with clear tubes running up to her nose. She appeared fatigued from the effort to be on the bus. As the bus drove on she was increasingly fidgety nervously glancing at passing street signs. I wondered if she was concerned about where to get off the bus so I asked if she needed help. She looked at me teary eyed, “I’ve never ridden before and I have no idea how to figure out how to get to the doctor.”
I took my phone out of my backpack so I could look at the metro bus app. I asked where her doctor was. Her next stop was coming up. When I explained to her how she would get off at the next stop, cross the street to catch the last bus that would take her to the doctor’s office, she was genuinely worried. I explained the steps to her twice. Another passenger near us leaned in. “I’m getting off the same stop. I’ll help you cross to your next stop.”
You could tell she was relieved to find so much help. When they stepped off the bus the young man waved at the bus driver, “Thank you bus driver.” The older lady nodded at the bus driver. Sometimes I think life is about doing big things for God but all He wanted me to do that day and many other times, was to be kind. Kindness is a big deal.
Sometimes He’s working on you. The 11 years between 2007 and 2018 was a continuous string of calamities and chaos for our family. In the middle of those years, 2013, I almost took my life. The years since then have been a time of strengthening and learning about joy and beauty even in the middle of dark times. Sometimes I would tell the story about that dark time to others but deep down there was a sense of failure and shame that I had gotten to such a low place in life.
During the months I rode the bus I always had a book on hand. This time, I was reading a book called “Restless” by Jennie Allen. She guided the reader through an exercise where I wrote out the pivotal moments of my story. She talked about Joseph’s story in the Old Testament of the Bible. Joseph is the one who was sold into slavery by his brothers who then told their father Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Joseph is thrown into prison, betrayed and forgotten before rising to power in Egypt. The story ends with him saving the family that sold him into slavery. (His story is in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 37-50). At many points in his story Joseph could have decided he was in the wrong place at the wrong time or wondered what in the world God was doing. That day on the bus I was overwhelmed to see the way God had walked through every valley with me. He was untangling my story, giving me a purpose I could not have seen when I was in the middle of the mess.
I looked out the window at passing cars. The emotions inside were bubbling over. Frankly I needed a good cry. I prayed thanksgiving to God for what He had done and trusted whatever He was doing. I looked around the quiet people around me looking at their phones or staring out the window. I thought riding the bus was only going to be about getting to know the world around me, but God was working on me too. Any remaining shame from my story drifted away. Because of everything that had happened I was stronger not in myself but in God.
“Thank you bus driver” and other unspoken rules of the bus. I learned quickly the unspoken rules and courtesies of the bus. Everyone on the bus keeps to themselves either tuned into headphones or staring at a smartphone. Being strangers in close quarters, this is as much safe as courteous. I always had a book in hand.
The dress code on the bus was simple muted colors. I broke this rule in December when I wore my sparkly llama Christmas sweater and my Christmas sloth sweater. I like to think I received forgiving smiles because it was Christmas.
Every time the bus stops, every person leaving says “thank you” to the bus driver. At first this struck me as odd because we pay to ride the bus. I realized I had been looking at the ride as a right and not a gift. The bus was a climate-controlled box with seats or handles hanging from the ceiling. I didn’t have to think about traffic. My perspective changed. I too said, “thank you bus driver.”
In July my work and life schedule changed, so I stopped riding the bus. There are times I miss those days. I saw a lot of things and experienced moments I wouldn’t have if I’d stayed inside my normal habits. I know God is always up to something, but during those 8 months I saw the reality of it. I saw what a simple act of kindness can do for us humans who live in a world full of trouble. I was at peace watching God do His work and listening to the promptings of His spirit. I didn’t need to know what He was doing or how He was doing it. And it all happened while riding the bus.
[*Disclaimer. I’ve shared with you some hallmarkish moments from riding the bus. Riding the bus is not always easy. Most bus routes in Phoenix run every half hour. If you miss a bus it’s 30 minutes to the next bus and when it’s really hot 30 minutes might as well be hours. Many who ride the bus have no other option. I did have a choice so I’m sure that changed my perspective on riding. Part way through my experience I started to ride a scooter to the second bus stop so I could get to work quicker but still ride at least one bus to work. ]
Free stock photo from Pixaby.