They had no faces and spoke no words. Men and women buried in scarves, stocking caps, and hoodies sat silently, mostly asleep, and waited for the day to begin. On a normal day, the train platforms overhead swarmed with thousands of commuters from upscale suburbs to the east, swapping from light rail, to train, and to subway as the great daily rush flowed to New York City. Amtrak passed here and its next stop would be the station at Madison Square Garden in the heart of Manhattan. Long subway trains shuttled in and out destined for Wall Street. But few of these commuters ever descended to the ground floor of the station, and in the waiting room fronting Raymond Street the sleepers seemed oblivious to the world that passed overhead.
Alice and I had come to the Hilton Newark Penn Station for a conference and stayed in our well-appointed seventh floor room. A glassed-in sky bridge connected the hotel directly with the classical railroad station whose eagles, pendants, and murals are described in a travelers’ guide as “a study of art deco exuberance.” But Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, is also its poorest, and we largely avoided the station.
Early on the morning of the last day of the conference, however, we crossed the bridge looking for breakfast. Entering the waiting room we found a Dunkin Donut Counter, an incongruous addition to the once elegant hall of the 1930s. Overhead, hanging from a ceiling rippled in blue and silver tracery, were huge chandeliers displaying the signs of the zodiac. On benches below placards warned that seats were reserved for ticket holders only. Of the many people sleeping on the benches, however, what passed as luggage were backpacks and duffle bags, and virtually no one had tickets.
America’s larger cities have always been filled with the poor and Newark is no exception. What began as a refuge for unemployed Irish canal builders in the 1830s, became an enclave for immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Newark was the center of distinctive neighborhoods, including a large Eastern European Jewish community. Today 50% of the population is black, 24% Central American. The white middle classes largely fled in the wake of the 1960 race riots. A history of the city written in the 1930s laments the departure of wealthy merchants and the closure of it factories, but is silent about the poor who remained.
On a Friday afternoon, several weeks earlier, unusually large mid-day crowds swelled the platforms in Newark as Catholics throughout northern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania came by the thousands on their way to the city. The Pope was to speak in Manhattan at a 6:30 Mass that evening, and attendees were instructed to be in their places three hours early.
The Mass was celebrated in a diversity of languages. Much of the liturgy was in English. The Pope proclaimed the Eucharistic prayer in Latin, the universal language of the Church. But for his homily, the Pope chose also to speak in Spanish the language of a predominant minority. More ironic was that, in this first public address to the Catholic faithful, he chose to speak of the inner city and the forgotten, the abandoned, with whom we shared our bench at the railroad station.
“The big cities,” Pope Francis declared in a firm, clear voice, “conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second- class citizens. In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape that is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.”
In moving final remarks the Pope reminded his listeners: “Jesus still walks our streets.” He noted that what was needed was not “abstract analyses, or sensational gestures,” but “involvement.” We are called to “meet others where they really are not where we think they should be.”
On that Saturday morning that we ate breakfast at Newark Penn Station, things went on as they always had. Jesus may still walk the streets, the Pope had said, but this notion seemed far removed from where we were. As we quietly sat at our little table, we observed a tall white policeman in a light blue and gray uniform working his way through the waiting room. As he came opposite us, his knuckles vigorously rapped on the wooden bench near the head of a seemingly comatose elderly man. “Are you all right?” he said. The man slowly opened his eyes nodded his head, the policeman nodded back. He then proceeded to check on to his other charges sleeping throughout the hall. We ate our bagels and looked on.