Stopping by a Red Light on a Weekday Evening

At the corner of 14th and Euclid Streets NW in Washington, D.C., many evenings at sunset, the Domino's deliveryman kneels down to pray.

About 50 years old, he wears dark pants, white high-top sneakers, and the pizza company's bright red shirt. In the dusty space between the cracked sidewalk and the asphalt, between the traffic light pole and a chipped green fire hydrant, he lays down a faded prayer rug and faces the rose-washed bricks of the Olympia apartment building toward the east.

This street corner is what historian of religion Mircea Eliade would call "profane space." It is homogenous; no place is more significant than another. There is no center to it. The Amoco station is physically the same as every other Amoco station. Late night patrons regularly hear rounds of gunshots and hit the ground. Cars run the stoplights—our symbols of order. The occasional shooting deaths complete the chaos.

Profane space is chaotic space, without shape or order. Profane space leads to a lack of reality; a dismantling of humanness.

As the sun slants behind him in the west, the Domino's deliveryman lays out his blue and tan prayer rug and removes his shoes. Perhaps he thinks that this place is not as clean as it should be; or mourns that he is not with a community of believers. Perhaps he feels guilty that, with his work schedule, he cannot complete all the sunset prayers.

Still, he touches his forehead to the ground.

AT THAT MOMENT of prayer, he is not simply one more object in the urban landscape. Rather he has become a hierophany—a disruption of profane space by the manifestation of the divine. His act of praying transforms the cityscape into sacred space, holy ground. Moses sees a burning bush. Mary sees an angel. What does the pizza man see?

Through his prayer, this inner-city intersection gains a sacred center—an axis mundi. He becomes a meeting point between heaven and earth. Here the sacred world approaches the profane one, and our profane humanity may approach the sacred. He provides a point of orientation in space and time whereby the world beyond him may be shaped, ordered, and structured. Through his prayer practice, he transforms chaos into cosmos. He restores reality. He creates humanness. He incarnates.

For a time, strangers become neighbors, a red light becomes a Sabbath moment, and the frenetic urban energy slows perceptibly around him.

The Hebrew scriptures often refer to sacred spaces. Abram and Sarai moved from Sichem to Bethel to the sacred oaks of Mamre in Hebron. The wilderness they passed through was aimless and nameless. It was non-place. Profane.

According to Eliade, every manifestation of the holy re-founds the world by bending back time to its sacred beginning. Each hierophany infuses time with the elemental joy present at creation. In doing so, this sacred experience becomes an antidote to the "terror of history"—the existential helplessness we feel before the crushing realities of historical time. For salvific religions this in-breaking returns the world to the moment of liberation, re-founding it in freedom.

The New Testament broke down the distinctions of sacred and profane. Not by abandoning all to profanity, but by extending the reach of sacred time and space. Jesus commanded the Sabbath, not the other way around, and his followers became the "living stones" of God's sacred temple, rather than unclean worshipers. Over the centuries of belief, those who were dispossessed become God-possessed; where they walk now may become holy ground. Like living cathedrals, their interior lives are ordered with a terrible beauty.

This Domino's deliveryman probably works 30 hours per week at this job. He might make $6.15 an hour and get $35 each night in tips. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, he'd have to make $19.21 an hour working full-time just to rent a modest two-bedroom home in the District of Columbia. By all accounts, he's an ordinary man.

And yet, what happens to the world when he kneels down to pray?

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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