Friday, October 26, 2012

On the Importance of Welcoming The Stranger

(for Joanne)

I read these paragraphs and they made me catch my breathe in recognition. I've felt such similar feelings, only mine exclusion happened in the public school cafeteria at age 14 when I moved from the Big City to a small town in Central West Virginia. Joanne, everyone in the town he is describing is Catholic--probably most of them received the Eucharist each and every Sunday. God Bless the Stranger. I'm making my life's work to extend this corporal act of Mercy.

From Garrison Keillor, Creator of Lake Wobegon

(talking about his real life experiences moving to a small town in Central Minnesota to "live cheaply" while pursuing his writing career)

"Nobody ever welcomed us to town when we came in 1970. No minister visited to encourage us to worship on Sunday, no neighbor dropped in with a plate of brownies. Several times, I stopped at neighboring farms to say hello and announce our presence, and was met by the farmer, and we spent an uncomfortable few minutes standing beside my car, making small talk about the weather, studying the ground, me waiting to be invited into the house, him waiting for me to go away, until finally I went away. In town, the shopkeepers and the man at the garage were cordial, of course, but it I said hello to someone on the street, he looked at the sidewalk and passed in silence. I lived south of Freeport for three years and never managed to have a conversation with anyone in the town. I didn't have long hair, or a beard, didn't dress oddly or do wild things, and it troubled me. I felt like a criminal....

As I sat in the Pioneer Inn and recalled the years I spent in Stearns County, it dawned on me were Lake Wobegon had come from. All those omniscient-narrator stories about small town people came from a guy sitting alone at the end of a bar, drinking a beer, who didn't know anything about anything going on around him. Stories about prodigals welcomed home, outcasts brought into a circle, rebels forgiven: all from the guy at the end of the bar nursing a beer in silence. In three years only one man ever walked fifteen feet to find out who I was--he walked over and said "You live out there on the Hoppe place, don't you?" I said that yes, I did and he nodded satisfied that now he had me properly placed, and turned without another word and moseyed back to the herd. There was nothing more to say. He had no further curiosity about me, where I came from, or what I did out at Hoppe farm, or if he did, he felt that a conversation with me might lead to expectations on my part, might lead to my dropping in at his place for more conversation, perhaps asking to borrow his pickup or inviting him and his family to dinner, a whole unnecessary entanglement. So he walked away. It kind of broke my heart a little.

I'd been away from country people for a while and was under the illusion that they're hospitable and outgoing, and they're not. It's not that they're bad people. They are good Christian people, the soul of kindness. There is a hand-woven net of kindness in all of those little towns and people looking out for other people, visiting the sick, caring for the sick child so mom can go to work, inviting the widowed for supper, bringing food to the elderly, giving rides, driving old fold to Florida in January and flying down to drive them back home in April, coaching the teams and helping out at church and with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and 4-H, daily acts of kindness. Everyone is generous to those in need, except to those in need of conversation, especially if you're not from here.

So I invented a town with a bar in which, if a stranger enters, he always turns out to have an interesting story. The stories were my way of walking fifteen feet and joining the circle. I had to invent a town in order to be accepted, like the imaginary friend I had in second grade, David, who walked to school with me.

The longer nursing his beer at the end of the bar is starved for company. He has little to say to his wife, who is depressed and has little to say to him. In the long shadows of a cold winter night, anxious about money, in dire need of society, he drives five miles to town and sits at the bar, where his pride and social ineptitude get in the way: he has no idea how to traverse those fifteen feet without feeling like a beggar. He can overhear the talk and it's about farming, of course, and hunting and trucks, and he has nothing to offer here. He goes back home to his typewritter and invents characters who look like the guys in the bar, but how talk about all sorts of things that he knows about, and soon he has replaced the entire town of Freeport with an invented town of which he is the mayor, the fire chief, the priest, the physician, and the Creator Himself, and he gets a radio show and through perseverance and dumb luck and a certain facility, the fictional town becomes more famous than the real town, and now when he goes to Freeport, some people come up and say "You're Garrison Keillor, aren't you?" A person could write a novel about this."

(Keillor, In Search of Lake Wobegon, pg 21-22_


  1. I can identify. I've been lonely almost everywhere we lived. Much to my surprise northern WV was pretty lonely. We were moving from DC and I just expected people to be more like they were where I came from in KY. I don't know that I've ever met a more closed off society than the one I experienced in WV.

