When I was much younger I remember being impressed mostly by intelligent and financially successful people. Now that I am somewhat older my admiration and attention is shifting more towards people who are kind and caring with others. Rabbi Abraham Heschel used to say he admired clever people when he was young and when he became old he found he admired people who were kind. Surely how we connect with others, if even for a moment, is so very important. Each person we meet was created by God and is loved by God. Could it be that the way we relate to and connect with others reveals what we really think about God?
Sometimes when I’m discouraged and in a negative mood I’ll try to remember a generous expression of kindness I have received from someone. Some caring person I’ve known always comes to mind and I can’t help but smile. I remember not so much what they might have said but rather how they made me feel. I’ve known these dear ones as friends and family members and some as acquaintances or even as strangers.
Expressions of kindness can change our attitude at least for a moment and sometimes even change our outlook with how we think about our world and the people we encounter along the way. I’d like to share one special memory of when this happened to me. Though long ago the memory of a certain stranger affects me still. It was during a university class project where the assignment was to investigate some social issue I thought was important. I decided to go undercover in an attempt to learn more about how day labor companies actually operate and whether such businesses served some public good or were simply economically exploitive of day laborers.
I was nervous when I opened the front door of an unassuming building in a seedy west side of Chicago neighborhood. The day labor business appeared to be in the economic shadows. I had not shaved for a few days and wore old clothes in an attempt to blend in. I just took a seat on a row of bolted down plastic chairs alongside several other men who were already sitting. I wondered about these workers and what life circumstances brought them to this place.
It was going to be another hot summer day. I looked at the wall clock. It was only 5:30 a.m. but already warm and humid. The men in the chairs were hoping to find work for just this day in return for a minimum hourly wage. The day labor firm contracted with several area businesses to provide a steady stream of workers needed usually for unskilled work in nearby factories on a day to day basis.
Some days workers might be told that there is no work that day. But this day was different. A loud speaker was used to call out names of mostly men and a few women who received an assignment for the day. After about 20 minutes of waiting I heard my name on the loud speaker. I was called up to a window where I was told by a clerk behind a glass partition to fill out papers. Soon I along with nine or 10 other men were in a 15 passenger van being driven to one of three nearby factories where we were assigned to work on an assembly line. Two men and I were dropped off at one of these plants. I did not see either man again until the end of the day.
It was an eventful day. My assembly line work of packaging rat poison in a poorly air-conditioned warehouse was not easy. I had to stay focused and keep up with the not so modern assembly line machinery as I place packets into designated boxes and made sure the line continued to move properly.
There were few smiles or greetings. I don’t remember anyone saying hello and there were no offers to shake hands when I met someone. There was hardly any eye contact or words spoken by any one that I came physically close to throughout the day including the day labor office lady behind the glass window, the van driver, and the assembly plant regular employees. My only real contact occurred when I was told what was expected of me when I worked the line. I listened to the instructions and did my assigned job as best I could but I felt oddly like I didn’t matter and was of little if any value as a human being. At noon I was given a box lunch and told by a company employee that I’d have 30 minutes and that I could eat at a nearby table. I soon returned to the assembly line. The afternoon was much like the morning.
After working nine hours, I along with the two other day laborers were directed to an exit door where we loaded into the same van with the same driver we had in the morning. There were two or three men already in the van when we got in. We stopped at another factory to pick up other workers who like us had been dropped off in the morning. It took about 30 minute for the return drive to the day labor office where we signed a prepared check and received in cash our modest earnings.
On the return shuttle van ride from the factory back to the day labor office I sat next to a somewhat frail and disheveled man who appeared to be in his mid fifties. He was unshaven and wore well worn clothes. Because we were day laborers together I was sure he lacked a regular job and dependable income. And he likely had little expectation for predictable food and shelter for this day or the next or for the one after that.
He smiled and said hello and told me his name was Robert. And he asked me what my name was. I was only thinking about my class assignment and had not expected this friendly greeting. I told him my name was David. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a wriggled paper bag which contained in waxed paper a sandwich of slightly stale white bread with peanut butter and grape jelly. Without hesitation he looked at me, smiled again and handed to me half of his sandwich. I was surprised by his generosity but quickly accepted.
We then shared this modest early evening meal together and talked at first about not much of anything special. Robert smiled again and said “I think you’re new. How did it go today?” What followed was a real conversation where we shared and talked mainly about our work day. At the end of the ride he looked into my eyes and smiled and shook my hand firmly and wished me well. I thanked him again. Then he was gone. Robert reminded me of the angel “Clarence” from the 1946 classic Christmas film “It’s A Wonderful Life”. I wondered, had I just met an angel? I don’t know if I met an angel, but I do know I will always remember Robert and I’ll try to be more like him.
Robert gave to me a sandwich, a smile and friendly conversation all during a van ride together. And he gave me much more. I learned anew that connecting with and concern for others, including strangers, can be normal and spontaneous. Generosity and kindness may come more easily from one who experiences poverty first hand and feels personally the struggle. It is often those with the least who give the most.
Special people like Robert somehow let you know that their moment with you matters and is not just something on the way to something or someone else. I was reminded by Robert that good people can be found anywhere at any time and I need to be quick to receive kindness from others and to be ready to be kind to others. Kindness is the bridge between people. In a way we are all just strangers on the bus (or van) in this life journey trying to make our way home. I want others to be a little bit better off because of their time with me. It’s really that simple. Robert reminded me how really important is the Golden Rule and the need to treat others the way we want to be treated.
The power we have is not in our titles, our degrees or our job description. Our strength comes from God and from our relationships with other people. Success is not worth a dime if it crowds out fellowship with and consideration for other people. If we crowd God and other people out we are left largely only with regrets.
I’m not sure how much I learned during my university class assignment about the day labor industry but I do know I’ll remember from Robert that I should connect well each day with everyone I meet during life’s journey. We all can make it our goal each day that the people we meet will be better off as a result of the time they spend with us. They will remember not so much what we might have said but rather how we made them feel.