When I am the stranger, by Tina Simson

I started a new job recently. I work for a rather large social service agency. I feel privileged to work at this agency with its varied and relevant programs and it’s profound regard for the consumers. It fits my values and offers me an opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of others. Our main office, in downtown Rochester, is in a rather dodgy part of the city. I confess I was a bit concerned about my car in an unattended parking lot and my walk to that car, as the early evening hours get darker. There were often people hanging around the front door waiting for the services to open in the morning, and roaming youth coming from a school program in the evening. I’m aware that I need to look at my concern with a critical eye. I walk to the door in my suit with my briefcase and frankly look out of place, like some do-gooder or some suburban white woman. I am not yet at home here.

Then I meet a gentle, disheveled, older man. He waits by the front door early in the mornings before the programs open. At first I just smile and say good morning but after a few days, he sees me coming and opens the door when my arms are full. One day he asks, “You working here now, young lady?” “Yes I am, sir.” “Welcome then”, he says with a smile. “ This is a good place.”

After a few days of pleasantries, I notice he’s not well. I can see this by the way he huddles in clothes that are not warm enough in the blustery wind of November. His hands are shaking, his eyes are sad, and he still opens the door for me. One day I miss our morning ritual and come into the office late. The next day he says, “I missed you yesterday.”

And one day as I approach, he is fumbling with a cigarette. His fingers don’t work and his hands are shaking more than before. I see his eyes and he asks, “Do you have a match by any chance?” I say no and feel as if I’ve let him down. He smiles and opens the door for me. And I realize, this is radical hospitality and I am the stranger. This gentle man has welcomed me into his world and I am no longer out of place. We know each other’s names now, we both have grandchildren, and he’s going to his granddaughter’s house for Thanksgiving. I am changed and in my bag I now carry a couple of packs of matches.

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