Not long ago, we were driving down Interstate 70 in the St. Louis area, just past the I-270 interchange, and saw a car pulled over by the police. Not just one policeman, though. There were at least three police cars there with colored lights flashing,
Three cops! Wow, that has to be quite a feeling for that poor soul, I thought. Overwhelming. And with all that attention, the whole world passing by can see the consequences of that mistake. There will be no hiding for that person.
About a mile up the highway, with traffic sort of slow, I looked into the lane to my right and saw that car, the one that had been pulled over. In the driver’s seat was a young girl, couldn’t have been more than 16 or 17. And she obviously was crying. Hard. She had her long sleeves pulled over her hands and was wiping her eyes and face with one of those sleeves.
By then, the lights of the police cars were dark and the officers had moved on to the next incident. In the midst of hundreds of slow-moving vehicles, this girl was creeping along anonymously, unnoticed by all but me.
She was suffering and nearly invisible.
I don’t know why she was so emotionally distraught. Was she going really fast, dangerously fast when nabbed? Was one of the policemen sort of rude to her? Had she been speeding because she was rushing to be by someone’s side in a hospital or to talk a boyfriend out of breaking up with her? Was that just the latest in a string of too many speeding tickets, threatening her driver’s license and insurance rates? Did she fear she would be facing some severe, maybe even dangerous, wrath of her dad or mom?
I understood that I never would know the answers to any of those questions. But I prayed for her.
And later that day, reflecting on the scene, I prayed for her again and found myself grateful that I had noticed her for those split seconds. She might really have needed those prayers. She might not have had anyone else praying for her, looking out for her.
I found myself pondering in my heart: How many people do I pass every day who are suffering and invisible?
How many people do I meet or pass daily who are suffering not just in silence but in anonymity?
I have thought about that many Sundays at Mass. During the reception of the Eucharist, I watch the other people in church processing toward the priest or Eucharistic ministers, then watch them again as they walk back to their seats. I wonder what each of them might be experiencing in life, what baggage they might be carrying that is weighing down their minds and hearts. In that moment of communion with all of them, I pray for those needs. And I wonder — is anyone else praying for them?
I recently met a man who has lived alone in his apartment for 15 years. He isn’t from this state. He has no family here. There isn’t much family anyway, considering he was raised in foster homes. His serious health problems led to his dismissal from his job several years ago — he simply missed too much work. The monthly Social Security disability doesn’t go far, especially when he occasionally has to take a cab to visit the doctor or pick up medication. With no money, there is no driver’s license or car. He walks to the grocery store, good weather or bad.
His sister calls him occasionally. A married couple he met during one of his many hospital stays calls once in a while. Two friends from his apartment complex check on him every now and then. He will talk to the folks who work at the grocery store.
That’s it for interaction with people. To the rest of the world, he is invisible. He doesn’t exist.
If only the world didn’t have many men or women like him, or like the girl suffering alone in her car. But the world is filled with those people. They live in apartments and nursing homes, walk down the aisles of stores and churches. They live next door to us or work in the adjoining office or drive in the car beside us on the highway.
People who need the touch of a caring human being, a kind word. People who need just to be noticed. People who need prayers, especially because there is no one in the world who does even that for them.
Our challenge as Christians is to take our eyes off ourselves long enough to recognize them.
And … then what will we do?