The Kindness of Strangers

There's been some good news since the last time I posted. On December 6, my niece, Connie Marie Smietana, came home from the Philippines. A bittersweet moment, as my brother wasn't with her. But she's home, and I hope he is smiling somewhere.

We ran this essay about my brother in the January issue of the Covenant Companion. There are few things, if any, more powerful than the kindness of strangers.

The Kindness of Strangers
Bob Smietana
The Covenant Companion
January 2007

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 platterof chicken salad sandwiches, made by the women of
the church I grew upin, the Evangelical Covenant Church of
Attleboro, Massachusetts, 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

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.

I’ve been overwhelmed by how 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 Covenant Offices(my workplace), colleagues prayed for us
and picked up the pieces left behind when I took off for the
East Coast to be with my parents. The pastors of Libertyville
Covenant Church, Dwight Nelson and Brian Zahasky, prayed with me
and shared my 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
wife, kids, and me out East 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
took one small suitcase to share between them. 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
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 shown
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.

(Copyright Covenant Communications, 2007. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)


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