Talking to Strangers

by Fr. Michael Pappas

From an early age we are conditioned not to talk to strangers. For the young, such admonitions are prudent. As adults this ingrained behavior engenders a hesitance that conveniently enables us to avoid reaching out to those in the greatest need.

Recently I was given permission to talk to strangers. As a volunteer for Project Homeless Connect, I was part of a small team assigned to the Ellis and Jones block of San Francisco's Tenderloin District, to engage the homeless. Clothed in the t-shirt uniform of the movement and armed with a handful of leaflets describing the many social services being provided at the Bill Graham Auditorium, our team hit the streets with the zeal and resolve of missionaries.

Our exuberance was sobered, however, when we reached our destination. On a single block were to be found countless forgotten souls - the mentally ill; those who felt that the only answer to despair could be found in a needle; those for whom language and education were the obstacles to finding gainful employment; those who had given up all hope. At that first encounter my thoughts were haunted by the proverb, "There but for the Grace of God go I."

We knew our mission and the benefit it could bring. Our reticence was born out of our uncertainty of how these souls would respond to the invitation. To be successful we could not be patronizing, but rather needed to be prayerfully empathetic. Body language and tone of voice would reveal the level of our sincerity and prove the measure by which they would judge our trustworthiness. In short, the possibility of helping at that critical moment would rest on our perceived respect for their human dignity and the risk they would take in responding to our unconditional desire to help.

Instead of suspicion and prideful resentment, our humble overtures were, surprisingly, met with interest and appreciation. Each subsequent encounter became easier and more natural. In no time, word on the street spread. Not only did this community of street dwellers know who we were and what we were doing, but they began to ask questions and directions to the destination for help. No longer were these souls strangers, but rather neighbors in a greater community.

Fulfillment came when an elderly, crippled and disoriented man, reeking of filth and clad only in a hospital gown, accepted a helping hand and boarded a program van for the auditorium. His trust that we would respectfully bring the shopping cart, filled with all his worldly possessions, to the site for him to reclaim later, spoke volumes as to the real "connections" being made.

After five hours of circling the same block, distributing leaflets and reaching out, it was time to journey back to the auditorium. There we saw actualized the fruits of our labors; an auditorium filled with souls who responded to the invitation - lines of our city's poorest citizens being helped by volunteers offering food, medical, dental, mental health, housing, substance-abuse recovery, and other services. "Connections" were being made, miracles were happening!

Appreciative of the magnitude of the good done that day, I realize that the greater benefit was to my own soul. By "connecting" with those in need I learned to see others not as strangers, but as friends I have yet to meet.

Fr. Michael Pappas is pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco.