The Kindness of Strangers, Revisited.




On a fall morning in 2006, my brother Paul went out for a walk while visiting his in-laws in the Philippines.  He never came back.

They found his body by the side of the road. He was just shy of his 40th birthday.

Wrote this a few months later — and it originally appeared in The Covenant Companion magazine.

The Kindness of Strangers

In the year that King Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, sitting on a throne, surrounded by angels calling out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

In the year that my brother died, I also saw the Lord.

Not high and lifted up, but in dozens of small and ordinary ways, like the platters of chicken salad sandwiches, made by the women of our home church and served after my brother’s funeral in early November.

The angels from Isaiah tells us that the whole world is filled with God’s glory. The writer of “Joy to the World” tells us that Jesus came to make his blessing flow “far as the curse is found.”

This past fall the curse of sorrow struck my family down at what should have been one of the happiest moments of our lives.

My younger brother, Paul, and his wife, Chit (short for Chitadelia), were in the Philippines, finalizing the adoption of their twenty-month-old daughter Connie Marie. The Philippine government had approved the adoption months earlier, and finally, Paul and Chit had received approval from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to bring Connie Marie home.

All they needed was a visa, which should have been routine with INS approval in hand. But red tape abounds when dealing with adoption, and there were more delays.

Early on the morning of October 22, Chit went to the market,  while Paul went for a run. When he didn’t return, Chit and her family went looking for him, and found his body by the side of the road.

In the flash of a moment my brother was gone, a couple months shy of his fortieth birthday.

In the days and weeks following my brother’s death, my family has seen the Lord’s glory and blessing time and again.

We often talk about the body of Christ as if it were a quaint expression, a bit of religious jargon for the church.

But we saw the Lord and felt God’s care through the hands and voices of other Christians. They became the body of Christ and surrounded us with God’s love.

Many people have made our grief their business. Less than an hour after my parents received the haunting call from Chit, and had finally sifted through the tears and pain in her voice and realized the awful truth, their church sprang into action.

That call had come at about four in the morning. By six their pastor, Kent Palmquist, came to the house and prayed with them. Dozens of people brought food or came to the house just to sit with my parents and talk with them.

They demonstrated the reality of Christ’s love through concrete means—hugs and prayers; platters of chicken salad sandwiches, calzones, and cranberry squares; cards and phone calls and flowers.

At my workplace colleagues prayed for us and picked up the pieces left behind when I took off for theEast Coast to be with my parents. The pastors of Libertyville Covenant Church, Dwight Nelson and Brian Zahasky, prayed with us and shared our tears,

Friends brought meals.

My friend Chris Becker walked in and gave me a hug on the morning we found out Paul had died. No words were necessary to communicate how he felt.

Other friends cashed in their frequent flier miles and sent my our family to the East Coast for the funeral.

If the angels are right, and the whole world is filled with God’s glory, then all these acts of kindness are holy. They are sanctified with God’s presence—transformed from the ordinary and commonplace into expressions of grace.

And God’s blessings are known far as the curse is found. Grace fills every moment.

My brother understood, in the way he lived from day to day, how God cared about the small things.

Paul had not been one to talk about himself much and we lived a thousand miles apart, so there was much about each other’s daily lives that we never shared. But here’s something I learned after Paul was gone.

When they left for the Philippines in mid-October, Paul and Chit shared one small suitcase.. The rest of their luggage allowance was taken up with three large boxes of clothing and shoes for the children of Quinaoayanan, the small village in the province of Pangasinan where Chit grew up.

Paul told my dad that when he arrived in the Philippines for the first time, a decade ago, he noticed how poor the children were. Many of the children in Quinaoayanan had worn or tattered clothing and few had shoes. For entertainment, they rolled a  can filled with stones down a dirt road.

So Paul, who never had to be asked to lend a hand, began doing what he could to make life a little bit better for the children in Quinaoayanan. He rented a truck and took many of the village’s children to the beach. He organized a pig roast and an impromptu picnic for the whole village, complete with three-legged races and prizes for the kids.

