You’ll never stop having conversations with strangers.
Just a couple weeks before I left, I posted on Facebook: what advice would you give a girl who’s never flown before, but is about to spend a day and a half getting from Tennessee to the other side of the Pacific?
The results were great. I had multiple book suggestions. Neck pillow links. One friend even went so far as to tell me about the best colored pencils to use for coloring books. I sifted through and found these suggestions helpful— honestly, I had more than I needed to keep me occupied for the several days of combined travel throughout the summer. People really pulled through to answer that one little question.
One comment that really resonated with me sounded something like this: talk to people. Talk to people in the airport, on the plane, in your city. Don’t be afraid to speak up and to listen to the responses.
That one was different from the rest. There was no way to add that to a shopping cart or worry about whether or not it was going to fit into my carry-on. All it carried was a wrecking ball that tore through my comforts and challenged me do well with what every possibility I had to speak Truth and Grace into all people in all nations.
I kept that advice in my backpack pocket the entire summer. And for the first real, tangible time in my life I knew: I want to talk to them. Lord, give me any reason to talk to them.
:: :: ::
Getting back to work is difficult. You know— you get a taste of the world and what you want to do. You meet people who change your mind about the things you thought you believed by just the things they say. You look down at the sky as you fly and gaze up at skyscrapers above. You live from a suitcase and wear the same 5 outfits. You navigate subways and you pray for the students you’ll see every morning. And you realize: this is what I want. This life brim-full of love and purpose. This. All of this.
And when you get back home, you get back to just living. To working. To going to school. To putting gas in your car and walking through your oversized closet. You get to these things, and you realize you don’t want them. You want nonstop love for others and curious conversation.
My fear was this: that my life would go back to just feeling like I was doing just enough to get by. It was crippling to think that I could possibly miss every lesson from the summer because I would soon grow too accustomed to my routine again.
The only way I knew to reconcile it was to speak up and listen. Repeating the advice I had carried in that backpack all summer, I began talking to people. Strangers. Anyone who looked like they would listen, and even those who looked they wouldn’t.
The first time I remember speaking up in the States, it was a dad who had come into my store to shop for his little ones. As his wife did the shopping, he sat in the window. He looked bored, and I did what I had learned to desire: talk. At first, I think he was taken aback by my talking to him. But we realized we had both been in Hong Kong around the same time, and our conversation kept going— 10, 15, 20 minutes? Who was counting? By the time his wife came around, his tone had changed and his smile was warmer. He didn’t say it, but I could tell we both were glad to have gotten to talk about the things of Asia for a few minutes.
He waved as he walked away. And that was the first time I realized the possibility there was to learn about strangers, even in my most routine and mundane places.
:: :: ::
Worship services were also different coming back. In such a short time, I had learned to crave the smallness of worshipping in that little room on the outskirts of the city, and rejoicing as a brother brought the Word in Cantonese. Often times, I had no clue what was being said— but my Spirit worshipped. Those were some of the most intimate moments of rest and wrestling I have ever experienced.
Sometime in later August, my best friend and my boyfriend— Amy and Travis, for those who don’t know my story— drove me to a worship service in Nashville called Kairos. Although we normally sit in the bleachers up top, this time we decided to sit at the circle tables on the floor.
The thing about these seats is they expose you. Put you in the front, in direct line of sight for all the eyes peering from the bleachers behind. Only the brave sit here, it feels like.
And as good Christian fashion follows, we chose the empty seats at a too-large table where a couple of guys sat. We were strangers, but they welcomed us, learned our names, and wanted to hear about us. And as we sat waiting eagerly for just that one hour of worship and talking across the table, I learned they had been in Hong Kong the same week Amy and I had been— Tsim Sha Tsui, to be exact. I lit up, as the road and skyline and buses came to my mind. I remembered coming to this place numerous times to visit and meet with new friends, and I wondered how many times I could have passed the guy told us about a girl in the church we sat in who works within the teaching English community in Nashville. He gave me her name and encouraged me to reach out to her.
Amy and I looked at each other, and I know what we were both thinking: what?
As we moved into worship, my heart was so moved to praise, praise, praise. What are the odds that of all the places in the world, we would all wind up in Hong Kong? And what were the odds that as we came back to our “normal lives,” we would both be led to a worship on the outskirts of the city on a Tuesday night in August? That we would find a table to share, and be bold enough to speak up and listen? That I would know the street name and have this crazy little dream on my heart to teach with my life? How could those guys possibly know that?
:: :: ::
I met an Asian couple at work. I tried to mark what language tumbled off their lips, but I couldn’t tell— Cantonese? Mandarin? It’s been so long since I’ve even heard a hello. When the couple got to register, I asked them. And admitted that I couldn’t tell.
The guy chuckled and said, “Oh, they’re very, very different!”
I responded, “I know, but I can’t hear it! I try so hard, but I cannot. You all are much more talented than me!”
He chuckled again and nudged the girl beside him, “Neither can she.”
We laughed, I told them to have a good night, and they walked out still laughing.
Just a few weeks later, another Asian family came in. Again: I tried to listen and answer whether it was Cantonese or Mandarin coming off their lips. And again, I couldn’t tell. I helped the mom and the boys to a fitting room. While I meandered around the store, waiting for another task, I noticed the oldest girl also waiting for her mom and brothers to finish in the fitting room. So, I did my usual and started a conversation.
I don’t remember what I asked. I probably defaulted to my usual, “where are you originally from?” And from there, we just talked.
