Seen from the outside, with troubled news reports the first thing that people hear about West Central Winnipeg, my words sounded flat and unconvincing. I often can't convey the aspects of the neighbourhood I love to those who are dubious - the diversity, the many great neighbours we have, the house church I am part of where we all live within walking distance of each other, the poverty all around that brings hidden lessons of compassion.
I got to thinking about "strangers" again when I heard the sad news that the West Central Streets community newspaper was folding. The mandate for Streets has been to "Give a voice to those who have no voice." Put another way, I think Streets has helped us all to welcome the stranger.
The strangers who cross our paths can often make us feel uncomfortable. Often our first impulse when we see prostitutes on the corner or the poor asking for change is to look away. It's easy to avert our eyes and treat them as someone we'd rather not see. And how much more the seemingly bad things that happen to us - ill health or a situation that's giving us trouble. Who wants them? And yet, as I live and walk around our neighbourhood, I often remember the old saying that strangers just might be angels in disguise.
There's a story by Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian novelist who died in 1910, about Martin, an old cobbler who hears a voice in a dream tell him that God would be visiting him the next day. Even though he thinks he's half crazy to believe in the dream, he keeps peering out the basement window of his shoe-repair shop all day, looking for God.
To his dismay, all he sees are destitute people. Marin gives coffee and conversation to an old, broken down man in need of warmth. He gives soup to a single mother whose husband deserted her and the new baby. He also breaks up a fight and brings peace between a lady and a young kid who was stealing from her. He tells them all about his dream and they wonder what it meant.
Even though he himself was encouraged each time he welcomed a stranger, he was also disappointed at the end of the day because he didn't have any grand visits from God. These destitute people appear to Martin in another dream that night and tell him they were the promised visits from God. Martin had treated them with kindness instead of scorn. They had been angels unawares.
Instead of making us feel like strangers, Streets has given us a place where many have felt welcome. Through reading the newspaper articles, I have met strangers whom I normally would never have met. I think of all the people who have shared their stories, whether they are new Canadians, people who have had a difficult life and have overcome their struggles in some way, or just people with a story or poem to share. I think of the events and good programs which have given people a helping hand, and have felt encouraged to know that candles are being lit in the darkness in many ways. Once strangers to each other, we've become friends through these pages.
As sorry as many no doubt are to see Streets folding, maybe its legacy will continue on in us as we keep on being a bit more hospitable towards people and events that make us uncomfortable. As Martin the cobbler learned, welcoming the stranger just might leave a blessing behind in making us more human. A heartfelt thank you to Erika (the editor) and the Streets board for doing just that.