A big kid himself, Paul was in the middle of the races, like the ringmaster of a circus. Upon his return home, he and Chitadelia sent care packages filled with clothes and shoes.

When he learned that Chit’s parents’ house didn’t have running water, he paid to have it installed. When he passed away, an elderly woman in the street selling fruit to make a little bit of money, he bought everything she had so she could go home and get out of the 100-degree heat. During many of his visits, parents

in the village would ask him to be a godparent to their child,  and he never said no.

If Paul saw that something needed to be done, he did it. He didn’t have to be asked. One of Paul’s friends said that if you met him once, you had a friend for life. And the children of Quinaoayanan had a  friend for life in Paul.

None of us could have imagined how short that life would be.

My brother was not a saint.

He wasn’t Mother Teresa with a tool belt.

He was an ordinary guy, who was more often found on his bass boat on Sunday mornings than in the pew. He didn’t spend his entire life alleviating poverty or feeding the hungry or clothing the naked.

He didn’t set out to save the world.

But most of the time, he got the small things right.

When he saw something that needed to be done, he got busy.

Not all the time; not perfectly, But he did not wait to be asked. He didn’t pass by on the other side and pretend the problem was somebody else’s business. He made it his business.

More than 400 people came to Paul’s wake, and the church was full at his funeral, filled with people whose lives he had touched.

Every one of them had a story to tell. One of his fishing buddies told me that this past fall Paul had learned about a national guardsman coming home from Iraq who had a love for fishing.

Paul went out and bought a small trolling motor for the soldier.  They had never met, but Paul wanted in some small way to say thank you to that soldier for his service in Iraq.

“That’s the kind of guy your brother was,” his friend told me.

Toward the end of her book, “Righteous: Dispatches from the EvangelicalYouth Movement,” author Lauren Sandler experiences a revelation during a visit to a megachurch in Colorado.

Though she vehemently disagrees with the politics and social positions of church members, she allows members of a small Bible study to pray for her. The group asks God to bless Sandler’s book and her travels. That small act transforms the way Sandler sees evangelical Christians.

Afterwards, she writes that the small group convinced her “that they are capable of translating Jesus’s legacy of agape into  their everyday lives.”

“Tonight,” she adds, “they have demonstrated the simple concept that powers and sustains this movement: they have shown me  the kindness of strangers.”

Thirty years ago my family came to the Covenant church as strangers; curious to find out more about God but suspicious of church people. My dad, in particular, wanted nothing to do with what he called “a bunch of holy rollers.”

Still we came to church, not because of a revival or outreach, but because of a simple invitation. My brother’s friend Joey Clark asked Paul to go to a Sunday-school picnic with him, and before long, the friendship and kindness shown to our family had won us over. More than programs or music or preaching, the kindness showed to us when we were strangers made us part of the body of Christ.

Paul carried the lessons he learned at the Covenant church wherever he went. He was generous by nature, and his experience at church transformed his natural kindness into a lifetime of giving. He took those lesson with him to Egypt, where he worked for several years; across the United States, where he traveled for a time, setting up cellular networks; and eventually, he took them to the Philippines.

Not long after my brother’s funeral, my dad received a letter from one of Paul’s former tenants. In his late twenties, my brother bought a triple-decker apartment building that was a handyman’s special. He fixed it up then sold it a few years later.

The former tenant was an older man who had several physical disabilities. The man told about how Paul had befriended him—how he had installed an additional railing to make it  easier for him to get up the stairs; how, knowing he was on a fixed income, Paul never raised his rent; and how Paul would visit with him, listen to his stories, and leave him smiling with a joke.

No fuss, no fanfare. Just a joke and a smile and a helping hand. And the whole earth is filled with the glory of God.

Tom Brady and the Cat Cultists


A few years ago I went to the grocery store and ran into some cultists.

