In 1970 I graduated from college as a newly minted English teacher. Growing up as a Midwesterner, I had never been to New England, but I thought it would be an interesting place to live, a place with lots of history and literature to discover. I didn’t know a soul out there, but I figured I’d make some friends once I got there. So, that’s where I looked for a teaching job. I found one in Plainfield, Connecticut, a small, economically depressed town – an old textile mill town – on the eastern edge of the state.
My brother, his pregnant wife, and their three-year-old daughter helped me move out there and find an apartment. But when they left, I was completely alone, knowing no one at all.
Burt and Loretta were some of the best strangers I have ever met. They had the apartment directly under mine. On day one they invited me to eat dinner with them. They oriented me to the area and asked me to join them for their frequent picnics in the state forest. They took me out on the ocean in a small fishing boat they borrowed from friends. We spent many weekend afternoons fishing. They taught me to dig for clams, and how to steam them. I learned more from them about New England ways and regional traditions than from anyone else I met in Connecticut.
Burt was an American Indian, Loretta was of Mexican descent, and they had three kids under age five. Burt worked as a part-time handyman for the apartment building in exchange for their rent, and he tried to find other odd jobs for cash wherever he could. Prior to working out this living arrangement with the apartment building owner, the five of them had lived in their car. They welcomed me, a complete stranger from a very different background, into their family.
I lived in Connecticut for two years and then decided to move back to the Midwest. I kept in touch with Burt and Loretta for a few years, but then we lost touch. I’ll never forget how these kind strangers eased my transition into living in Connecticut.
In February of 1973, I moved to Chicago. I knew a few people in the city and a few more in the suburbs, but mostly I was surrounded by literally millions of strangers. This is where I first started to think about how I should relate to strangers, to the thousands of people I would see in passing every day.
Part of my daily routine was to take the “el” to the loop for my job. There was a “bag lady” who sat on a crate outside the “el” station every morning. She reminded me a lot of my grandma. She looked like she was in her seventies. She had white hair and sparkling eyes. She wore many layers of clothing – possibly all the clothes she owned except for what was in her shopping bags. Each morning, she looked at me, gave me a big smile, and said good morning. It wasn’t just me. She greeted everyone who walked by her. I smiled back and said good morning. That was the extent of our interaction. I looked forward to seeing her every day. I liked seeing her smile at me. The daily ritual was a warm acknowledgment of our shared humanity, even if we were living very different lives.
During the years that I worked in the loop, most of my twenty years in Chicago, I tried to go for a walk during my lunch hour. Usually, I walked from my office in the Sears Tower to State Street to do some window shopping, or if it was a really nice day, I walked all the way over to Grant Park, sometimes covering up to three miles in the walk. One nice fall day, it was particularly windy. As I walked by the Plaza next to the First National Bank of Chicago, a very frail, elderly woman, slowly and cautiously came up to me and asked for help. She was afraid to walk out of the protection of the plaza to get to the bus stop, about a hundred feet away. Would I help her so that the wind wouldn’t blow her down. She needed to get to the bus to go home. I offered to get her a cab to take her home, but she insisted that she’d be okay on the bus, if I’d just help her get to it. So I helped her walk to the bus. The bus driver saw her coming, and stepped down to help her up the steps. All three of us smiled at our teamwork.
Remember when Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”? It’s recorded in Matthew 25:35. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” [NRSV] And then, in verse 40, Jesus explained, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Fortunately, a lot of people take these verses seriously. Yesterday, I decided to watch for everyday instances of people treating strangers nicely – like they would treat friends and family members. Mim and I were in Madison doing some errands. A man at the recycling center saw us dropping off some cardboard and struck up a conversation about how to get paid for recycling cardboard. A woman at the resale shop complimented us on our “clothing selection” and then asked us to let her know if we changed our mind on one sweater in particular, because she thinks her mother would like it. A woman who was giving out food samples at Costco went out of her way to help us find something that we just couldn’t find on our own. None of these acts of kindness was overwhelming, but all together, they helped make our busy day more pleasant.
That gave me an idea. I want to be more intentional about being nice to strangers. Occasionally, we hear stories about someone who pays for the person behind them in line at Starbucks. Or we see someone with a cart full of groceries who offers to let a person with just a few items go ahead of them in line. Or we see someone run ahead to open the door for a stranger carrying a big load.
It’s easy to be too busy with my own agenda to notice how I can be kind to a stranger, or to be inspired by how someone else is being kind to a stranger. Instead of being too busy, I want to take time to smile and say good morning to the bag lady again, or to whoever else God puts on my path.