UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Spirit Story

A lesson in human kindness

By Alicia von Stamwitz

One steamy summer afternoon, I sat down on a metal folding chair in the basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Saint Louis, Mo., to catch up with Miss Pearl. I’d volunteered at this inner-city shelter for over a year, and I looked forward to my conversations with Pearl, a widowed grandmother and the guardian of four children. Her life had been hard, but she was a strong Christian woman who radiated joy and calm in the oftentimes chaotic, gloomy shelter. 

When the front door buzzer sounded, the manager on duty flew out of her office. “Move these tables back and find a seat, please,” she called. “The Girl Scouts are here!” Moments later, a dozen uniformed girls filed into the room, flanked by two mothers. As the shelter manager welcomed our visitors, they stood stiffly in front of the beige cinder-block wall. One mother balanced a bulging canvas bag of donations on her hip. I tried to catch her eye, gesturing toward a table near me where she could lay down her burden. She seemed not to understand, so I slipped from my seat and crept closer, smiling and stretching out my hands to lift the heavy bag from her arms.

Sensing my approach, the mother turned abruptly to face me. Her steel-blue eyes glimmered with fear, stopping me cold. I hesitated, then instinctively backed away. What is she so terrified of? I wondered. The answer hit me like a slap: Me. She had taken me for a homeless woman, and she was afraid of homeless people like me. No one had ever looked at me with pure, raw fear. It stung.

I slunk back to my seat and watched as the visitors placed their donations on a folding table and backed away. It was understandable that they did not hand out the second-hand clothes and toys; residents were invited to approach the table and pick one item apiece. But our visitors’ discomfort was clear; neither the girls nor their mothers mingled with us. Their duty done, they departed quickly. 

After they left, Pearl said cheerfully, “That was nice.”

I was astonished. Surely Pearl had noticed how the women and children kept their distance. I thought the whole thing had been awkward, even demeaning. “Didn’t you see how that one lady looked at me?” I said crossly. “Like I was going to bite her!”

Pearl studied my face before answering. “Honey,” she said carefully, “before you get to know us, of course you be afraid. You got to concentrate on how the little girls tryin’ to do the right thing, like they your own daughters, and you got to try to be friendly.” 

She was right, of course. Not only that, Pearl was gently reminding me that I myself had been the recipient of her kindness and acceptance. How many times had I glided through the shelter doors bearing my good intentions like a badge? How many gifts of questionable value had I deposited at her feet? 

My face reddened, but Pearl just chuckled softly and reached out to pat my hand. “You are my friend,” she said simply. “You all right.”

Carl Jung got it right: “That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ — all these are undoubtedly great virtues. . . . But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars . . . the very enemy himself — that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness?”

Pearl passed away over 10 years ago, but her words have stayed with me. She helped me see that no gift is as precious as human kindness. It is a gift anyone can give and receive, in every time and season. May it begin with me.  


Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Columns

Paul Fraumeni (r) with his father, Jack, and sister, Julie, at a 2006 Tigers-Yankees playoff game at Comerica Park in Detroit. Fraumeni and his father had their differences, but baseball always brought them together.  (Photo courtesy of author)

Marie Kondo helped with the painful process of tossing my dad's books

by Paul Fraumeni

His baseball books were a reminder of the special bond we shared, and I couldn't bear to get rid of them

Promotional Image

Editorials

The United Church Observer's editor and publisher, Jocelyn Bell. (Photo: Lindsay Palmer)

The new name of 'The Observer' revealed!

by Jocelyn Bell

"United Church" will no longer be on the cover, but our commitment to sharing denominational news and perspectives remains the same

Promotional Image

Video

Meet beloved church cats Mable and Mouse

by Observer Staff

They're a fixture of Kirk United Church Centre in Edmonton.

Promotional Image

Society

February 2019

Marriage problems: Is the ancient tradition worth saving?

by Pieta Woolley

Bitterness and boredom seem to define many mid-life marriages, but we might not have to settle for apathy ever after

Ethics

February 2019

A Yukon artist and a Tlingit trapper create this stunning jewelry

by Amy van den Berg

The fur jewelry in Whitehorse boutique store V. Ægirsdóttir is creating a new possibility for future partnerships with the region's trappers

Columns

February 2019

Why white people need to stop asking, 'where are you from?'

by Mike Sholars

"...For all intents and purposes, Canada is the only home I really recognize or remember. But none of that matters if I look like I don’t belong, and that single question makes that abundantly clear every single time."

Promotional Image