They didn’t look like end times cultists at the time. Instead, they appeared to be do-gooders—warmhearted local volunteers who were rescuing kittens.

They parked their mobile cat shelter outside the local Kroger and let kids inside to play with the kittens—in hopes those kids could pester their parents into taking one home.

(My daughter tried. It didn’t work.)

Still, they were nice cat people.

Then I talked to Rachael Gunderson. Rachael had joined the cat rescue group—known as Eva’s Eden—about a decade earlier, in Bellingham, Washington.

Back known, the group was known as the Gates of Praise, a run-of-the-mill Pentecostal church, known for its exuberant worship and creativity. The church was like a family and made her feel welcome from the start.

Especially Pastor Sheryl – the church’s tall, blond charismatic leader.

“I heard Sheryl preach that day, and I was hooked,” she told me.

At first, things went well. Rachel spent every spare hour at the church, soaking in Pastor Sheryl’s teaching. Pastor Sheryl showered Rachel with love – and told her that God had great things in mind for her.

But before long, things got crazy. Pastor Sheryl started claiming to be a prophet, then a reincarnated Mary Magdalene, and then a new Messiah. She made follower kiss her feet and drink her blood mixed with their communion wine.

Then there were the cats.

Pastor Sheryl become that the stray cats were angels in disguise—and that church members should dedicate their lives to rescuing them. When the end times came, those cats would transform back into angels and return the favor—saving church members from the end of the world.

In other words, Apocalypse Meow.

Gunderson bought it all.

“It’s like once you take one sip of the Kool-Aid, you keep drinking,” she said.

I met Gunderson while reporting on Eva’s Eden. She’d left the group by then and rebuilt her life. Still, she was haunted by her past.

How could this have happened, she wondered.

I wondered the same thing. How does a normal congregation turn into a cat-worshiping cult of personality?

Ben Zeller, assistant professor of religion at Lake Forest College, just north of Chicago, say that a charismatic leader is key. In a group like Eva’s Eden, follower members are often more tied to the leader than to their theology, said Zeller, who studied the Heaven’s Gate cult in Arizona.

So they will follow their leader, even if it means betraying their own beliefs. After a while, they are too invested to leave.

“There are plenty of people who are along for the ride. It’s just that it’s amazing what people will do when they are along for the ride — if it means giving up their money or control over their lives or their finances, their romantic relationships or, in suicidal groups, their lives,” Zeller told me.

That line— “there are plenty of people who are along for the ride”—has come to mind recently, with revelations of a rift between the New England Patriots and the “cult of Alex Guerrero.”

Guerrero, a former missionary turned charismatic fitness guru, is Tom Brady’s miracle man, credited with allowing the star quarterback to play at a top level into his 40s. The two have team up to spread the Gospel of TB 12—in a bestselling book and TB12, a lucrative training and fitness brand.

And Guerrero outlines almost every moment of Brady’s life—what he eats, how he exercises and rests, how he mentally prepares for games. He’s even godfather to Brady’s son.

He’s a “big part of what I do,” Brady said after news broke that Guerrero was banned from team flights and the sidelines during Patriots games.

As Sports Illustrated put it, they’re closer than most married couples

“This season marks Year 13 for Brady and Guerrero, a pair who spend more time together than most married couples, swearing to remain faithful in health and in better health,” wrote Greg Bishop. “They opened their TB12 Sports Therapy Center up the hill from Gillette Stadium in 2013 and started selling products last year, peddling lemon protein bars made with Himalayan pink salt, resistance bands built with ‘surgical-grade dipped latex tubing’ and athlete recovery sleepwear that fits ‘next-to-skin without the squeeze.’”

But Guerrero also has issues.

“Tom Brady’s Personal Guru Is a Glorified Snake-Oil Salesman” is how Boston magazine put it.

He was twice indicted for fraud. Claimed to be an MD when he’s not. Marketed a juice he claimed would cure cancer and another that was supposed to stop concussions.

