Bus rides are typically quiet, without even a low hum of conversation. If a person does anything too loud, it’s sickeningly unsettling.
I boarded the bus with my headphones on. Comfortably, habitually, I chose a seat most of the way back, next to the window.
A minute or two went by before I realized that someone on the bus was speaking, and rather loudly. Disruptively. Even while listening to music, I could make out some familiar words and phrases. “Father, we ask that you… We praise your name and we thank you for… We hope that…”
I saw two women conversing at the front of the bus and thought it may have been one of them. More prominently, I figured the praying would end soon.
I could still hear this voice after 3 or 4 minutes, so I paused my music to better locate the source. I found that it was a young woman sitting directly in front of me. Her head barely moved.
She had dark hair. Straight, short. Tall and very thin, she had bony arms and shoulders. She sat alone.
The young woman spoke loudly, confidently, and intrusively. Desperately. Without ceasing. Like she wanted the people around her to hear.
The praying went on for another 5 minutes. Stopped.
A few minutes later, it continued.
I saw people turn to glance at her. I might have done the same, if she hadn’t been sitting in front of me.
Why can’t she just pray in her head? I wondered. The way she prayed jarred me. I felt badly about my thoughts. I call myself a Christian, too. A religious person. Why should I judge her?
Over time, I noticed the way she shook her head. Repetitively and spontaneously. A nervous habit. I saw how her shoulders tightened up when a larger, older man chose the seat next to hers, confining her to the spot between him and the window. And I realized that her cycle of praying, starting and stopping, was something she was using as a coping mechanism. Did she have anxiety? Paranoia?
But I didn’t need to diagnose her. I especially didn’t need to figure out “why” she resorted to praying so loudly and publicly. She didn’t need a medical condition to be allowed to do that.
For as long as she prayed aloud, and for as “disruptive” as it was to the bus’s archetypal ambience, no one stopped her, or tried to. No one singled her out, not even the man who sat next to her. And it was comforting to witness that. All of the other bus passengers were respectful and considerate enough to leave her be.
I couldn’t help but wonder– if she were a young woman praying in Arabic, or even Hebrew, would she have been met by the same general acceptance on the public bus? I felt like, no.
I feared that, if I found myself in the same situation but the prayers were in a foreign language, she would have been interpreted as “dangerous” rather than “harmless.” If she were a man? I didn’t want to consider the gut-wrenching, suspecting whispers. “Terrorist.”
I genuinely hope that the next time I witness public prayer– of any religion, in any language– that it’s met with the same respect and trust that I saw today. It’s most likely a long shot. A tall order. But what I experienced on the bus pleasantly surprised me. At least, this afternoon, at least, on that particular bus, people proved to be kinder, and more compassionate, than I expected.