And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly…? Micah 6:8
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers… Hebrews 13:2
As a young girl, I was enchanted with religious fables, whether from the Bible, Qu’ran, or Buddhist texts. The stories I favored always featured an encounter with a stranger who transformed the main character’s life. I loved the idea that an unknown person from far away lands could be the catalyst of my destiny.
In their pure form, spiritual practices teach us to open our hearts to those unlike us. They encourage us to reach out to strangers along the roads we travel, sharing food, shelter, and other basic assistance. Before age ten, I must have read a thousand tales of youths offering the last of their lunch to an elderly man, or maidens doing chores for lonely widows. I believed in these principles of giving, and in my early twenties I traveled to Mother Theresa’s homes in Calcutta hoping to live generosity rather than just read about it.
Mother Theresa claimed that she could not rest or feel joy until all beings on earth could also rest and feel joy. Most of us share her compassion, even if we do not fully abide by it. Passing by a homeless man with bleeding sores on his feet, for example, can make our own body feel queasy and achy, whereas greeting that man politely, bathing his feet and wrapping them in bandages can fill us with a sense of wellness. We are hardwired to care for each other – even when we do not know each other.
Decades have passed since I spent my days caring for homeless women and leprosy patients. Yet motherhood has reinvigorated my sensitivity towards this subject of giving to others – even strangers – all over again. Trying to steward three children in our chaotic, dangerous society, I feel in need of assistance all the time, and I see more and more parents around me feeling the same way. Lending help to each other is fundamental to our survival and growth – yet we live in an era that cautions against open heartedness. We learn early that strangers can steal from us, molest us, and throw us in a van and kill us. We also learn that some strangers will be offended if we try to help them. We are more scared of offering help to people than abandoning them.
I’ll never forget one bitter snowy day last November when my three-month old son blasted a supersonic poop right through his diaper down both his legs just as I was fitting him into his car seat. He was already screaming, and once the poop hit, his outraged cries grew even louder. I considered leaving him in the car seat and dealing with the whole mess at home, but my conscience insisted otherwise. So I lay Mikah down amid a bunch of grocery bags in the back of the car and started to strip him down. By this time, he was flailing arms and legs as well as screaming.
“Looks like you could use a little help.”
A woman leaned in, close enough that I could hear her over Mikah. Beside her, hip-high, was her daughter standing on tip toes.
“What’s the matter, baby? You’re okay, right? Do you like tigers?” The woman held her daughter’s stuffy out to Mikah, who noticed the purple tiger despite his fit. As I mopped at the poop on his goose-pimpled legs, I started to gush about how maybe I shouldn’t have tried to change him, but I didn’t want him sitting in all this poop, but I knew it was cold, on and on. All while I talked, the woman made soft sounds of commiseration. Her daughter started to make clucking sounds at Mikah, who calmed enough for me to finish up.
“Thank you,” I sighed at last, lifting Mikah from the car and holding him against my chest. I was sweating and felt teary. We talked a few moments more, despite the sleet and wind. The woman told me she was hoping for another baby soon, and I promised that if I saw her in the parking lot wiping up poop, I would definitely come over with a stuffy and whatever else I could find.
How many of us walk by parents dealing with kids’ poop or temper tantrums? How many of us look away when we see a kid in the playground with pee-wet pants or with snot dripping over half his face? When was the last time any of us took a meal to a family dealing with illness or some other hardship?
Mother Theresa wrote and spoke a lot about the human need to stop to help when confronted with another’s suffering. She counseled humans against succumbing to the illusion of busy-ness and promised there is always time for love and compassion and generosity and godliness. I give myself a D- for following her advice, but I feel surrounded by people who deserve A’s. The lady in the parking lot was one. I could go on for another thousand examples at least.
For the week of my birthday, I served up a giving challenge for my family – myself included. We joined Cammi Walker’s 29 Days of Giving Program. Web-based, this program encourages people to give a gift a day for twenty-nine days. The gift needs to be meaningful but can be as small as a tissue for someone who sneezed or a hug for someone who seems lonely. We invited several friends to join us and recorded our giving through group texts at the end of each day. What surprised me the most was how much we each gave regularly throughout the day; everyone had half a dozen daily gifts to report at least. We seemed not to need an official challenge to do so. What I also noticed, though, was that most of our giving fell within the circles of friends and family. I’m chewing on ways I might lead my family over borders of the familiar.
Two months ago, my family saw a documentary, “On the Way to School,” which followed four sets of kids in four different countries getting to school. Two kids in Africa, for example, who looked about six and eight, walked 26 kilometers through a desert one way every single day. Before they left, the grandfather blessed them and prayed that they would not be attacked by elephants. Once they arrived at the school, the teacher blessed them and had the whole school congratulate them on their safe arrival. In India, two brothers of similar ages pushed their older sibling in a wheelchair more than eight kilometers to school, through rivers, sand, and muddy bogs. They did this trek every day.
What all of us at the table talked about after the movie was not so much the obvious – Look how hard some kids work to get to school! – but the helpfulness of strangers. For example, the wheelchair the kids in India used was actually a regular chair cobbled to old bicycle wheels. These wheels were so rusted that one bent out of shape and the tread fell off. The kids had to stop in a town to beg for mechanical help. I can still see the old man they asked. He was squatting in the dirt in front of his “shop,” which was a six-by-six foot area in an overcrowded bazar. Not only did he take time to fix this chair that no one in our country would consider using for anything other than scrap; he asked others in the marketplace for tools and materials. The elder sibling, who was crippled from cerebral palsy, would never have gotten to school if his siblings weren’t willing to push him there and if a set of villagers weren’t willing to work on a rusted out wheelchair that was probably going to break down again in a day or two. It took family and strangers to get those kids through their journey safely.
During our country’s political debates, I hear so many words championing self-reliance and bad-mouthing handouts. “Don’t give to anyone, especially strangers!” seems to be the current advice. Everyone likes to quote the line about not giving a fish and teaching the skills of fishing instead. Yet a fundamental truth of our humanity is that sometimes we all need a fish–and it would be best grilled, and served on a plate. Ideally, the giver of the fish would have time to sit down, share the meal, and enjoy some human connection.
I left Calcutta at age twenty-one. I felt I could help others more effectively if I lived where I could speak the native language and where I had family and friends. I also missed a sense of home. Now, a quarter of a century later, on land I own with family I adore, I am trying to live beyond the warnings of stranger danger and the noises of I-have-so-much-to-do inside my head. I am trying to remember Mother Teresa and the stories I grew up reading: it is okay, it is even good, to give, to help, and to reach into the unknown.