Was also accused of defrauding investors. And of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from another client—a client who also made Guerrero godfather to his son.

In other words, he sounds a lot like a  cult leader.

Now he’s tied at the hip with probably the greatest quarterback ever and one of the wealthiest and most powerful star athletes in the world.

And he’s using that fame to spread the Gospel of TB12, recruiting other players to join their cause and spreading the message around the world.

Some of it works.

Brady exercises, which stress flexibility, and his healthy eating habits, have helped him remain at the top of his game at 40, a rare feat in the NFL.

But the questionable claims about Guererro’s methods remain—especially the high profile they get from being tied to Brady.

Given his history, there’s cause for concern, says Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.

Guererro reminds Shaughnessy of Dr. Eugene Landy, the quack doctor who nearly destroyed Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

After recounting Guerrero’s past sins and alleged misconduct, he issues a warning.

“If it works for Tom, that’s great. But Belichick is wise to put some space between the Patriots and the cult of Alex Guerrero,” he wrote. “We all love QB12, but Tom Brady is becoming Tom Cruise right in front of our eyes. It’s only a matter of time before he jumps on the couch with Oprah in defense of Alex Guerrero. Go back to last year’s Brady interview on WEEI about the perils of Western medicine, and last summer’s bottom-feeder appearance with Tony Robbins.”

Back to the cat cult for a moment.

Most of them ducked me as I reported on their group. But I eventually reached Georgia Snow, Ruthven’s mom, one of her daughter’s most devoted followers.

Why don’t you leave us alone, she said. Isn’t there religious freedom in America?

“We do nothing but good,” she told me. “And yet we have people who try to destroy that.”

Brady seems to be doing much of the same. Guererro’s ideas work for him. So why knock them?

This is the hard part of religion reporting. And this story is definitely a religion story.

Brady’s ties to Guerrero are based on belief and his own experience – not science. And they two are closer than most trainers and athletes. Guerrero—a self-admitted con man—is Brady’s spiritual advisor and guide.

There’s a difference between beliefs that are weird. And beliefs that are harmful and abusive. Guerrero seems to dance on that line and has crossed over more than once.

Now Brady’s boss is threatening his beliefs.

When that happens, all hell can break loose.

For 17 years, the Patriots—and full disclosure, I am a big fan—have been nearly unstoppable. Five Super Bowl titles and more wins than any other football team in that ear. And they seem poised to add a 6th.

But the ties that bind the team’s quarterback and coach are fraying.

And a snake oil salesman may bring the whole thing crashing down.

Get your popcorn.

This will be interesting to watch.


A Hopeful Apocalypse

Apparently, nothing says “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” like an assault rifle.

So the makers of “The Reliant,” a new-Second Amendment faith-based film are giving away an AR-15 this holiday season.

“How’d you like a chance to win a FREE AR-15 on Christmas Day?!” asks a promotional email for the film—which is sponsored in part by Smith and Wesson, along with the US Concealed Carry Association.

Not the typical sponsors for Christian holiday fare.

The movie—set in a dystopian future—features a family that survives with the help of Jesus and plenty of ammunition. It’s a zombie apocalypse without zombies—where the real monsters are your friends and neighbors.

Here’s how the film’s producers describe “The Reliant”:

The crash of the dollar precipitates widespread rioting and social unrest throughout the nation, leaving a lovesick 20-year-old girl struggling to care for her siblings in a stretch of woods bordered by lawless anarchy, wondering why a good God would let this happen.

There’s lots of shooting –and little Jesus—in the film’s trailer. And the film’s primarily an ad for the Second Amendment, according to some of its sponsors.

Their message seems to be: get a gun, so you can shoot your neighbors when the world goes to hell in a handbasket.

Maybe it’s a realistic message—given the fragile nature of our society.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” Dr. King wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail cell.

But instead of a garment, these days it feels like we are all cogs in a great machine. And if someone pulls the plug it will all grind to a halt.

