Nathaniel, my public transit guide

Posted: 2017/07/21

A first-time delegate to the National Convention from Alberta tells the story of how a chance encounter on public transit led to a deeper understanding of guidance from the Universal House of Justice in its recent Ridván message to be “alert to the possibilities that exist in every space for acquainting others with His [Bahá’u’lláh’s] life and sublime mission.”

I had a teaching experience while travelling to the Toronto Bahá’í Centre for the last morning of National Convention. It was so powerful that I have to share it. Keep in mind that this entire series of events happened in the space of twenty-five minutes!

I had to take a streetcar to the subway, but as I waited to board, the man in front of me struggled to step up onto the vehicle and fell on the stairs. I grasped his hand and tried to pull him up, but he was too weak to move. No one came to help except for a young, black man with shiny braids, who ensured the doors of the streetcar did not close on the fallen man.

The fallen man spoke little English. He pulled up his sleeve to show the driver a hospital bracelet and started crying. The driver went to radio for an ambulance and told the rest of us that the service would be delayed. Everyone filed off the streetcar except for the man with braids and myself. Eventually, he too left the streetcar and, as I didn’t know where the nearest subway station was, I followed.

At street level no one was around but the man from the bus, so I caught up to him. I asked for directions and if I could get into the subway area with only a paper transfer. He said to follow him and that I would need to explain what had happened to the station attendant to enter. I worried that he wasn’t too happy about being seen with an old, white woman but I walked beside him anyway.

It was windy and I had my hood up when we came to the lights. I wasn’t looking and stepped off the curb. The young, black man grabbed my arm and pulled me back onto the sidewalk as a car turned right, in front of us. He said, “You have to watch out!”

I burst out, “I’m from a farm in Alberta. I’m used to looking out for my horses, not cars!” Well, he erupted into the most wonderful, rich, deep laugh with his face turned to the sky. After a few steps of thinking about it, he burst into laughter again. What a change from five minutes earlier!

I asked where he was going so early on a Sunday morning. He said he was trying to get to work. He proudly described to me how he fixes boats at the docks. In a teasing way, I said that God obviously had something else in mind for him this morning, that he had been given a mission to serve people. He helped the man at the streetcar, he was helping me to the subway, and he saved me from getting run over. This sent him into a laughing fit again. I told him I was going to a Bahá’í Convention. He said he had just met a Bahá’í. I said, “So you know a Bahá’í, already?”

He said, “No, I don’t know him. I just met him.” It was clear that the individual had made a good impression on my companion. I told him that I was meeting people there whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years and we were having fun remembering each other before the wrinkles and gray hairs. This sent him into another series of laughing fits.

At the subway station he let me in with his pass instead of having me explain my situation to the station attendant. I asked if he was coming and he said that he would get in another way. I thanked him through the glass and waved goodbye. Mistakenly, I went down the stairs and had to come back up, where I ran into him yet again! Clearly our conversation was not yet over. When I asked what had happened he said he had to go around another way because he couldn’t use his pass twice. He had explained to the guard that he had helped “that lady over there” with his pass and now needed to be let in.

The guard had said, “Well, what the heck did you do that for?”

The young man said, “Because I’m human!” We laughed about that all the way to the subway platform. And now my new friend couldn’t stop smiling.

On the platform he asked in his deep, quiet voice, “So this ‘Bahá’í’, it’s kind of like Buddhism, isn’t it?”

I said, “Yes, in that it’s one of the major world religions. Our prophet is Bahá’u’lláh.”

He said, “I always had this idea that people are on some kind of network, all through history, and every thousand years one of those five guys like Jesus hits the reset button.” Now my eyes were very big as I looked at him. Progressive revelation!

“Yes!” I said, “But there aren’t just five and they don’t just reset. They give us what we need to progress.” We were so connected now as we spoke of unity, world peace, eliminating the extremes of wealth and poverty and the need to treat everyone with respect.

In his deep, quiet voice—pausing between each idea—he said, “When I think about how people are, I think about the trees. They have their feet in the earth, they can feel each other, but they don’t mind. They all stand there: oaks, maples and elms. They don’t bother nobody. They just stand there grooving.”

“Wow!” I said, “Bahá’ís like to say we are the flowers of one garden, but I’m going to share your story of the trees too one day because it is so beautiful!”

We were still waiting on the platform when a Polish woman approached him to ask for directions. He patiently discussed the map with her, and told her to stick with him, as he’d show her where to go. I smiled and teased him again about being on a mission to help people. Laughing, he said, “I’m just trying to get to work!” After boarding the subway, yet another older woman approached him for directions. Again he helped her. By this point we were both laughing about his mission to help people. I told him I would love to know what might happen with the rest of his day. He laughed and said, “At this point, I’m just going to go with the flow!”

He asked where the meeting I was going to was being held, and I explained where the Toronto Bahá’í Centre was. After a moment, he asked for more clarification on the location. I could tell that he knew the area and was trying to place it in his mind. My station was then announced. He looked at me and gently asked, “What’s your name?”

“Marlene,” I said, “What’s yours?”

“Nathaniel”, he replied.

“That’s so elegant,” I said.

“It’s an old name,” he said. Of course, he’s one of those “old souls.”

I remembered the Counsellor saying that, to get results from our meaningful conversations, don’t just have them: act. I looked through my bag for a pamphlet, but didn’t have one. But I did have a business card I made for myself for these occasions with some facts about me, like grandmother, equestrian, Bahá’í, along with my contact information. I gave him one and he looked confused. I said, “I don’t have a business, that’s me on my horse.”

He read “equestrian” and excitedly asked, “Would you give me lessons?”

I said, “Yes, if you make it all the way out to Alberta, I will give you lessons.” We exited the subway.

On the platform he reached out his hand to say goodbye. “I’m so very happy to have met you this morning,” I said.

“Me too,” he answered, “I’m really happy I met you.” We continued to shake hands.

“I hope we meet each other again some day,” I continued.

“I think we will.”

“Maybe at a Bahá’í event,” I ventured to suggest.

“I’m sure that’s going to happen,” Nathaniel replied. Finally, we stopped shaking hands.

Before he turned to go, he checked that I knew my way one last time before getting back on the subway again. He still had to get to work. I climbed the stairs to the street, feeling astonished. I started shaking. During that short subway trip so many things had transpired. Two completely different people, who met over a man needing help, went from strangers to being truly sad to leave each other twenty-five minutes later, having established a spiritual connection.

Walking the block from the subway to the Toronto Bahá’í Centre, so many things that the Counsellors had highlighted from the Ridván message came to mind: seek people who are not like us, opportunities for spontaneous meaningful conversations will be presented that will never come again, recognize and seize them, they will come in all spaces, mention the name of Bahá’u’lláh. I truly wasn’t thinking these things at the time of my conversation with Nathaniel. He led it and everything just flowed. I only had to be open. We are promised help from the Concourse on high if we only try. People are ready to hear our message. We have to be ready for them.

– Marlene Semsch