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God Underground

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"You know, I should really put up a sign here: Information and Salvation," Brother Sam says with a chuckle after a short Indian man stops to ask him where he can catch the E train. Without skipping a beat or looking at a map, Sam tells him to keep walking straight and then take a right at the end of the walkway -- which just so happens to be where Scientologists have their own table set up. "When you see the table just keep walkin' right along," Sam says as he hands the Indian man a small green pamphlet titled "No Vacancy in the House of the Lord." The man perfunctorily plucks the packet from Brother Sam's hand and heads on his way. "Another satisfied soul," Sam says as he flashes a toothy smile.

During what at this point has become an almost three-hour long Bible study between Brother Sam and me in the bowels of the New York City subway, no fewer than a dozen people have asked him for directions. Every time he comes through, always remembering to hand one of his packets to those literally lost souls. "You know, the MTA should really be paying you for this," I tell him in jest. "I don't need anything from them," he responds. "I've got everything I'll ever need right here," he says, gently tapping his King James Bible.

Brother Sam seems like a nice enough guy, which makes me almost feel bad that I'm meeting with him under false pretenses. No, I am not a young man eager to learn about the stories of Adam and Eve or Paul on the Road to Damascus. I'm here to learn about Sam and his fellow preachers underground. I'm here to learn their stories.

***

The last thing most underground preachers want to talk about is themselves. As a matter of fact, anything not printed in the pages of the Bible is of very little interest to them. However, after talking about Jesus nonstop for two hours, Brother Sam starts to open up.

"I've been preaching underground for the last four years," Brother Sam tells me, "but in a way I've been down here my entire life. As a kid I ran away on these subways at six or seven years old. Then they took me away to a Catholic home and I learned about what we're here for," he says.

As Sam, 44, gestures towards me I notice four distinct lumps on his forearm. "You okay there?" I ask him awkwardly, trying to hide my suspicions about the origin of these marks. Sam tells me about the kidney dialysis he had in 2006, leaving him with the marks he'll have on his forearm for the rest of his life.

"I wasn't living a moral life," he tells me. "At 19 I was being locked up left and right. They'd ship me up to those state prisons 'cause I'd get six arrests in thirty days, ninety days and it built up. I went to public school but never went to high school. I'd live my life on the streets and make money by breaking into phone booths."

"You can rob phone booths?" I ask. I'm from a different generation, I guess. I'm pretty sure I've never used a pay phone.

"Yeah. In all I made a couple hundred dollars," Brother Sam confesses. "It got to the point where I had 45 arrests and 35 convictions. You see, I was a teenager back then and I was running around, I was getting good at it too. So I'd manage to take all the girls to the movies, pull out hundreds of dollars and they'd love me," he says.

"I wanted women and I wanted marriage but God knew better," Sam continues. "I just knew I couldn't keep living my life like this."

Then, in 2006, shortly after his kidney dialysis, Sam's life changed. "I got saved," he says, beaming. "And ever since I've been coming down here to spread the word and the gospel of Jesus Christ."

As Brother Sam concludes his story he notices a dark Middle-Eastern looking man eyeing his table. The man is quiet and looks at Sam's pamphlets for only a few seconds before walking away.

"You see that man there?" Brother Sam asks me. "I think that might be a Muslim," he says, elaborating on how the Devil used his powers to manipulate the man and keep him away from the table. "When people walk away or they ask how much the pamphlets cost, that's the Devil doing everything he can to keep them away."

I nod politely.

***

Brother Sam sets up camp underneath the heart of the city at the Times Square 42nd street subway station. His workstation consists of two long plastic tables with over a hundred Bible pamphlets spread out across them. Two chairs are folded underneath the tables, locked to a leg just in case a passerby thinks of snagging a free seat for a crowded 7 train. Five white cardboard signs stand behind the pamphlets on the tables, each with their own Bible verse printed on them.

Obtain The Salvation Which Is In Christ Jesus -Timothy 2:10

It Is A Fearful Thing To Fall Into The Hands Of The Living God -Hebrews 10:31

He That Believeth On Him Is Not Condemned -John 3:18

On Saturdays, his table is joined by a group of others from different churches. All of them hold pamphlets with similar messages about the end times, false prophets and the perils of gay marriage.

One Saturday, a new man ventures underground to join the gang. He carries his Bible like all the others and wears a navy blue hat that reads "Jesus Is Lord." He is dressed neatly in a white button-up shirt tucked into khaki dress pants with matching beige worker's boots. However, unlike the others, he carries no pamphlets. He is here to preach.

"Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve," the preacher reads from the Book of Matthew. His voice echoes with passion as he preaches from his underground pulpit.

"I've seen the other side, I know what it's like," the preacher says, now opening up to New York's commuters about his personal life. "They took me to Rikers Island, I've tried the twelve steps, and let me tell you they do not work!" he continues, his voice reaching a crescendo. "There is only one way to achieve salvation and no 12-step program can do that for you!"

