Mistaken for Strangers

By: Kate Wallin

In the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a beautiful story about this ancient garden. And while people have argued about the “literal” or “metaphorical” existence of this garden for ages, as a kid all I needed to know was one thing: it was beautiful. I imagined Eden to be a cross between Brendan Frasier’s Amazonia outback in George of the Jungle and the wet forests of the Oregon coast. We’d run the lengths and widths of our neighborhood – our own imaginary garden – claiming every inch as only kids in their summer skins can. There was a safety in the way the light filtered through the trees and a security in the warmth of its possibility.

In more recent yesteryears, as I grew, the city opened up to me with the same imagination and invitation as those first years outdoors.  A concrete jungle, messes of office branches and people with every color of summer skin. People who shared their stories and smiles with me, remembering my name and delivering it with a force that makes you feel like somebody special.

A month ago I shared a bus stop with such a somebody. Greg is a native Texan but likes the Midwest better. He turns forty next month and bounces around from couch to couch when he’s not on the streets. His breath smells faintly of French fries and strong marijuana. And he’d lost his truck. My friend Jacob spotted him a dollar for bus fare as he continued with stories of the South. The conversation eventually settled into a comfortable rhythm of questions and answers; Greg was interested in what we thought was out there. If I thought people could change. Two bus stops and a train ride later, amongst giggles, Greg shyly admitted, “I don’t really have a truck, I just wanted to hang wit’ you guys.” Surprised, I asked why. “You remembered my name.”

As I read the Scriptures, I’m intrigued by this reoccurrence of name. I heard a pastor once say the Israelites inherently connected name to identity; so in Genesis, the creation story is really this beautiful metaphor of affirmation. God grows a beautiful garden. He creates for Man an equal. And, when Man says “Woman”, he recognizes she is something lovely and different from himself. There’s power in a name.

Fast forward to today. We feel in the depths of our bones that things aren’t as they should be.  I think the author, Shane Claiborne, is on to something when he says: it’s not that we don’t love our neighbors, but that we don’t know our neighbors. If that’s true, maybe the problem isn’t homelessness but my understanding of hospitality? Maybe the problem isn’t that I don’t love my neighbor but that I don’t know the name of my neighbor. Maybe the problem – the reason our bones ache as they do – is that we have mistaken our brothers and sisters for strangers.

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