...I was a stranger and you welcomed me....Matt. 25:35
So often we pass by others without asking them questions. Who are you? What makes you laugh or smile? Our lives and our world are filled with stories, never told stories of drama, hope, and disappointments--stories hidden like “a pearl of great price,” waiting to be discovered or perhaps a book to be written, a film to be made, a song to be composed.
Recently I was shopping in our local grocery store; and I noticed a woman in a wheelchair, who was beautifully coiffed with a shock of white hair and smiling broadly. I waved at her and noticed a lovely pair of red slippers she was wearing. I told her that they reminded me of Dorothy’s magic shoes in the “Wizard of Oz.” We started to chat; her escorts turned out to be her adult children, perhaps in their late 60’s. For the next 20 minutes of conversation at the Fairway grocery store on East 30th Street, a drama unfolded.
It turned out that Irene, 95 years old and from Hungary, had been taken away from her home during WW2 in a “roundup” of Jewish people, artists, intellectuals, protesting clergy, and others deemed unworthy by the Nazis. Irene proceeded to explain to me her love of pretty shoes. She told me how she had been loaded on to a train and transported to a death camp in Poland. “They took away my shoes,” she murmured.
I felt as if I was living in a movie. In my run-of-the-mill day, I was not expecting to hear this tragic story which was so beyond my emotional comprehension. Irene shared that living through deadly cold winters, she was forced to march west as the camp was being liberated by Russians. “My feet were wrapped in rags, and all I really wanted was a pair of shoes,” she said. Standing in the store’s vegetable section, I felt strangely transported, as if time itself was standing still. Here was a total stranger pouring out her heart and sad tale of survival in perhaps the worse death camp in Poland--Auschwitz. Memories and images of Elie Wiesel’s book “Night” flooded my emotions.
Irene’s son chimed in, showing me a picture of her landing in Palestine, smiling broadly and almost poetically holding up a pair of shoes. It turns out that Irene lived in a kibbutz for a number of years, then met and married a Hungarian refugee, moved to South America, and eventually settled in the United States where the couple opened, of course, a shoe manufacturing company!
As we departed, I gently kissed her on the cheek. As I was shaking hands with her son, he whispered, “Mother has 300 pairs of shoes, the latest is all the more beautiful than the last pair she purchased.” No one would blame her for such extraordinary extravagance. I said a brief prayer. We shared a hardy laugh and a good-bye wave; and I realized I had been privileged to be let in to a very profound, personal and powerful story. In my mind, it was a book yet written or a movie yet filmed.
Jesus met strangers all the time—the woman at the well, the rich young ruler looking for truth, a woman caught in adultery, a fisherman named Peter, a tax collector named Zacchaeus, a prostitute, and a Roman centurion. They all had stories, as do those who come in contact with us each day, but perhaps we haven’t taken the time to listen. Perhaps an Irene awaits in your next encounter. Let us aim to show kindness and the love of Christ in our daily encounters. Kindness, mercy, and friendship seem in short supply today. Let us pray to listen and care and thereby be an attraction for the Gospel, which offers hope, forgiveness, restoration and truth.
Praying for such a grace for us all.