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when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with
replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and
On Thursday evening September 21, 1972, I left the apartment I shared with two other first-year medical students and turned onto Clinton Avenue in Newark, New Jersey. It was 5.30 in the evening and Mass started at six. It was the first day of fall, and the light and leaves had begun their subtle changes, even in the city. Thirty years earlier these streets had been an ethnic ghetto, Italian, and Jewish, Phillip Roth's neighborhood. Today, almost all the faces I passed were black.
The streets bustled. Kids played on the sidewalks. Teenage boys hung together on the corner. Middle-aged women exited the grocery store. An old man leaned against the wall and sipped something from a brown bag. "These folks will soon be my patients," I thought. "Great!"
I held my head high with the invincibility and confidence of youth and the idealism and naiveté of a fledgling medical student. I had finally made it. Three years after graduating from college with an English degree, I had finished my premed requirements, while teaching high school in Boston, and, with a little luck and some powerful prayers, had been admitted to medical school.
I was headed for Mass, but I was not Roman Catholic. On my way to church, I reflected on the twists of faith that brought me to the streets of Newark this fall evening….
As a boy, I had been confirmed in the Methodist church in nearby Roselle, New Jersey. My parents were active in church life: Sunday school superintendent, church treasurer, choir. I had been through every grade of Sunday school and flown on eagle's wings to the highest rank in Scouting from the church troop. I knew the Nicene Creed and the Boy Scout Oath by memory.
I had spent time in Newark in high school, when my parents took an unusual religious turn. My mother, a primary school teacher, met some African-American women from Newark at a teacher's conference. They invited her to their church, which was called Deliverance.
Deliverance held services in an old movie theater, 800 seats and always full. After the staid Methodist Sunday service in Roselle, we went to Deliverance in the evening. We were one of a small handful of white families. "Here comes Sister Steinhart and her family," Pastor Skinner would say. The choir rocked. Every Sunday was Pentecost. "Thank you Jesus." "You tell ‘em Pastor." Glory fits and dancing in the Spirit. I was scared but fascinated.
Before I left for college, I was "prayed up" at Deliverance, and, for the first couple of years, my faith held. By my junior year other priorities, academics or sleep, seemed more important on Sunday morning.
After college, I moved to Boston and my faith revived, as I was exposed to another expression of the Spirit: liturgy. I had an Irish-Catholic girlfriend, and we went to the Paulist Center on the Commons. In those heady ecumenical days, I would take Communion. My mother, seeing my leanings toward Roman Catholicism, gave me a copy of Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, and I devoured it like Easter candy.
My final year in Boston, my girlfriend and I broke up; my students became unruly, and getting into medical school proved harder than I thought. Good fortune did not come to me so easily anymore; I was getting my first taste of adult life, and I stopped going to church.
That summer I was accepted in medical school and moved back to New Jersey. My parents were thrilled to have me close to home again. Before school started, we made a visit to Deliverance. It had prospered and moved to a former Jewish synagogue with a golden dome, not far from my new lodgings. Pastor Skinner greeted me warmly and prayed for the challenges ahead for me.
I was very thankful to be in Newark in medical school, and, with my new life before me, I wanted to open my life to God again. In Boston, I had resonated with the symbolism of the Mass, the words of Merton, and the candlelight of liturgy. This seemed like a good place to begin, so a couple of weeks after school started, I attended Mass at a Roman Catholic Church, which turned out to be literally across the street from Deliverance. Afterwards, I chatted with the priest, and he invited me to return on Thursday evening for Mass and dinner afterwards….
I enjoyed the service and dinner, a welcome break from routine study. After dinner, I stood at door of the rectory and bade the Father good evening. It was almost dark. There was a chill in the air. No one was on the street; no cars were to be seen. The streetlights cast long shadows. Before I crossed the street, I looked up at the cross on the steeple behind me and then across the street to the golden dome of Deliverance.
Two young men appeared, out of nowhere, and approached me in the middle of the street. They had been hiding in the shadows. They were boys really, maybe 16 or 17. I could not see their faces well in the twilight. The taller one said, "You come with us." I did not see his .38 revolver. I did not know what they wanted, probably to rob me, but flight came before fight. I turned to run, and he fired, point blank.
I went down. The boys ran. I put my hand on my hip: Blood. Somehow, with the power of adrenaline, I made it back to the rectory door, banged on it and collapsed. The priest called an ambulance from Martland, the teaching hospital of the medical school. With sirens whining, off we went.