And if we are all woven together, we might all go up in flames together.

Perhaps I’ve shouldn’t have read “A World Made By Hand” and “The End of the World Running Club.” Or perhaps I’ve been listening to too much Larry Norman, who wrote surprisingly catchy songs about the end of the world.

And maybe someday soon we’ll wish we’d all been ready.

If the end comes—or the end of the world as we know it, as REM and the preppers put it—I hope some of us have to offer than gunshots.

I hope more of us will be like Jacob, the protagonist in David William’s novel,
“When the English Fall.

”It’s the best book I’ve read this year.

Set in the near future, the novel tells the story of an Amish farmer named Jacob, who keeps a diary of “the crisis” – a catastrophic sun storm that crashes the electrical grid and leaves most of the world in chaos.

The one group mostly unaffected by the crisis: the Amish.

They till the soil, raise their cattle, plant their gardens, harvest their crops, and pray to their God.

When their neighbors need help—even among the “English” or non-Amish—they help. They gather up their extra food and give it away.

It is what God wanted them to do. So they do it.

“The deacons had talked through it, and the word to all of us was that we would help as we can, with what food we can spare and with our skills,” Jacob writes. “That is at is should.”

William’s book—which he wrote during the National novel writing month in 2013 and self-publish before getting a book deal–is part apocalyptic adventure and part commentary about modern society.

Jacob has an English business partner named Mike,  a big man who is angry about everything—the president, the Congress, the price of gas, his ex-wife, and all the chatter on the radio.

Jacob pities his friend, whose life is filled with bitterness and empty of blessing.

“Where we have the Sabbath, and the apples, and the oats, and the wheat, and the corn, he has the fights, and the anger from his radio, and the anger of his sons, and the bitterness of his broken life with Shauna,” writes Jacob.

And where the Amish have peace and order, Mike and the rest of the English have anxiety. Everyone always in a rush to get nowhere.

“Mike says the impatience is because of the internet, because everyone now wants everything the moment they want it. I remember this from when I was jumping around in the world. I remember how people would walk around not even seeing each other, eyes down into their rectangles of light. No one was where they were,” writes Jacob in his diary.

But kindness along won’t get you through the apocalypse. Before long, people figure out that the Amish might have some more food at home.

So the wolf comes to the door with a gun. And not all the Amish survive the encounter.

Still, they don’t shut their doors.

Mike and his ex-wife, Shauna, move in with Jacob and his wife, Hannah. Jacob and Hannah teach Mike and his family survive, sharing all that they have with them.

And their bishop—who had warned Jacob to steer clear of Mike, lest he be tempted to go astray—tells Jacob that opening his hope to Mike was the right to do.

“You must let him stay with you,” the bishop tells Jacob. “And the woman who was his wife, and his children. These are not times like other times, Jacob. Around us, the English are dying. They are dying. We give our food, and we give our skills, but we are so few, Jacob. Whenever the soldiers come, I hear things that tell me this. Every time, and it worsens. There will be so many terrible days ahead.”

When men with guns show up at their door—Jacob and his family don’t resist. They are saved in the end but at a great cost.

The men who robbed them are killed – and it breaks Jacob’s heart. To take another’s life is a betrayal of all he believes—even if it saves his life.

What good it is, he asks, to save your life if it costs you your soul?

Eventually, Jacob and his family have to decide whether to stay and risk being part of more bloodshed—or setting out of the road, in search of a place where they can live their faith without compromise.

Both have risks, Jacob’s daughter Sadie says. If they stay, they may life. But many people will die. And the Amish will no longer be faithful.


““And if we go?” she says. “Then the story of our journey will be told and remembered. Of our setting aside what we have, and not resting in the shadow of the sword. It will be harder. Some of us will not live. More, I think. But it would let us live our plain way, and be a witness.”

How does it turn out? You’ll have to get the book to see.

it’s worth a read—if nothing else, because it offers a Christian alternative to agun fights with our neighbors at the end of the world.