I learned she’s 18 and has lived in America since she was 3. She doesn’t remember China, but hopes she can go back one day. Honestly, she spent more time asking me questions that I did. She asked what I thought about Hong Kong, and what I did there. She just smiled, and nodded. “That’s so cool,” she kept saying.
How long did we stand there? 10, 15, 20 minutes? Customers milled around us, but I wasn’t there. I was so present in talking with her as we dreamed about Asia together. It felt so close and in reach. And as she talked, I heard it in her voice: she so wanted to be there too.
When her mom and brothers finally emerged from the fitting room, she told me she was glad she met me. And before she turned to walk away, I told her, “Yeah, I loved talking to you. Thanks so much for that. And hey— maybe we’ll run into each other on the streets of Hong Kong one day. Who knows, right?”
She smiled, and agreed, “Yeah, who knows.”
I’m sure she thought I was joking, and maybe I thought so too. But honestly, after all the uncanny coincidences and people I’ve met the last several months, I’m not so sure anymore. Who says that’s impossible?
:: :: ::
I’m driving to Indiana for a week with Travis with his family. I’m so eager to get there, because this place has become a home away from home. Not to mention, the drive up I-65 is much easier today than it used to be, and I’m glad for that because at the end of it are days of rest, catching up, and gearing up for the work waiting in Tennessee.
As usual, I stop in Elizabethtown somewhere just south of Louisville. I head toward the bathroom, shoot my mom a text, and pay for just a few bucks of gas. Once I get back outside, I hear the man beside me singing. Not loudly or obnoxiously— but I certainly know he’s there.
As I throw away the trash in my cup holders and begin pumping gas, the singing stops. In its place comes the question, “Is that your Young Life sticker?”
I peer around the pump to see the singing-man pointing to my back windshield, and looking to me for an answer. “Yeah, it is! Do you lead?” I respond.
He stammers and tells me no, not quite. But, he knows people, and knows the ministry. As he continues talking, he tells me that he’s on his way to Nashville to play a show. “No way— that’s where I’m coming from now!” I smile, pointing the the tri-star on my shirt.
His face lights up as he asks what school I serve as a Young Life leader at, and then moves to ask me if I’m going to school to do full-time ministry. I tell him I’m at a Bible college, and he finishes my sentence— “Oh yeah, what is it called— Free Will Baptist Bible College, right? I know people from there.”
I nod, and for just a couple minutes, we chatted. We talked about our city and the ministry we’re at work in. And as I’m hoping this conversation won’t end so soon, we pull the receipt tape from our pumps. Still several feet away from each other, we move toward our car doors. He blesses me. He tells me, “God bless your ministry and your work in school. I know it’s gotta be hard, but keep at it. God bless you, because you’re doing a good thing. It was so nice meeting you.”
Now, it’s my turn to stammer. I thank him for the encouragement, and hope that he enjoys his singing gig at Puckett’s that night. And within just a couple minutes, he is heading toward I-65 South to Nashville while I’m on I-65 North to Louisville completely floored by what’s just happened.
What are the odds that I would meet a stranger who knows my city and my ministry? What are the odds we would meet at a gas station in the middle of Kentucky? What are the odds that our worlds could cross like that?
And it took me about 10 miles before I realized: I hadn’t even caught his name.
:: :: ::
This has become a regular thing for me— you know, talking to strangers. That thing all our parents taught us not to do as children.
It began with Asia, but moved toward Muslims and Americans and Australians. Usually, I start conversations by asking the simple question: what language are you speaking? or where are you from? From there, our talk moves and I usually have no hesitation in asking questions for as long as they’ll let me–
Where are you from? How long have you lived here? Do you think you’ll go back home soon? Do you have family and friends there? Do you miss it?
And other times, people reach out to me first. And again: I have no hesitation in sharing stories with them for as long as they’ll let me. I’m open to hearing people. Honestly, even more than just being open to the idea, I’m so hungry for it— to ask, to hear, to grow, to find those uncanny coincidences woven in our lives. I’m so, so hungry for those moments of complete recognition that this world is so much closer than I ever believed.
As I’ve noticed this the last few months, I’ve been reminded of that advice given me so long ago by a friend: talk to people. Talk to people.
This is probably the most honest Truth my Father has ever defined in my life: I’m an introvert that loves people. I won’t compete for attention in a crowd, and I won’t pretend like somedays it isn’t difficult work to speak up and hear. But today, more than I was ever told I could, I relish any opportunity to hear a person’s story and get to know them. I might need to take time to myself later, but I could never stay there alone.
For a long time I let people tell me I was shy and afraid to talk to people, but through my Father’s persistent whispering, I have come to realize that I love people. I love talking. I love hearing. I love every little interaction that happens me between me and another thinking, feeling, breathing human being that leaves me in a deeper wonder of the work we were made to be. And that began in Asia.
Whether that’s in a gas station in Kentucky, at the mall in Nashville, at a church on Tuesday night— I’m eagerly waiting for these uncanny coincidences that can only be explained by a God who does a good work. Friends, I wish I could share every story of every person I’ve happened to run into the last several months. If I knew it would give you even an ounce of encouragement those moments gave me, I would have painted them all on canvas and put them on the wall to display.
Because here’s the thing: I thought traveling would make my world feel bigger. In some ways, it has. But more than anything, this world feels so much more in reach. Tangible. Small. Full of uncanny coincidences and people who have walked the same streets as me.
The trip is over, but the talks are not. I’ve met too many strangers who are doing the same things and searching for the same purposes as me to not believe that we are all in this life thing together—
And I can’t shake it out of my bones: there are still some 7 billion strangers to run into.