The first house I remember living in as a child was next door to the church where my father was pastor. My baby sister wasn’t old enough to play yet, so I spent a lot of time outside alone. For a budding extrovert, this was torture.
That is, until I found a window.
It was a ground level peek into the church, where I discovered older women quilting during the day. Strangers to me, I could sit in the window sill and ask questions and share about the things they asked me. They laughed a lot, and I was thrilled to socialize.
Children often remind me of myself at a young age. Most notably, the two in my cart at the grocery store. They ask me to pull forward at checkout so they can “please talk to her,” referring to the cashier. They introduce themselves and each other, announce their ages, and ask questions about her job.
But for many of us, it’s not long into life before messages of “stranger danger” curb child-like friendliness in public. We internalize the message that we need to be wary, to steer clear. To initiate relationships only with people we know.
My husband Billy immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was 26. With immigrants often referred to as “strangers,” he is profoundly sensitive to the ways we engage others. When comparing the two places, he realizes encounters with new people in the U.S. have felt less inviting than in his home country. Billy constantly pushes me to draw out my friendly, window-sill-sitting side, rather than defaulting not to speaking or staring at my phone.
Because when we stop talking to strangers, it’s very hard to make new friends. This is particularly true when it comes to connecting with people different from us. While we may forge a relationship or two in environments like our neighborhood or church, these places tend to draw homogeneous groups. But when we talk to strangers, we often have the opportunity to engage new worlds with unique perspectives. And in our globalizing world, we need these diverse relationships more than ever.
I listened to his experiences of working for companies that took advantage of undocumented immigrants, and how he slept inside a warehouse closet for a year.
Because Billy is an immigrant—and was undocumented when we married—I learned firsthand about the challenges facing newcomers in our country. I listened to his experiences of working for companies that took advantage of undocumented immigrants, and how he slept inside a warehouse closet for a year. He also introduced me to other friends, who had shared harrowing stories of crossing the border.
In our globalizing world, we are bombarded with conflicting messages about strangers. We are, on the one hand, told to be afraid of people who look, speak, act, or worship differently than us. When faces on the news depict people from other places experiencing problems unfamiliar to us, the soundbites can nurse a fear of strangers that limits our perspective.
At the same time, we are increasingly informed of heartbreaks and injustices from around the globe. This awareness pushes many people to take up social justice causes. While that interest comes from a good place, it can be difficult to extend our care beyond the few days a story or hashtag trends on our newsfeeds.
It is not passion but relationships that are key for sustaining justice work long-term. Stories impacting our friends, family, and neighbors strengthen our commitment to prayer, to action, and to justice.
This is especially true when we are socially isolated from anyone affected by the news. It is not passion but relationships that are key for sustaining justice work long-term. Because when we are in relationship with those most affected by the headlines, we find our lens expands and becomes more nuanced. Stories impacting our friends, family, and neighbors strengthen our commitment to prayer, to action, and to justice.
Earlier this year, my Facebook feed began to fill with articles and announcements about immigration raids in Georgia, where we live. My heart ached. Though Billy has since become a U.S. citizen, the memories of worrying about his safety are never far away, and these headlines ignited that passion. I found myself writing and praying. Billy and I organized a group from our church to visit immigrants being held in a Georgia detention center. Our relationships with immigrants over the years have nurtured an ongoing engagement with this social issue.
The friendship challenge for us in today’s globalizing world is to build relationships across racial, ethnic, religious, gender, age, and class lines. We must stand against messages of “stranger danger” on a broader scale, but also in our daily lives. We have opportunities to meet new people, but we often bypass these chances to encounter a different perspective. If we want to make the world a better place, we need to transform more strangers into friends. How do we do that? The first step is sitting on window sills, pulling forward our carts, and talking to the people who cross our paths.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory