Thursday, August 07, 2008

Mission Story #3

This might be my defining moment for the trip.

Our group of seven was on a city search, a scavenger-hunt type trip throughout the Tenderloin and Market District. Since I know the city so well, I chose to stay back and let the other five negotiate their way around.

From the beginning, it was a disaster. And not particularly because of anything the group did. A bus driver sent them off in the wrong direction, and from there it became a comedy of misjudgments, bad directions, unhelpful maps and pedestrians lacking in general city knowledge.

About 90 minutes into the adventure, the team was studying a map, trying to figure out where they were. The map was attached to the side of one of those automatic, self-cleaning restrooms located around the city. We were just east of the UN Plaza; it was sunny and warm. Tourists and locals were milling around us. I stood about 15 feet away from the group, watching them trying to figure out where to go next. We were growing ever more frustrated at how the whole endeavor was playing out.

Suddenly, the door of the automatic washroom opened up, and two hispanic-looking men walked out together. Both were cinching up their pants. And for a moment, just before the door slid shut,  I caught a glimpse of a woman, slumped against the back wall inside, her pants down around her knees, her posture that of someone extremely stoned. Then the door shut.

The two men kept walking to the east, blending into the crowd. A chinese woman stood and yelled at the push-button on the side of the washroom. Our team, oblivious to all that had just happened, continued to study the map.

When the team began to move, I held back, hoping the door would open and we could make sure the woman was okay. But it didn't open, and we were soon in danger of losing the team. So someone went and talked to a security guard. Who did nothing. She then tried to flag down a passing police officer, but he ignored her. And, not wanting to be separated from the group, we were forced to walk away, leaving her as one more sad tale from a broken city.

What really jumped out at me, as I reflected on the moment, was how our group, so entranced by the map, so focused on the task, remained completely ignorant of this moment of such brokenness, such betrayal, such evil, a moment which occurred mere feet from where they stood. Only I saw what happened, and that only because I was standing back, silent, watching.

I don't know that anything seared my soul like that moment over the course of the week. Truthfully, the team did nothing wrong; they were staying on task, just like they were supposed to. But it became, for me, a metaphor of how much in life we miss by rushing through life, doing the things we're supposed to be doing, when, in reality, such brokenness and pain are all around us.

And it truly shocked me into the reality that this is no game, these are not all nice people. The level of pain and depravity go beyond even what we might imagine. There is a war here, and the stakes are high. At any moment we may run into the evil one, we might run into those destroyed by his games. And sometimes there's not much you can do, except pray.

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