calendar January 18, 2023 in Congregations, Vitality

How to Talk to Strangers and Why It’s Good for You

By Rev. Bryan Penman
Co-Director for Evangelical Mission

Last month a few of the Synod staff were out for a visit to a potential location for Synod Assembly. As we made our way down the corridors of the hotel, I suddenly heard the voice of Bishop Davenport, “Good morning, how are you all doing?” As she greeted the housekeeping staff. As we went into the hotel room, Bishop came a bit later to say that the housekeeping staff said that they weren’t tipped very often. As we made our way back to the elevator, Bishop stopped back by the rooms to make sure that they had a tip and one of her signature two dollar bills. (She has been known to give out the rare 2 dollar bills because they remind us that we are never alone and they are rare and special, just like the beloved child of God that you are).

Why do I tell this story? Well first, it’s about building relationships with people. And building relationships with people is at the core of vitality. What the bishop did in the hallway that morning was something we could all do in our everyday lives as we interact with a host of people in our communities. All opportunities for God’s love to be reflected through us and into the world. Second, I tell this story because it’s a way that we get a glimpse of the needs in our community. In this simple interaction and act of kindness, Bishop discovered a disparity in the compensation for those who work in the hospitality services in our community. Part of becoming a vital congregation in your community is the ability to discern and discover the community needs and find ways that your particular giftedness can help meet those needs.

I know that even from a very early age we are told not to talk to strangers. But as Julie Lythcott-Haims points out in her TED article, Why talking to strangers is good for you, them and all of us, “when you give someone eye contact and a smile, it demonstrates ‘you exist, fellow human,’ and it makes them feel good.” Perhaps what our broken world needs is less looking past and more noticing. Maybe instead of avoiding strangers, we should get better at interacting with them.

Now I know there are some in the Lutheran tribe of the Jesus movement have a particular aversion to talking to people – especially strangers, but Julie makes some really practical steps in her article about how we can go about beginning the practice of noticing people. She says to start with the people you interact with at grocery store, the barista, postal carrier, person at the front desk, etc. Show them that they matter by asking, “how’s your day going?” Learn their names, and simply thank them for showing up for work today (there are lots of places with a lack of labor right now). “When you’re kind to someone, you, they and everyone who observes your interaction will get a lift from your act of kindness.” I know as we were walking back to the elevator, I felt better witnessing the interaction Bishop had with the hospitality staff and it was a gentle reminder that we should all practice tipping our housekeeping staff.

Lythcott-Haims goes on to say, that another key group to deepen relationships with is those in your neighborhood. Cultivating ways to hear and tell each other stories is key to deepening relationships with people. In her neighborhood she established a small group that deepened the sense of belonging she felt with her neighbors and they have been more easily able to be neighborly with each other. She says, “you have the power to make your community stronger through exchanges like this.” I know in my own congregation, several of our new families have been from community small groups like hers. Neighbors who get together for knitting, walking, book club, bowling, etc., are great places to share faith stories and invite people into a walk of discipleship.

This work of noticing people and practicing kindness was core to the ministry of Jesus and it should be the core of our ministries as well. Jesus was constantly noticing people and practicing kindness. When we take up this important work, we are helping God’s love break into this world. We certainly didn’t fix the fact that those who work in the hospitality industry are largely underpaid, but for those two housekeeping staff, it made all the difference that day.

Lythcott-Haims ends with, “you have the power to make your community stronger through exchanges like this. It’s good for you, it’s good for them, and it’s good for all of us.” We have the power to transform our world and it’s right in front of us each and every day. So go head and talk to some strangers, it’s good for you.