I covered the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. On my day off, I wanted to visit the Parthenon, which took some logistical planning with the public transit system. I don’t know Greek, so I had to study the train map to figure out a travel plan.
What I didn’t plan for was getting to the train station where I needed to transfer lines and then realizing that all the signs were in Greek — duh! I had no idea where to go. I looked at my map and then at the signs and then back at my map, trying to discern which train platform I needed.
I was totally at a loss. And apparently, it showed.
A woman noticed my confusion. She smiled and said something in Greek that I didn’t understand. She didn’t understand my response in English. I pointed to the Acropolis on my train map. She nodded, took me by the arm and walked me all the way across the station to the platform that I needed to catch the correct train. And then she smiled again and walked away.
How very cool, huh? She took the risk of reaching out to a stranger — one from a world away — and helped me get what I needed at that moment.
I thought about the Greek woman the other day when the son of a presidential candidate compared refugees to Skittles. His point was that we should fear those whom we don’t know. We shouldn’t take the risk of helping them because we could get hurt.
He’s not the only one saying it. A lot of people fear those who are different from them. They’re afraid to love them because love always, always, always involves taking a risk and we always wind up getting hurt in some ways. Sometimes it feels safer cowering behind walls and weapons.
Walled off from others. Walled off from love. Walled off from life itself. Merely existing instead of actually living.
To me, the saddest part is that we hear this talk from many supposedly religious people who really have no excuse for thinking that way. To be led by the spirit of a loving God means that when we see fear and pain and need around us, we head toward it and enter into it freely, risking ourselves to bring hope and healing into the world.
That’s the job description. Look it up.
You take the risk of putting yourself into those moments and those lives. You put your hand in the jar even though you don’t know what you’ll pull out. And yes, you do it knowing there will be a price to be paid somewhere along the line.
But you also know that there’s an even greater cost for refusing to stop and help the needy person by the side of the road. When we walk right past, we lose a little bit of what makes us all precious and human and sacred.
Giving in to fear takes us to many dark, ugly places. It’s the incubator for hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious conflict, political wars, and the many other evils in the world. All of them are rooted in a fear of those who are different from us.
The alternative? Label fear for what it is — a vampire that sucks life and love out of us and our world. Recognize that those monsters beneath our beds are ones that we’ve created in our fearful minds. It’s not easy, of course. Fear is always tugging at us, trying to hold us back from loving — not only loving others, but ourselves, too. In those moments, we have to take a breath and act like the cowardly lion who, though still trembling, marches into the witch’s castle to save someone who needs us.
Even if that person is very different from us.
Leadership? It means showing courage when others insist we need to run and hide. Leaders show us how to move beyond our fears and live more fully.
Love? It means bringing light to the world’s dark and scary corners, healing to people who are hurting, and hope to those who feel a sense of despair creeping close.
It means reminding people about all of the miraculous and grace-filled moments that are all around us every day. It means recognizing the beauty and the goodness in our world — those millions of acts of unexpected kindness that take our breath away.
It means noticing the stranger who is lost, feeling compassion, taking their arm and leading them to the proper place. Helping them get whatever it is that they need in that moment.