His name was Frank and he had a famous brother. I met him at a local Toronto church when I worked for the Out of the Cold Program. Frank was very well spoken, thoughtful and quiet. Yet he was not shy about meeting new people. I saw him every Friday night and wondered if he was a volunteer or guest. One night I “subtly” approached him in conversation and asked what had brought him to the Out of the Cold Program. He knew exactly what I was up to, with a grin he said, “I am a volunteer but I don’t make food, serve food or arrange chairs, I am here to meet the people.” He shared that initially the older volunteers, raised on an ethic of “doing” (see Mary and Martha story in Luke’s Gospel) had a hard time with a volunteer who was all about “being” as opposed to “doing”. But over time they saw the value of his presence, when Frank was away the guests missed him. They also saw Frank’s calmly presence, his interested demeanor, his warm smile.
One day I took Frank to the side and asked him what had brought him to this place. He explained that he lived in the neighbourhood, was “nominally” Jewish by background, and therefore had a sense of “waiting for Elijah”, that tradition in the Jewish faith that anticipates the Elijah’s return guised as a stranger, thus the extra place setting and openness to the other. Frank told me he was very interested in people, in their stories, sorrowful and joyful, and came as much for him as for others.
I asked Frank what he had learned in these thousands of conversations. He told me that taking an interest in others means leaving the agenda of the dialogue in the other’s hands, not interrupting, except to clarify, and to try and remember parts of the conversation for next time he met the guest. Guests are used to being invisible so hearing that part of their story has been remembered is very affirming.
What I notice in our culture today is that we all seem to have a passion. It might be a sports team, animals, singing, yoga, NASCAR, scrapbooking, running, politics, gardening, crafts, you name it, someone has a passion for it. This is great! I remember a time when people like my grandparents were so exhausted just trying to survive, raise their large families on small wages, volunteering in their community that they were just as happy to talk about anything that came up. But today people have passions and I believe that is a life-giving development. BUT not everyone has the same passion and what I see all too often is someone sharing their passion with someone does not share this passion for an extended period. The listener is being held hostage, standing there hearing a lecture, judgement is laid on her/him if s/he does share this same passion. If the passionate one thinks s/he is making converts they should think again. 9/10 the listener is just happy to get away.
There is an art to sharing your passion so that others without your intense interest in said subject are able to participate in the discussion. I witnessed Frank many times sitting between guests facilitating conversation so that both guests were able to share their passions, Frank often finding common ground.
This challenge is not limited to a church basement in a shelter situation, this goes on every day in every place imaginable. Putting yourself, as the listener and as the talker, in the other’s shoes, makes the conversation more meaningful for all concerned. Passions are shared, lives are shared, sorrows are shared, joys are shared and relationships are built.