As I watch him, a middle-aged woman wearing a tattered baseball cap approaches the preacher. She gestures towards his Bible and calmly quibbles with him over a particular verse. The preacher is surprisingly patient, engaging the woman rather than ignoring her. After less than five minutes, the woman walks away, frustrated.

Unfazed, the preacher keeps on preaching.

***

The next time I see Brother Sam, there is already company at his table. Sam, glad to see me, introduces me to Brother Tom, a larger-than-life figure with a smooth, bald head and a black tattoo running down his forearm. Despite his menacing appearance, he has a kind smile and greets me with a warm hello.

"How old are you?" he asks, his eyes shaded by thick sunglasses. "Only 18, sir," I reply. Brother Tom is beaming. "We had a kid about your age come down here a few days ago," Brother Sam tells me, to my surprise. Brother Tom proudly relates the story of Rob, a 19 year old who found him through the church and clung to him as a spiritual mentor.

"The kid didn't have a chance," Tom tells me. "His mother was a crack addict and his father was just released from jail. He just needed someone and I've been guiding him ever since."

"When I first met him I offered to buy him a meal from anywhere in the city," Tom continues. "You know where he asked me to take him?"

"Where?" I ask.

"McDonald's," he responds with a laugh. "I told him he could go anywhere and he wanted to go to McDonald's." Now Brother Sam is chuckling too and even I crack a smile.

Our laughs are interrupted by a man wearing what I could swear is a hospital gown (backside closed, thankfully) as he embraces Brother Sam and jumps into our conversation. Sam introduces his friend, Marshall, to the rest of the gang and the two go back and forth about last weekend's church service before his friend pops an unexpected question.

"So you hear that Yankees might get Oswalt?" Marshall says, referring to the Houston Astros ace.

"I've heard, and Pettitte is Oswalt's friend from Houston so we might have the upper hand," Brother Sam responds. "We can use him as leverage."

I'm shocked.

"You gotta be careful though cause you get pitchers like that from the NL and their ERAs always skyrocket when they go to the America League. Look what's happened to Vazquez this year," Marshall says about Yankees pitcher Javier Vazquez, whose ERA is hovering close to 7.00 at the time of our meeting.

"Yeah, but its still pretty early," I say, stupidly. "He's got a great track record and his peripherals are completely out of whack. He's definitely not this bad."

Three blank stares shoot my way as though I just tried to explain to them the logical fallacies of Pascal's Wager.

"Huh?"

"Oh, uh, never mind," I stammer. Ironically, it was one of the only times they looked at me like an outsider.

After Marshall says his goodbyes, I turn to Brother Sam. "I had no idea you were a baseball fan," I tell him.

"I'm a Yankees fan. My father was a Yankees fan," Sam says. "I don't follow them like I used to and I don't go to games anymore. There are more important things I need to worry about in life," he says.

"So you don't follow them at all?"

"Well, sometimes I try to catch them on the radio, but only after the fifth or sixth inning."

***

I visit Brother Sam's table several times after that last visit, but I'm never able to find him again.

Heading back home after my one of my final visits, I realize that the Bible-study sessions between Brother Sam and this make-believe Bible-thumping persona of mine are over, and that I'll probably want to avoid that part of the Times Square subway station from now on without a baseball cap drawn low over my eyes. But while I'm partially relieved that the charade is over, there's a piece of me that feels like I'm going to miss these people.

While I don't share any of their beliefs, and their attitudes towards gays and Muslims are repugnant to me, they did genuinely think they were helping. That has to count for something, doesn't it? Then again, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

***

I head back to look for Brother Sam one last time but when I arrive, his table is empty, his pamphlets are gone. The chairs and signs have been removed from and Sam is nowhere to be found.

An elderly, balding man named Vincent sits in a dolly cart near the table, which for all I know may be his home for the night. I see a Bible in his hands so I ask him if he knows Brother Sam. He doesn't. I try to engage him in a conversation but he couldn't be less interested.

"I don't talk to nobody. I only talk through this book," he tells me.

"Ok," I tell him, to his surprise. "Go for it."

He reads to me from Romans 1, Hebrews 11 and Corinthians 4. Far from the mild-mannered, shy man I knew just minutes ago, Vincent's eyes become wild with passion and his voice booms throughout the tunnel as he reads from the Bible. As though nothing out of the ordinary were happening, most commuters simply walk by, just like they did with the last boisterous preacher I saw.

Losing my patience and seeing this is going nowhere, I tell Vincent that I have to be home for supper and I thank him for his tutelage. "Come here, boy," he says. Vincent sticks out his hand. "Pray with me." I cringe, double check to see if any Purell magically appeared in my pocket and then, dejected, give in and grasp his hand as a 7 train rolls into the station below us.

Vincent closes his eyes and I close mine as he implores God to lead me down the right path and warns me to avoid coveting the fruit of the Devil's tree.

After almost a minute, I can't help but peek at the passengers emptying out of the train. What I see startles me. Nobody is staring. In the middle of one of the busiest subway stations in New York, a young man standing at well over six-feet tall is grasping hands with an old homeless man sitting in a dolly cart and screaming about Jesus. And nobody even turns their head. No one makes any attempt to save me.