Media CenterCarolyn Woo’s CNS Column - In the Care of Strangers

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By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo

February 2015

A recent incident reminded me of how much we operate in the care of strangers. I realized I had left my purse in the taxi I took from the train station to my apartment. In it was the wallet that held my credit cards, passport, driver's license, health and auto insurance cards -- most everything that allows modern life to function. There was no specific characteristic or receipt that would identify either the driver or the taxi. I went to my office where my resourceful assistant immediately alerted the taxi companies to broadcast a message to their drivers. After an hour with no responses, I went about the business of canceling cards and notifying agencies. Two hours later, deflated and exhausted, I went home. There was a message on the phone: "I am your taxi driver. I think I have your purse."

The driver had not noticed my purse in the backseat until a second passenger, a big man, was about to leave the cab with it. He challenged the passenger, telling him that if the purse didn’t belong to him to leave it behind. He then drove to where he had dropped me and went to several apartment houses to try to return the item. I was deeply touched by the trouble he went through. In my prayer that night, I became keenly aware of how much we rely on the integrity and care of strangers.

My beloved 96-year-old nanny Gaga, who has been with my family for 68 years, resides in a long-term care facility in Hong Kong. She is completely dependent on the staff, not just for their proper care, but also for how they joke with, affirm and engage her. I can only visit twice a year and am always humbled by the fact that I am entrusting her to them. In return, except for deep gratitude and my trust, there is little I can do for them as gifts and gratuities are not allowed.

When I started at Purdue University as a terribly homesick student knowing no one, the generous Professor and Mrs. Griffin opened their hearts and welcomed me into their home. In Malawi when I had a nasty fall, the doctor attended to me immediately and declined payment as he was in the practice of free public care. There was even that Easter Sunday when I left my family to travel again and had tears from one of those bouts of feeling how difficult it is to pick up a suitcase to join the friendly skies when a TSA agent wanted to know what she could do for me.

In the book Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander Thomas Merton described the epiphany he had on a regular day (March 9, 1958) running errands for the monastery at the shopping district of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Louisville; "I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.... There are no strangers."

For me, this is the Lenten reflection: that we can never be strangers as we are not only all part of God's family, but also the way He sometimes chooses to care for us. Separateness, divisiveness, polarization, competitiveness are the nails on Jesus' cross. Thomas Merton reminded us that when we see who we and others are in God's eyes, "there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed." God has spoken through the care of strangers: harden not our hearts.

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service. You can follow Dr. Woo on Twitter at @WooCRS.

Read Dr. Woo’s previous columns