Carolyn Woo

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 — almost everything that allows modern life to function.

I didn’t have a receipt, a taxi number, anything 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 back seat 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 the place where he had left 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, 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 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 my deep gratitude and trust, there is little I can do, as gifts and gratuities are not allowed.

When I started at Purdue University, as a terribly homesick student who knew no one, a generous professor and his wife opened their hearts and welcomed me into their home. In Malawi, when I had a nasty fall, a doctor attended to me immediately and declined payment as he was in the practice of free public care. There was an Easter Sunday when I left my family to travel and was in tears as I picked up my suitcase. A TSA agent at the airport asked what she could do for me.

In the book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” Trappist Father Thomas Merton described an epiphany he had one day while running errands for the monastery where he lived in Louisville, Kentucky. While in a shopping district, he found himself with a certain realization:

“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.”

For me, this is the Lenten reflection: We can never be strangers. We all are part of God’s family. We also are the way he sometimes chooses to care for us. Separateness, divisiveness, polarization, competitiveness are the nails on Jesus’ cross. 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.

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Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.