In his Farewell Address on Tuesday, January 10, President Obama called out Americans to organize for justice and democracy as we enter into a new political era, “Try speaking to a stranger.” As a Religious Knowledge teacher, my work is to engage students in the Gospel which invites us to welcome the stranger, listen to the stories of those who are different from us, and to advocate actively for the inclusion and celebration of those we push to the margins, knowingly or not. Our current political, economic, and social climates provide ample fodder for real-world, contemporary applications of loving neighbor and faith in action.
Our students in New York City have the unique opportunity to engage with strangers each day on their commute to school—they squeeze into über-pool shared rides and subway cars, and breeze past a whole host of strangers on their skate boards and scooters as they make the trek uptown to our school in Morningside Heights. In New York City especially, where homelessness is on the rise, our students look poverty and injustice in the face everyday, and for most of them it’s a normalized part of the quotidian landscape. In a city where homelessness and displacement are criminalized and shelter programs scrape by on pennies, it is far too easy to absorb common attitudes of disgust and irritation toward the homeless of NYC. We rightly teach our students not to talk to strangers, to develop strong safety radars and to take precautions in their daily lives. But what if, in the safe space we create as their teachers, we could show them how to live the Gospel, listening to and talking to strangers? What if we could transform our increasingly isolated, fearful, bordered experience simply by talking to a stranger? Our sixth grade Religious Knowledge class is trying to do that in a simple way: listening to and talking to the homeless who spend their days in the Church basement next door to our school.
One of my favorite parts of my week is taking my Wednesday class to the Soup Kitchen next door. The space is spare and grey, and on Wednesday mornings the hall is packed with folks waiting to see a doctor, take a shower, or grab a cup of coffee between job searches. One of the options for our students is to be a “listener.” Listeners are encouraged to walk around and start conversation with anyone who will let them. Sometimes they talk about shared interests, other times they bring a game of UNO or CONNECT FOUR with them. They walk around the room, introducing themselves to strangers at the table—some shake their heads, others don’t respond at all, content to eat their breakfast in peace and read the morning paper. But many others smile warmly, grateful for the opportunity to pass the time with a game. One man, Josh, reluctantly agreed to appease two of my students a few months ago when they invited him to play a game of UNO. Months later, I watch as the three of them gleefully face-off in intense games of UNO, Josh’s big smile stretching across his grey-bearded face, his eyes clear and bright under his ski cap as the two students crack jokes and explain the rules of the game. When we leave, Josh sends us off with a heartfelt “God bless you, see you next week!” It’s a simple and easy relationship, but one that has grown substantially since we started going five months ago.
I’ve seen my students’ perspective about the homeless shift from fear, moral judgment, and despair to kindness, and incredibly mature insight about the systems of injustice that land so many homeless in New York. As we enter an uncertain political future that would have us build up walls around ourselves and limit our communication across differences, I’m heartened by the radical work these young people are doing to transform their minds and actions. Most of all I’m reminded that I need to be doing more of the same myself.
Lucy Breidenthal is Coordinator for Religious Knowledge and Global Outreach at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s School, an Episcopal elementary/middle school in New York City.