Many years ago during a holiday in Switzerland I met a stranger. I sat at the Lake Geneva, looked out at the great fountain and enjoyed the sun. It wasn’t the best day. I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. Back then I was only 20 years old and all I knew was that I felt a calling but until then I had no idea what it was. Suddenly a young man sat down next to me. He looked middle eastern and English was certainly not his first language. He introduced himself as Yusuf and began to talk.
He spoke about the beauty of the lake and how it reminded him of the beauty of the people who lived around it. He spoke about the sadness in people’s hearts that can only be lifted by accepting oneself as a part of the beauty that surrounds us. He told me about God and how much God loves us because he shares such abundant beauty with us without wanting anything for it. Whenever I took a breath to say something, he stopped me and continued to talk. I thought it was rude in the beginning but after a while I found a strange calmness in listening to him. He told me how blessed we are with the world that was given to us and how each of us is called to share the beauty, share the abundance. After more than an hour he hugged me, said goodbye and left. I was incredibly touched by his words and his trust and faith in God, his gratefulness for the abundant beauty God shares with us. Ever since that day, I’ve stopped every now and then to look at my surroundings, look up at the clouds or the stars and smile. Because, Yussuf said, the beauty around us is a constant “I love you” from God. A confession of affection that we can hear and see whenever we take a moment to recognize it. It is a quiet, almost secretive love letter, always there but never intrusive. My heart smiles every time I read this particular letter.
A few years later I traveled in Germany by train. I chose a cabin that only had one other person in it, hoping that maybe I could take a nap. After just a few minutes that person, an elderly gentleman, opened his suitcase and took a violin out.
“I thought I would have the cabin for myself. Do you mind if I practice a little?,” he asked almost shyly.
“Oh, please do!,” was all I could say. The violin has always been my favorite instrument.
And he played. His hands educed sounds from the violin unlike any other I had ever heard. I closed my eyes and the music created images in my mind. Images of gardens and lakes, forests, mountains and animals. The notes took me on a journey on a little creek that swelled to a river and carried me along, helpless but not afraid. Behind my closed eyes I saw flowers like I had never seen then, colors like no other. The music carried me up to the stars, triggered scents I hadn’t smelled in years. Images in faster and faster succession, unrelated it seemed yet all of them from somewhere deep inside of me, brought out by music like I had never heard it.
And suddenly he stopped. I opened my eyes, shocked to be ripped out of my day dreaming. He handed me a tissue, I was crying. Hot tears ran down my cheeks and the old man smiled shyly.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have warned you.”
“Tell me,” I needed to know. “Tell me, who wrote this music? It’s so beautiful.”
“I did,” he smiled. “It’s my way to honor God.”
We parted ways an hour later and I never saw him, or heard his music ever again. But there it was again. The beauty. This man, so uniquely gifted used that very gift to give God something back. And not just God. He also allowed me to be a part of his prayer and that was certainly a very intimate moment. Ever since that day I listen to music differently. I always enjoyed it but now I understand that music can be a love song to God.
There are many more stories like that. One night I tried to find my way through a huge city after spending the evening with friends. It was a homeless man who realized my need for help and accompanied me home. When I tried to give him money, or at least invite him for a coffee, he shook his head and said: “I’ve already been rewarded with your company.”
Another night I was sitting in southern France on a bench looking at the stars when this man sat down next to me and talked to me. He just talked about his life and his travels. I didn’t say much at first but after a while he ask me to tell him about my own life. And so I did. It was a cold night. After hours he simply said: “Isn’t it beautiful what sharing can do to you? It feels like a warm blanket. Thank you.” Then, he got up and left.
On yet another day I stood at the central station in Munich, Germany with two teddy bears. It was the time of the great refugee influx into Europe and I knew that also today many would arrive. And they did. Train after train full of people. Men, women and children who had nothing in the world but the clothes on their bodies and maybe a little backpack. I’ve seen their faces on TV for weeks. Worn out and tired but full of hope and full of trust. The children walked on the hands of their parents, or were carried by them. A child’s face without a smile is one of the saddest things in the world. I knew of course that a teddy bear would not clothe them or feed them but maybe it would make them smile again for just a moment. So I waited until I saw a little girl on the hand of an older boy. She couldn’t have been older than five or six and he had barely reached puberty. I held that bear out to her and waved her closer. It took her a moment but then, then she let go of the hand she was holding so tightly and slowly came in my direction. She started to run, snatched that bear out of my hands and hugged it with the sweetest and biggest smile you can possibly imagine. She was so beautiful in that moment. I thought I had done what I came there to do but then I saw the boy, his eyes far too old for his age. I held the other bear out to him and smiled. The tears came faster than he could get to me and grab that bear. He grabbed it just like the girl did and held it as if it was the only comfort he had left in the world. Until now no adult had stopped to be with those kids so maybe… maybe there just was no one left. He whispered “thank you” and then… then he handed the bear to the next little boy behind him. I was moved to tears. This boy who might have been one of those unaccompanied minors who somehow managed to flee all the way to Germany on their own had enough compassion left in him for an act of kindness.
So what do Yusuf, the violin player, the homeless, the nameless and the refugee boy have in common? They were strangers to me. And they still are. I wasn’t able to stay in touch with any of them. But maybe I wasn’t supposed to. Maybe they came into my life to deliver a certain message and once that message was received they could leave again.
How many strangers do we meet daily? A lot, yes. But how often are we courageous enough to talk to them? Isn’t it that often when we start a conversation with a stranger something almost magical happens? Suddenly we realize that this other person is a human being, too, with a heart and a soul, with emotions, ideas and a story to tell. I think we need to talk to strangers more. In the bus, the train, at the grocery store, wherever we meet them. But it is not enough to listen to the strangers and share with them.
What might be even more important is to find the courage to BE the stranger for those around us. What does that mean? How often do we stare at our phones when we wait in line, hide behind a book or a newspaper? How often do we see people in need, sad people, people who could really just need a hug… and we ignore them because we fear that we might be intrusive if we start talking to them and so we decide that they are none of our business. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the same familiarity, the same humanness we see in our friends and family in every person out there? We have all been touched by strangers one way or another. So maybe we can allow ourselves to be a gift to others and just start a conversation, even if it’s just with a smile.
If we manage to lose the fear of being inappropriate and simply allow ourselves to be the stranger in someone elses’s life, how full of brotherliness this world would suddenly be.