It seemed I had waited my entire life to escape the too-tightness of my midwestern upbringing. Conservative, religious, simple, confining I wanted out of Ohio and into New York City! I knew it was the place I would finally fit in. I knew possibility would be beckoning on every corner. I viscerally longed to get to the place where I could finally and fully be the real me.
And so, I talked my mother into letting me go to New York on an opera tour my sophomore year of college. She rightly suspected my motives as I had no previous interest in opera whatsoever. Shortly after landing into LaGuardia a couple like-spirited friends and I headed into Times Square to sell the opera passes and acquire tickets to some much more desired Broadway productions.
The first sighting of Manhattan and Times Square is forever seared into my memory. I was mesmerized. Dazzled! I felt as if I was born to walk those streets. I chose to pound the pavement in a carefully selected ensemble that I would never have had the nerve to wear in my native Columbus Ohio. In my mind I was totally styling, and no one would ever guess I was just off the plane from what I then considered the wasteland.
And then I heard it.
“Repent, sinner! Repent!”
“You there! Repent or burn in the fires of hell!”
There was no mistake he was looking right at me and my equally styled group of newly christened cosmopolitans.
“Repent I say!”
He wasn’t just saying it. He was bellowing it. He held a well-worn Bible in one hand and a microphone hooked to a small speaker in the other. He was shouting so passionately that his face was literally beet red. He resembled someone straight out of an old-time revival meeting. In yes, you guessed it, Columbus Ohio.
I would come to know this itinerant preacher as a fixture in Times Square. Though that first day it felt as if he had singled us out specifically, we were indeed not that unique. He was in fact an equal opportunity screecher. He was also a perfect mirror for how my perceived liberated and authentic self was met by my own shadow beliefs. I came to know that I was indeed in need of repentance. Not from God or from Times Square preachers. I was in need of repentance in terms of the way I saw myself. The things that were too tight and too confining were my own perceptions. My own rejection of my upbringing, and the lack of strength to be who I am wherever I am.
While years ago the word repent carried a sting today I value it as a caring and compassionate friend. I feel repentance as an internal process that allows me to look courageously at my own sense of self. It allows me the possibility of evaluating where I may be tormenting myself with my limiting storytelling. It reveals to me where I have disowned my power and relinquished my right to choose and to respond. After practicing deep-level repentance for many years, I have found that the only fires of hell that exist are self-generated. Repentance has allowed me to lessen the self-flagellation. It has gifted me with a greater awareness of what I truly am. Repentance allows me to life from that.
And so the Times Square preacher is long ago a thing of the past. As is my own tenure of living in my beloved New York City. No one has screamed “repent” at me in decades. I grew past my assessments of my Midwest heritage, and I no longer define myself by what I wear or where I live. I even sometimes go to the opera.
Yet occasionally, while momentarily caught in an internal drama, I hear my own inner-preacher sweetly but firmly say “repent.” And I smile, and I interrupt the story that could send me into my own version of hell. And I send my red-faced friend a silent but sincere blessing. “Thank you.”
And all from the day I heard him say “repent.”