In my early 20's I found myself a stranger quite often.
While working my first job out of college, I made very little money and lived in a city where I knew no one and lived with people who had really different life circumstances from me.
After paying my monthly bills, I had very little left over for basic food. If I ate out even once, my budget was blown.
One morning, while running late for work, I realized I was nearly out of gas. I rolled into a gas station on the way to work and filled up, not noticing a sign that read "Cash or credit only."
I went inside and realized I had no cash with which to pay and I had left my credit card at home in a coat pocket. I begged the cashier to take a check. He would not. I started to panic as the line of customers behind me grew and grew. What was going to happen to me? To my car? I had no one in this big, lonely city to bail me out. No one I could call. What could I do?
Suddenly, from way back in the back of that line, a woman emerged. She walked up to the cashier and swiped her own card paying my entire gas bill. I was so flustered, but grateful and shocked. I thanked her with tears in my eyes and ran out. I have never forgotten the kindness of that woman, to whom I was a mere, irresponsible stranger, although she did not treat me as such.
As time went by, a co-worker of mine and his wife, realizing how lonely I was, befriended me. His wife frequently invited me to hang out with them. She took me to her friend's house to weave baskets with her, a skill and a memory that I still cherish to this day. Although I started off a stranger to them, a lovely couple who had no children of their own, they were like a big brother and sister to me at a time when I badly needed someone to care about me.
A few years later, I moved again to an even bigger city. This time, I had a well-paying job, however that job was fairly unstable and went away shortly after moving there. Now I had a large monthly rent payment that I was struggling to make as I job-searched. Again I knew no one, but my roommate who was so sweet and kind. She went to play basketball at the church every Thursday. One Thursday night, I was feeling such despair over my situation. I lay there on my bed in the dark worrying, wondering what was to become of me. I had no job. I had taken the gamble of my young career to chase after my dream job and had failed...at least I thought so at the time.
But most of all, I was broke. I had had multiple disappointments in my personal life and now I was all alone in a big city, feeling like I was sinking into a deep hole from which I could never climb out. I felt invisible and like no one would notice if I just ceased to exist.
My chest started feeling tight. I had never felt this feeling before, but I knew I needed to get out of my apartment and go be with people who might be able to lift me up spiritually, so I went to the one place where I knew someone...I went to church, where I knew my roommate would be shooting hoops with other members of our ward.
I walked into the gym. The first girl who greeted me was only an acquaintance, but she asked me casually, "How are you doing?" I answered honestly. I wasn't doing great. I had lost my job and couldn't find another one and I was flat out broke and didn't know what I was going to do about it. I didn't even have money for food.
This girl who knew me only as another member of her 400-some member singles ward (and a fairly new one at that) reached into her pocket, pulled out her wallet, and without hesitation handed me all of the cash in her possession. It was about $37.
She shoved it into my hand and said, "Pay me back if you can, but if you can't, just pay it forward."
I was so touched by this gesture of the complete surrender of her money to someone who was basically a stranger that I have never forgotten it. In fact, her gesture was the quiet vote of confidence that I needed to feel like I could go on, and I soon did get an even better job, but her actions were just what I needed to rise above my despair and to hang on for one more day. She believed in me. So I could believe in me.
Later, upon getting to know this sister, I learned that she never was great with money during that time in her life, but I loved her even more given that fact. $37 would have been a lot of money to her as well as to me.
All of these experiences, which then seemed so hard, now have become an invaluable part of my testimony of God's love for me and the kindness of strangers.
It has made me think twice about turning my back when someone asks me for a hand-up. Now when someone asks me for help, I see the woman in the gas station swiping her card and disappearing as quickly as she appeared. I see the smiling faces of the married couple who befriended a little lost girl at least 10 years their junior. I see the hand of my fellow ward member pulling all the cash out of her wallet and surrendering it to me...I remember what it felt like when someone put their arm around a stranger.
Embracing Strangers Today
Last Christmas, we watched many news reports about the Syrian refugees. I was sad to hear so many people expressing a lack of compassion for these suddenly homeless families. I wanted to help, but I wasn't sure what I could do, given where I lived and that the busy holiday season was upon us.
A friend of mine posted on social media about a group of women who were collecting baby carriers to help refugee mothers carry their babies safely across borders. Being pregnant with my fifth child, I was filled with compassion for these women. I thought, as my child grew inside of me, what if that were me and my babies? How could I stand by and watch and do nothing?
I spread the word to all the mothers I knew locally and told them where they could send their gently used baby carriers. But I kept pondering the thought: How can I do more?
I wanted to raise money for the LDS Humanitarian Aid, but I had limited resources myself. With Christmas coming, I knew that people would be looking to buy gifts for others, so I wondered if there was something I could make in my own home and sell to other women I knew in my town in order to raise money for the refugees.
I found a simple pattern online that showed me how to make infinity scarves. I used fabrics which I had originally bought to make things for my children. My children and I "modeled" the scarves on Facebook and I told all of our friends that we would be selling the holiday-themed scarves in order to raise money for refugees. Then we waited.
Our scarves sold out, and we made 3 or 4 more batches of them. We raised a sizable amount of money and donated it to the church fund to help refugees.
Some friends gave their scarves away to people who asked about them and then returned to buy more. I sewed up all of the fabric in my stash at home and bought more.
My children were excited to see our total rise and we all felt the spirit of Christ knowing we were doing something good with our time during the busy holiday season. Although we mainly did it to honor the Savior, the dividends were awesome. We felt worth, and we felt joy and we felt peace and the approval of God. It also made us happy to see our friends wearing our scarves! And still others donated money to the cause without taking a scarf...just out of the goodness of their hearts.
It was neat to see the reaction of many women friends locally and online as we shared resources and pulled together to do something good for people who were strangers on the other side of the world.
There was one reaction I heard during that time that surprised me. An acquaintance online questioned me, "Why would you help someone who hates you?" I was taken aback by this comment (although it's not something we haven't heard in social media over and over again.)
Before I could react the Spirit entered my heart and gave me what to say. I responded, "You mean, like how the Savior served those who hated him?"
Although I dont believe that refugees harbor ill feelings towards others, I do know that the Savior loved and served all. And he knew the hearts of everyone; we do not. He could easily have withheld His love, knowing what he knows about the inner workings of each of us...but he did not. He does not.
Although I am far from perfect in serving others, the spirit taught me again through this experience what it means to both be a stranger and to serve and love and lift a stranger despite your own limitations. It means to strive always to be and act like Him.
I also learned that we can do a lot when we patiently seek the Spirit to inspire our efforts.
Click the link below to read more information about the church's initiative #IWasAStranger which urges sisters to seek for ways to help refugees in their local communities and others who need a friend. I love the church's commentary about this new initiative: "It is not a program; it's who we are." or who we can become with effort, sincerity, humility, and practice.