My first day as a freshman at Wheaton College, I clutched my course schedule tightly in a sweaty hand.
Breyer Hall, it said. Greek 101.
The course met right after morning chapel. I flipped open the campus map in my student handbook to plan my route only to discover Breyer Hall had been left off the diagram. My hand grew sweatier. This was how it would end. I’d be late to my very first college class ever. The students would laugh at me; my social life would never recover.
I was a bit tightly wound at nineteen.
I tapped a student on the shoulder a row ahead of me and asked for directions.
“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “You just go past the SRC and Saga, by Mac-Evans, and then walk across the quad. After that it’s Armerding and then the health center and Breyer, I guess? If you’ve hit the BGC you’ve gone too far.”
I nodded, numbly. He might as well have spoken in Swedish. What is it with colleges and their acronyms? I sat numbly and listened as the president welcomed us to a new semester, a new year, a new beginning. I could feel the anxiety spread through my chest, opening like the wings of an iron bird.
Niceness is easy; kindness costs.
As the closing hymn rang its final notes, a tall, skinny guy with an unruly goatee scrambled to his feet three rows in front of me and half-yelled,
“Does anyone know where Breyer Hall is?”
Another student stood and said, “Yes, but it’s confusing. I’ll walk you there.”
I sprang to my feet and asked to tag along. The student guide’s name was Mitch. The three of us walked together to the class, and with each step I felt my soul unclench a little bit more. Mitch knew the way and he was kind enough to lead us there.
Last week, a dear friend flew out to visit and came with us to church on Sunday morning.
“Who’s that?” she asked when someone stood to speak, and I realized, oh yeah, we should introduce ourselves the first time we step to the front of the congregation every week.
Stanley Hauerwas calls kindness “the touch that otherwise wouldn’t be there.” It’s these little touches that so easily slide from our grasp when we forget to put ourselves in the shoes of the outsider. They can be the difference between hospitality and a sad brush-off we never intended. Too often, I rain down acronyms when the kind response would be, “Walk with me.”
It’s one step beyond our usual routine with an eye to the needs of the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider, the newcomer.
We are called to kindness not out of the goodness of our hearts but out of our own experience.
The kindness of the Hebrew Scriptures is richer and deeper than mere niceness. Niceness is easy; kindness costs. Commentator Katherine Sakenfield calls it “care that specifically takes shape in action to rescue the other from a situation of desperate need, and under circumstances in which the rescuer is uniquely qualified to do what is needed.” When Boaz notices Ruth in the fields and brings her over to eat with the other workers rather than sit alone, he uses his status as a man of means to lift up a woman who is both widow and foreigner—two classes of people especially dear to God.
We are called to kindness not out of the goodness of our hearts but out of our own experience. After all, we once were strangers. God folds us in, invites us to his own banquet table, elevating us to the status of children and friends.
I may not have remembered Mitch pointing the way to Breyer Hall these two decades later if his kindness ended there, but it didn’t. He became a friend, his kindness deepening over time. He was a sophomore with a car—glory be—and a generous spirit. A simple first kindness can pave the way for many more to come, changing the one who gives and the one who receives.
Mitch was a channel of God’s kindness in one other way for which I will always be grateful when he walked me and that tall guy with the goatee to Breyer Hall. The tall guy? His name was Daryl.
He and I have now been married for fourteen years.