    Much to my surprise, the friendliest place we've ever lived is CO. People are so outgoing and friendly here, both natives and non natives alike. It reminds me a lot of KY.

    MY experiences with loneliness have transformed me into someone who is ever-eager to welcome the stranger.

  2. This sounds so much like my experience of moving to New England. My feeling of being the perpetual outsider at church began to melt when I started dating my husband, who seemed to know everyone in our parish. And just when we were getting settled in, had been married a couple of years and had our two kids baptized there, when the old women who went to daily Mass knew me and I felt like I was starting to be a part of the community.... then we moved to the other side of Boston and once again became strangers in our parish.

    It helped a bit that we already knew the pastor, who had formerly been assigned to my brother-in-law's parish and was thus a family friend. Had it not been for him, I'd have felt completely alienated. A few people have reached out and tried to engage us in conversations; but mostly I still feel like an outsider. It's a small town and we aren't from here. All the moms seem to know each other from their kids going to the parish school. Likely many of them know each other from having gone to school together themselves.

    Truly people around here aren't good at welcoming the stranger and honestly I'm painfully shy and suffer from social anxiety. I'd love to be hospitable, not to wait for someone else to make the first move, but I don't even know how to begin.

  3. Ugh! Don't even get me started about the coldness of New England. I remember starting college in Rural Massachusetts and thinking "people don't even wave when they see you in the street." Someone carefully explained "We're just very respectful of someone's privacy..." I thought, "No, you all are just COLD!"

    I find Northern WV pretty cold too. The area has grown so much in 10 years, no one is from here, everyone is also super busy. It feels very "Not West Virginiaish."

    I'm determined to do my part, however, one smile at a time!

  4. My husband was born and raised in Baton Rouge, LA. He has been all over, having served in the Army before we got married, and one of his biggest problems he has with MD is it's rude and private people. I went to visit him in Louisiana when we were dating, and I remember standing in the local Subway, speechless, when the woman behind the counter smiled so big, called be "sugar" and asked what I need. Then proceeded to strike up a conversation while she was making my sandwich. I had to apologize at one point, telling her I was not used to such kindness (at one point she looked at me and asked if everything was ok). "Well, darlin'...welcome to the South. We love everyone!" My husband misses and longs for the community he had growing up. Even now, having been away from that area for over 20 years, it's something he misses dearly. I live in an older community of older homes with land. Taking care of it is a lot of work, and since we have a larger than most family, it doesn't always get done. I have three people who are retired next to me. One on my left, one in front, and one to my right. They have the fancy equipment to clean their yards, and are out there all day long (like yesterday). Not once to they ask if we need help. When Sonja was born and I was finally coming home after being gone for over a month, the driveway was such that we couldn't get in the house. My husband walked over to the neighbor in front of us and practically had to beg him to snowblow the driveway. He did, but Jon said it was so uncomfortable asking him because he said the man looked annoyed. If I ever have the chance, I always offer to help or say hi. It's so sad that everyone keeps to themselves. I wonder where and why that even started.

  5. I read this and I agree with you... But I am also uncomfortably aware of how bad I am at welcoming the stranger. I feel like I was raised to think that any sort of personal question was a grave impertinence, so I find it virtually impossible to figure out what to say beyond the how are you and the weather. I am so brutally afraid of offending I end up not connecting with the person at all, especially if they aren't someone much inclined to talk. I try to look friendly, say hi, smile, and ask follow up questions , but if no information is easily offered, I am totally stymied.

  6. I'm naturally cheerful--so this is an easier corporal act of mercy for me than say --feeding the hungry (like bringing a meal to a new mother)

    But my encouragement is --you are going to fail! You are going to have weird comments, and eye brow raised and some conversations that fall flat. Who cares!

    Even if your kind smile is rebuffed 99% in church, there is going to be one lonely Mom who lights up.

    I'm also trying to get to a place of St. Francis of Assisi, make me an instrument of thy peace... "it is better to give love than to receive."

    The world is so lonely. So hungry for friendship. Work on handing out friendly greetings, rather than expecting them back. This is impossible to do on your own. I work on being Gods friend first--then I'm usually so happy after a prayerful Mass that its fair easier to smile at strangers in the parish hall afterwards. So the formula that works for me is--delight in God's friendship first and foremost, then let your overflowed cup slip out to share friendship with strangers.