"Is this Mr. Steinhart?" "Yes." "Jonathan's father?" "Yes." "This is Father M… your son has been shot. He has been taken to Martland." What did my parents think when they received that call, that their only son was shot? They told me afterward they prayed, and then called Thelma, a middle-aged black teacher, member of Deliverance, and friend of the family. "Thelma," my father said, "Jonathan's been shot. Pray for him and meet us at Martland."
I lay on a stretcher in the ER, and IV, blood work, and X-rays were ordered. The bullet had gone through my hip into my abdomen. There was blood in my urine, and I could not move my right leg. The bullet had missed major vessels, but it could have entered the bowel, bladder, or the spine. I would need exploratory surgery. The last thing I remember before they took me into the operating room was Thelma's strong and faith-filled voice saying a prayer.
There was silence for a long time. Some time after 4 AM I awoke in the recovery room. I moved and felt a searing pain in my abdomen at the incision site, but I could move all my limbs. I was alive, and the nurse told me I would be all right.
I lay there in a sweet state, still feeling the after-effects of anesthesia. In an hour or so, I could see the first light of dawn through the window, then pink and gold, and the sun rose. For everyone else, it was just another day; but, for me, it was the rest of my life.
I had dodged the bullet of death. It had just nicked the colon, which was repaired with a few stitches. I was very lucky. I recuperated for a week at my parent's home. The first few days were golden. Every meal tasted like haute cuisine, and the sun rose every day just for me. In about week, I was back to school.
My assailants were never apprehended. It is likely, given the dismal statistics for young black men in urban ghettos, then and now, that I have long outlived them. I became street wise from my experience and never walked the city streets again without some specter of fear. Throughout medical school, I hung on to the fringes of the church. From time to time, I would sit in the back of a church for Saturday night Mass. I continued my slow dance with God, flirting on the edge of real faith.
I finished medical school and moved to Louisiana for my residency. A close friend, an Episcopal priest, visited, and we went to a service at the local Episcopal Church, St. Michael's. My faith, grounded in the Bible-based faith of my youth, nurtured through my exposure to Roman Catholicism, was open to this new expression of worship, which seemed to hold the Word and liturgy in creative tension.
I began to attend St. Michael's. At first, I was an observer, standing at the door, peering through the window at the feast within. I became more active. I sang in the choir, went to potlucks, attended two series of Inquirer's classes, but could not bring myself to join. I stumbled through the Creed. I started to take communion.
One day, the rector asked me what I believed about Jesus. "I'm not sure," I said. "If you're not sure, you shouldn't take Communion," he replied. I felt affronted. My beliefs were personal. Wasn't everyone welcome at the table? I told my parents. They agreed with the rector. I stopped taking communion, but continued to attend.
In the spring of my final year of residency, I worked in the emergency room of Charity Hospital, New Orleans. It had a very busy ER, lots of stabbings and shootings, just like Martland. I was on duty one warm Saturday night in May, when, about 10 PM a stretcher quickly rolled off the ambulance into the trauma room, where the ER team waited. I noted a few policemen standing outside the room. I later learned that the patient had pulled a gun and been shot by the police in a drug raid.
On the stretcher lay a young white man, about thirty, tall and thin. He had a disheveled look, patchy beard, a few tattoos, and the appearance of a prodigal son who was still feeding with the pigs. His pale face matched the sheet, which was stained red at the chest level, where the bullet had penetrated.
"Call the O.R. stat!" someone said.
The young man looked up anxiously at the faces of the ER team who worked on him. IV, blood work, X-Rays were ordered.
"Am I going to die?" he asked.
Silence, and then one of the nurses spoke, "You'll be fine. They're taking you to surgery."
He looked to the ceiling and said, "Jesus I never should have left you. God forgive me." This thief on the cross was whisked to the operating room: He died on the table.
Over the next few days, I was deeply shaken. I remembered my own shooting and its more fortunate outcome. The young man seemed a shadow of myself. No, I had never been a drug pusher, a thief, or a murderer. But if Sin is selfishness, I was guilty in spades: toward my parents, my close relationships, toward the world. I had been spared and still supped at life's banquet. Was I living in a way that fully honored my Redemption? No, and on my own effort, I never would.
Like Samuel, since I was a child, God had been calling me, and like Samuel, I was slow to heed the call. He would advance and I would retreat. I flirted, even danced with God, as though I were the leader and he the follower, an ungainly dance at best, two steps forward and one step backward. Now it was time to let God lead and I, the reluctant catechumen, follow. When the Bishop visited our parish a few months later, I surrendered to His call, was confirmed and joyfully communed.
what about you?' he asked. "Who do you say that I am?"
Dr Steinhart welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.