It is 6 o’clock in the afternoon, and the lounge at the airport is overcrowded. People are running for sodas, children for pretzels and M&Ms. The floor is littered with wrappers, plastic cups, and junk. A large black man with a dustpan and a long-handled broom quietly scoops up the trash. A phalanx of men hurries past him and brusquely pushes him over. He stumbles helplessly into me.

“I’m so sorry,” says James — I read his name on the nameplate on his apron. I pick up his dustpan from the floor as he scrambles to his feet.

Illustration by Eliane Gerrits.

“Where are you from, James?” I ask. He looks up in surprise. No one here ever asks him that as a cleaner, he says. He tells me he’s from Cameroon. He was a journalist there. But he was in danger because of a critical piece he wrote about the government. He found asylum in the United States but had to leave his family behind. He tries to write, but his English is not nearly as good as his French. He is working on it, he says, in between cleaning the floor.

I ask him how long he will last. He must get tired of this constant chaos around him. And frustrated that he cannot practice his profession. It’s tough, he says, and people literally walk over him, but every morning he gets up realizing that at least God loves him. That gives courage.

In Cameroon he literally lived next to the church. He demonstrates the distance by taking 10 large steps down the hallway. At home, he literally stumbled into the service from his bed. Here he found a Presbyterian congregation in New Jersey where he felt at home. But it has now been taken over by Koreans, and he no longer understands it. That is why he has ended up with the Baptists.

I tell him about the time I was in such a service. How strange I felt in a sweater and jeans, the only white among all black people who looked like they were going to a gala. Men in chic suits, women in beautiful dresses in bright colors, high heels, hair put up under hats. And how nice everyone was. They welcomed me, asked my name, shook my hand exuberantly. And then that choir. I started singing along.

When I start to sing for him, he glows with happiness. “I feel so happy when I sing,” he says. “Do you want to hear my music?”

He opens an app on his phone and puts it on the table between the discarded cups and glasses. While people around us unfold wheelchairs, push prams, and push each other over with their elbows, James, firmly holds his dustpan in one hand and the wastebasket in the other, starts singing along with the psalm on his phone. He softly rocks back and forth. His voice sounds louder and stronger. I hum along. Halfway through the hymn, two large tears drip from his eyes, slowly wetting his cheeks.

I don’t keep mine dry anymore either.

Then someone gives him an order. It’s time to clean up. He sings the last stanza and puts away his phone. “God bless,” he says. And it just doesn’t feel like a hollow phrase.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, Saving Charlotte, was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.