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Finding God in the Nike Store – Heather O’Sullivan – Medium

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“Oh! And they’re Dry Fit— lucky you!” he beamed as he folded my new tracksuit bottoms and placed them in a bag. “What does that mean?” I asked, having made my purchase purely based on the lowest price point. “It means they’ll spread your sweat when you workout!” his eyes lit up, clearly anticipating some sort of gratitude on my part. “I beg your pardon?” I replied. He cleared his throat, I think dissatisfied by my bemusement, “The fabric in the tracksuit will evenly spread your sweat while you exercise, so you won’t get sweat patches. Neat right?”

“So, I’ll just be mildly damp everywhere then?” I inquired, genuinely.

He laughed awkwardly, and handed me my new sweat rags. “Your receipt is in the bag, have a nice day!”

As he turned he spotted a new unsuspecting victim, a leggy WASP looking to part with some cash. “Excuse me, Mrs! Welcome to the Nike store, how can I be of service today?”

I headed downstairs, concluding that I had finally made it in life, with my intelligent tracksuit bottoms. My moment of pride was interrupted by a double take as I glanced out the window.

A snow storm. Great.

Shoppers flocked toward the store’s floor-to-ceiling windows to gawk as layers of snow began to bury 5th Avenue.

With the 53rd street subway only a block away, I decided to venture outdoors and head home. My scarf was tightly wound halfway up my face, with a thick hat covering the remaining surface area. Even through my substantial bulk, the cold was piercing. Sharp, needle-like flakes began to jab at my skin as I shuffled through the crowds.

And there she was.

Amidst the mob of consumers, she lay quietly perched against an electrical box. No coat, or scarf, only a thin muslin blanket that was now covered in thick white snow. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head as she jolted aggressively to-and-fro in the most extreme shiver. Her body looked like it had already surrendered, but the convulsions were keeping it going. Behind her two teenage girls posed for a photo soon to be captioned, “Snow season! Bring it on! #SnowQueens”

I stood only a couple of feet away, and stared. Surely, I should do something. Maybe I could go into a shop and buy her a coat?

And then what? Drape her in it and walk off, satisfied by my good deed?

I grappled with ideas of calling on nearby shoppers to help me move her indoors, but with the snowfall intensifying, people began to shift more rapidly toward their destinations. Someone else will help her, I thought, surely.

And so, resolute, I kept walking.

I rounded the corner into the subway station and awaiting the M Train, tears began to form.

I don’t know what ignited such a visceral response to this woman’s disposition, but it was etched into my mind. She was not the first homeless woman that I had ever encountered in New York City, but there was something about her slow disappearance under the snow that was excruciating.

What if I get on this train, and she is left there buried in snow? What if the snow just builds and builds and eventually there is no sight of her? What if she freezes, and her whole body stops, and I did nothing to help her? It means I played a part. By merely seeing her and doing nothing about her perishing body desperately seeking help, I am complicit in letting the snow swallow her up and solidify her body into the streets of Manhattan.

I have to go back.

I emerged out the other side of the subway station, and was met with Saint Thomas Church.

That’s it! I will go in and ask someone in the church to help me bring her indoors.

I climbed up the steps, and squeezed through the porch door. The aisles were completely empty, and a deafening silence ran through the whole building. I walked toward the sanctuary, desperately looking for an usher, or a sacristan, not completely oblivious to the fact there wouldn’t be a priest in sight.

Failing to find any help, I slumped dejected onto a pew. I can’t go home, I kept thinking, I have to find some way to help her.

And so I made the sign of the cross. And I asked God, what should I do?

I don’t know who “God” is. And I don’t know if I believe in him, or her. I think a part of me always wished God was real, so that there was someone bigger than me. But I never treated him with the kind of reverence that institutionalised religion told me I had to in order to be allowed to ask for help.

I hadn’t prayed in a long time, probably not since I was eleven, and asked God to help my father fix the computer so that I could play Sims 2 again.

As a young Irish woman, my opinion of the Catholic Church has been put through the wringer. For so long the Church was fortified by the Irish government, and not only was it our body of faith, but it had a monopoly on our social, economic, and political landscape. Throughout my life, I have watched the slow collapse of the institution and with it went my faith in that classic, omnipotent, big-strong-jesus-man-spirit.

But I have never fully let go.

There’s got to be something else.

I always hoped there was someone sitting up there looking out for me, even if I wasn’t touching base with them. I was ghosting God, keeping my read receipts on so he’d at least know I was still alive.

Nevertheless, I sat in Saint Thomas Church, devoid of any guilt or shame for my lack of contact, and asked the weirdly empty building that felt strangely full for help.

Nothing happened. But I had stopped weeping.

I gathered my things and silently shuffled toward the door. Is that enough? To want to help?

I regret to admit that for a brief thirty seconds, I thought that it was.

But it was as if in the moment of opening those porch doors back out onto 5th Avenue, I was hit with a wave. Of course — of course, you call 911. That is what you do. How was that not the most obvious thing to do?

When the temperature sinks below 32 degrees in New York City, the City follows Code Blue procedures from 4 PM to 8 AM. During this time, outreach teams check on people who live on the streets more frequently, and you can call them to direct them exactly to someone who needs help.

I returned down the block, and perched myself by her side. Within the hour, she was picked up, and I was promised she would be taken in at a shelter.

We never spoke, mostly because she was incapable of any form of speech, I don’t think we even looked each other in the eye. We simply sat there in silence, waiting, as the snow fell around us. And then she was gone, and I turned back to find my way to the train.

I never found out if she was brought to the hospital, or to a shelter, or if she even survived at all.

I arrived back to my apartment, with a sense that it was not just me frantically running around in the snow. I had company.

I knew that there was someone who told me what to do, whether it be “God’’, or another extraterrestrial . I am certainly not about to jump into a process of discernment, and profess my faith in the nearest nunnery. But I genuinely think that what happened, was something full of awe.

In retelling the story to my friend, looking for someone to affirm my modern day revelation, he asked, “Don’t you think, when you went into the church, you began to calm down, and then you could just think clearly?’’

Sure. And usually, as a bona fide skeptic, I would be inclined to agree with him. But in the retreat of my bedroom, trying on my new sweat absorbing trousers, I felt solace in finding a companion that day.

This story is not about helping homeless people, or failing to help homeless people. I think that has to be a different story, and personally, it’s not one I can contribute to with any massive sense of altruism.

It was simply the day I learnt to be receptive. There is no other worldly source that is going to provide instant meaning in my life, or absolve any previous transgression, but if I pay attention to my immediate surroundings, I might find someone looking to get in touch.

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