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.