If you were to ask me about the closest I’ve come to seeing God, I would tell you about Nouwi.
I would tell you about the small, dark-skinned boy in the adaptive PE class I helped with in high school—limbs scrawny, eyes mistrusting, a mouth that, in rare moments, curled upward in a private smile. I would tell you about his strange gait, as if he was testing each step further into the world to see if it could hold the weight of his private pain, and about his voice, low and nasal and almost melodic in its slow cadence. His shyness was a fortress. It was implacable. Head always ducked, hands always finding pockets, and if he didn’t happen to be wearing any, he’d use armpits and t-shirt sleeves or fold his arms across his chest to protect himself against-—something. Everything. A frightening world. The need for eternal, wearying suspicion.
I would tell you about Nouwi’s horrendous basketball skills—the way he flinched every time someone gently tossed him a ball, how he couldn’t dribble to save his life and didn’t believe in salvation anyway. But someone signed him up for Special Olympics that winter, and so I went from seeing Nouwi three times a week to four, each time trying like water to break through his impenetrable gates, wishing he played defense half as well as he lived it.
The closest I’ve ever come to seeing God was one frigid December night in a rubbery middle school gym. Teams of specially gifted kids played basketball with each other, having so much fun that the scoreboard was simply a curious afterthought. Nouwi always came and never played, choosing instead to sit cautiously on the sideline, his dark eyes narrowed against a world hell-bent on hurting him. But one night Coach called Nouwi into the game and he reluctantly joined the bodies jogging back and forth across the court, trying his best to remain a ghost. Except somehow, unbelievably, the ball ended up in Nouwi’s hands—to no one’s greater surprise than Nouwi—and suddenly he was a ghost no longer, and in his shuffling gait he ended up in front of the basket, and he pushed with all the desperation of his thin arms and thinner childhood—and the ball swished gently through the net.
For a split second, everything stopped—time, voices, the lonely trauma of being alive and human—and then sound broke like the crest of the ocean upon our heads and we were on our feet, shouting, shouting his name, and Nouwi was sprinting back toward the other end of the court with a smile splitting his face, and it was the opening of a gate, the lowering of a drawbridge, and his hands covered his face because, like Moses, surely so much joy had to be blinding. And we were, oh we were. Blinded, blinking, for all the world unable to look at him without seeing sunspots.
If God was anywhere that freezing winter night, he was in that old gymnasium in an utterly forgettable suburb of Chicago. In the laughter; in the mothers watching every move of their children; in the fathers eagerly offering arms and legs for extra practice; and in the small, dark boy streaking across the polished court with a face too radiant, eyes too bright, and we all of us blinded by something too sacred to put into words.
That night meant something for me the moment Nouwi put the ball through the hoop, and like wine it has only ripened since. I carry that memory in my pocket and take it out every so often, on nights when I struggle to find God in the Bible or in church or in my too-dark self. I wonder about God’s relevance sometimes, when you believe and are still sick and I believe and am still lonely. I wonder if maybe the only true part of Scripture is the Preacher crying, “all is vanity.” But that night remembers me better than I remember it. That night tells me that once God was present and alive, and like the Israelites, I squint into the staggering brightness, because as much as it pierces it also promises: that God has indeed been in our midst. That his presence is light and the darkness has not overcome it. That at least one among us has met with him and lived to tell the tale, and against all odds the tale is good, so good, and so stop fearing Nouwi, let down those walls, unfold those arms… For a moment you were more real than all of us, more real than we could bear and we could not behold your face and live.