Virtual Voices
Subway riders in New York City.
Associated Press/Photo by Richard Drew
Subway riders in New York City.

Showing kindness to strangers

Faith & Inspiration

I love the human race. It’s people I find trying. Like when one of them is pumping gas right beside you with the most appalling words in the English language reverberating out of his open car window, soaking your children in verbal sewage. And he looks about 40. It could be regional.

Riding the bus or subway can also be unhappy. You wouldn’t plan your vacation around it. A river cruise, sure. A subway circuit? Unlikely. And yet in these situations when we are wading deep into the flow of urban humanity while neighbor rudeness challenges our patience and prudence, the needs of our neighbor present us with the privilege of selfless service, helping a total stranger manage a burden or avoid a loss.

Someone gets up to exit at her subway stop and you see she has left her cell phone or umbrella in the seat. What do you do? Is it any of your business? Why should you care? But you do, and you see it as very much your business. You alert the woman or grab the item and chase after her. What happens then? She thanks you sincerely. If she doesn’t thank you, you see there’s something terribly wrong in her, but you know you’ve done the right thing. You feel deeply satisfied, especially when the stranger completes the moral transaction with thanks. The day has been well spent simply for that small accomplishment. You may even thank God for it.

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So perhaps it wasn’t such a small thing after all. The value of an umbrella or cell phone cannot be measured in merely economic terms. The exchange was moral and the value it added was personal and civic and profoundly human. It was larger than the moment and it enlarged everyone involved. The Bible records that Tabitha made clothes for old widows, then died. But she left behind glory to God and she deepened the enjoyment and bond of love among the people she served.

We don’t celebrate these small helps the way we do saving a child from a burning building or risking one’s life serving Ebola patients in Africa. But you are doing more than saving strangers a few dollars and inconvenience. You love as God loves, freely and largely unnoticed. You affirm not only your neighbors’ humanity but also the human bond you share with them, regardless of their race, religion, politics, ZIP code, or personal morality. Jesus commended the Good Samaritan in part because he showed no interest in any of these things.

These neighbor helps are not in the corners and margins of life; they’re the substance. Common courtesies, kindnesses, and minor heroic gestures are what adorn life with soft texture and peaceful beauty. It’s not the abundance, quality, and novelty of consumer goods that makes life good. It is these little unrequested supports—amongst family, between workmates, and from one stranger to another as paths cross.

This is true—we all know it to be true either from our experience of it or from our misery in denying it—because we are made for it, made in the image of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in whom love is always happening. Then there are those neighbors who make themselves obnoxiously unlovely. Yes. As it did for Jesus, sometimes it requires sacrifice.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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