Christmas carol wars on the DC Metro — not

Anyone who spends much time on subways and other forms of mass transit knows that a whole lot of religious stuff goes on while people are moving from home to work. I’m not just talking about the people with their sports pages and copies of 50 shades of hades or whatever.

Lots of people on the Washington, D.C., Metro spend their commuting time doing studying their Bibles. Years ago, one of my students did a feature about the stash of Bibles that the Metro staff maintains so that people who have accidentally left them on trains can retrieve them. Also, I am sure that some of the folks sitting in silence with their eyes closed are praying and you see the occasional sign of the cross gesture.

The key word here, however, is “silence.” Many commuters are open to talking to one another, even about religion (it happens to me all the time, depending on what book or magazine I’m reading), but other folks covet their peace and quiet, even when not in the “quiet car” on the regional train lines.

Everyone learns the rules. However, I’ve always enjoyed the mass-transit experience, all the way back to my journalism and graduate-school days in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., a twin cities area with a great bus system. I jumped on the Blue Line there during a visit 20 YEARS after my departure and the bus driver remembered me as a regular on the route. Can you imagine that?

All of this is to say that I really enjoyed The Washington Post Style feature about a local pastor who has been part of my commutes here in greater DC for more than a decade. I have always know this man as the Korean pastor who sings classic Christian songs, or plays them on his trumpet, outside Union Station. Some of his favorites are “Amazing Grace,” of course, as well as “Just As I Am” and “How Great Thou Art.” He must have worked in a Billy Graham crusade somewhere.

As it turns out, he has another branch of his public ministry this time of year. Is he part of the “Christmas wars”? I am sure that some believe that he is.

On a crowded morning train on Metro’s Orange Line, Fisher Yang, 50, of Centreville, gets his share of jeers, eye rolls and smiles.

Yang, who is the pastor of a church in Shenandoah County, sings Christmas carols two days a week during the morning rush hour on Metro’s five subway lines. Starting at Vienna, he makes his way along the Orange Line toward downtown and then switches onto Metro’s other train lines, singing all the way.

Wearing black corduroy pants, a red and blue plaid flannel shirt buttoned up to the neck and a cross with the pattern of the American flag pinned on the lapel of his sport coat, Yang stepped onto a train, his chest puffed up in anticipation, and made his announcement.

“Good morning. Excuse me. Can I have your attention, please?” he told riders on Monday morning. He cleared his throat and belted out in a bass voice all the verses of “The First Noel,” No. 123 his English-Korean hymnal.

At each station, he sprinted from one rail car to another and started his routine again. He goes so quickly between rail cars, sometimes he loses track of which direction he’s going on the system, he said.

On a crowded Orange Line train leaving Rosslyn, a few riders looked up from books or the ground, rolled their eyes and then looked away.

This is not easy work, as it turns out. The story contains the telling detail that he is currently using his fifth hymnal, because some riders have taken copies away from him and ripped out many of the pages.

The story also asked one of the first questions that jumped into my mind in this litigious age, especially since the Metro is the kind of environment in which a train driver can cause controversy merely by saying the words “Have a blessed day” over the intercom.

Metro’s chief spokesman, Dan Stessel, said Yang’s not violating any policy. In 2010 there were flash mobs singing Christmas carols on some Metro trains.

“If you’re standing on a train and you happen to be singing instead of talking, it’s not something we’re going to regulate,” Stessel said.

So what is missing from the story?

Well, for starters, I would assume that, under the Associated Press Stylebook, this man should have been called “the Rev. Fisher Yang.” Sometimes I think that folks at the copy desks of our major newspapers have decided that Protestants, especially ethnic clergy, are not really ordained.

I also wanted to know more about why Yang does this, using his time and gas money to get into DC from a church more than 60 minutes West of the Beltway. The story quotes a few people on the Metro reacting to his work. I would like to know what the head of his deacon board thinks of this work, which he has been doing since 1998.

The pastor gives a logical quote, theologically speaking — “God wants me to sing in front of him. … It doesn’t matter what other people think.” Still, I’d like to know more about his contacts with believers, as well as unbelievers.

The story ends like this:

Yang said he became a Christian when he was a young boy in South Korea after “volunteers from the Salvation Army evangelized to him.” He said he’s partial to “The First Noel” because it “spreads the Christmas message.”

Just as he finished the chorus, a woman got up from her seat, clapped, and gave him $1. He’s received money before — although he said he doesn’t solicit money.

“I love to tell the story because I know it is true,” he told her. “Thank you. And Merry Christmas.”

Reading this story also made me flash back to something I witnessed on the Orange Line back in 2000. I tried to write this for the Style section, but editors there thought it was too, well, religious. I then turned a shorter version of the piece for Scripps Howard, with the title “Just another voice on the Metro.”

The context: Minutes after rolling away from the Capitol South station, an elderly African-American woman began preaching:

“God’s grace is real, but that doesn’t mean you can just keep on sinning and sinning and sinning,” she said, gazing straight ahead. “God is watching all the time. God sees all of you. … Our God is a Holy God.”

People kept their eyes down, reading their newspapers and paperbacks. A young black woman across the aisle giggled. “Oh no, it’s church,” she whispered to a friend. New riders glanced around in surprise, as they boarded the crowded car. But no one challenged the preacher or asked her to stop.

“God doesn’t ask that much of us,” she said. “He wants us to love each other and take care of each other and follow the commandments that are in His Word. Is that too much to ask?”

A youngster listening to rap on headphones said, “Preach it, sister.” Surely the collision between the pounding music and the sermon was causing a storm in her head. At first she was amused. Then she began shooting daggers at the preacher with her eyes.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said the elderly woman. “You’re saying, ‘How are we supposed to know how we’re supposed to live?’ … You know what the Bible says: ‘For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ You all know that verse, right?”

No one answered.

“Sweet Jesus is all the guide we need. But God also gave us his Word. You open up your Bible and read it and tell me that God hasn’t made himself perfectly clear how we’re supposed to live. The Bible is God’s book. There’s no other book like it. Some of you may go to church and you may read your Bible. But have you ever let it get inside you and change you? That’s what I’m talking about. We’ve got to change on the inside. We’ve got to change how we live.”

I turned this into a commentary on mass-transit life and, in particular, this city’s vibrant African-American churches and believers. Of course, that Orange-line train was rolling out into Prince George’s County — the home of many, many black megachurches.

The last thing this preacher said, after the train reached its destination, was her thesis: “If one person hears the Word, then this is worth it. Just one person.” She was the last person to exit.

Welcome to mass transit.

Anyway, the Post piece was a good one. I would be interested in knowing the reactions of GetReligion readers to that piece. Was it funny? Inspiring? Both?

IMAGES: From the Panabasis photo blog.


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