Will Rogers, iconic American film actor from the 1950s said, “A stranger is a friend I have not met yet.” This stranger who is a potential friend could be the person passed on the sidewalk, the man or woman standing next to you at the bus stop, the new family that moved in down the road or the person seated in a wheelchair behind you at church. The basics of initiating a relationship include a smile, making eye contact and giving a greeting.
Let’s do some imaginary role-playing. Imagine that it is Monday morning and you are standing at the bus stop when a stranger stands beside you. Politeness requires a greeting. Hellos are exchanged, the bus comes and the day continues. Tuesday morning comes at the same bus stop. The stranger is again waiting for the same bus. Hellos are again exchanged, perhaps with a non-committal comment about the weather. Wednesday and Thursday the same greetings are exchanged. The Friday greeting includes a comment about the upcoming weekend. When the second Monday of the two people at the bus stop arrives the greeting is more natural and eye contact is established. What is happening? A relationship is developing. It may never be more than two people greeting each other at a shared bus stop, but it has the potential to grow into a connection, then an acquaintance relationship and possibly a full blown friendship.
Now let us imagine that the ‘stranger who is not yet your friend’ is the person who is sitting in a wheelchair behind you at church. Imagine that the pastor/priest says it is time to exchange a sign of peace or to greet those around you. You turn around to exchange a handshake with the person behind you and see that she is seated in a wheelchair. What do you do? In the matter of a split second your mind races around: It would be rude to ignore her; it looks like her right hand is pulled up next to her shoulder so how do I shake her hand; should I speak loudly to be sure she can hear me? Remember, she is just another person, just like the stranger from the bus stop. Start with a smile. If she cannot extend her right hand wait a brief second to see if she extends her left hand and if she does than follow suit. If she does not reach out to you than you can still make eye contact, smile and exchange a greeting of peace with her. Now imagine that the service is ended and she is still sitting behind you. How would you interact with her if she was not sitting in a wheelchair but was just a stranger behind you in church? Smile, make a comment about the weather or the sermon, exchange a handshake or hug and then go home for lunch. That is how you should interact with the stranger sitting in a wheelchair. To create a more comfortable environment for her you should sit down next to her or face back-wards from a seated position in your seat. This places both of you on the same eye level. Introduce yourself. It is very appropriate that part of the after church conversation includes asking the stranger how you should exchange the sign of peace with her next week if she sits behind you again. If she has a friend or family member with her it is polite to include them in the conversation as well, but remember that they are two distinct persons so do not address the friend and exclude the person in the wheelchair. Unless the person in the wheelchair shares with you that she has a hearing loss and needs you to speak loudly you should not speak loudly or exaggeraterate your enunciations. The need to utilize a wheelchair for mobility does not mean that a person has other disabilities such as deafness or intellectual disabilities. A relationship is developing. It may never be more than two people greeting each other at church, but it has the potential to grow into a connection, then an acquaintance and possibly a full blown friendship.
Hebrews 13:1-2 “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertangels agels unawares.”
Written by Lida Merrill, Director of Spiritual Life, Heritage Christian Services, Inc.