I am sitting in the Ottawa train station as I write this, waiting for my train to take me home to Waterloo where I live. I am feeling joyful, having just enjoyed a delightful 10-minute conversation with the taxi driver who brought me here. I wished the trip had been longer so we could have talked further. Early on our trip, the taxi driver shared with me that he moved to Canada from Dhaka, Bangladesh only a few years ago. I told him that I have been to Dhaka – on my honeymoon no less! We laughed as we compared Bangladeshi and Canadian cultures. As I prepared to step out of the taxi, I said good-bye and asked the driver to pass along my greetings to his family. As I walked away from the car, my heart was brimming with joy and also with a question: Why had I asked the man to pass along greetings to his family? I do not know them at all! And do they care about greetings from a random passenger? I felt a little sheepish about the greeting but by the end of our 10-minute taxi ride I truly felt like I had found a friend. It felt only natural to extend the friendship to his family.
I had a similar experience on my train trip to Ottawa only a few days earlier. I boarded the train intending to work while the coach whisked me toward my destination. When the train was about one hour out of Toronto, a porter came to offer drinks. I closed the email I was working on to respond to the porter. As my seatmate and I engaged the porter in conversation we began to talk with one another. Our conversation took off immediately. We talked and laughed until we arrived in Ottawa three hours later. We kept finding more and more points of connection. My heart brimmed with joy. At one point, the porter came by and asked, laughing: “Did you know each other before this trip?” When we said that we did not, he laughed again, saying: “This is what I love about my job, watching strangers spend the trip laughing like old friends.”
As I reflect on these two experiences, I am reminded of the numerous articles I have read over the last several months encouraging people to engage in random conversations with strangers. According to each of these authors, our mental and emotional health depends as much on our short encounters with strangers as it does on the deep and meaningful connections with those we count as regulars in our lives. My recent experiences echo this sentiment. Following my conversations with both the taxi driver and the woman next to me on the train, I felt more whole, more human, and more joyful. The world is less lonely when we forge connections with strangers. It is also noteworthy that I was not distracted by any devices in the taxi, and my conversation in the train began at a moment when interacting with the porter caused me to put my phone down.
Why am I sharing this with you? We are living through a season of profound social change and polarization; many are feeling isolated from one another, stressed and, in some cases, are finding themselves vulnerable to mental health distress. While social media promises connection, it also limits face to face interactions, including with strangers. Moreover, the more isolated we become from one another the greater the risk of polarization. We lose our capacity to see each other’s humanity when we miss opportunities to connect with those that differ from us. The impact is not only personal – at Credence we hear about the impact of polarization in congregations, workplaces, schools, homes, and communities. It appears that selected connection with others (those we count as part of our social network) over time shrinks our capacity to connect even with those within our social network. In other words, if I only relate to those I already know and resist connection with those I might randomly meet in a taxi or a train, over time even my relationships with those I know are negatively impacted.
Congregations often describe themselves as families, as locations where people know they deeply and meaningfully belong to one another. Congregations, however, are stronger when they build both deep connections among congregants and broad, random ones. Over the last number of years, multiple congregations have told Credence how one of the challenges they face is that people do not seem to know each other anymore – especially in the post-pandemic environment. While old tried-and-true relationships may remain strong, the kind of random conversations that occur over coffee hour, at potlucks or after worship have decreased. This change has occurred for multiple reasons: the shift to online worship, decreased regular church attendance, and a societal shift away from random conversation – especially across social groups. There are four especially important consequences for congregational life when random conversation decreases: (1) It is harder for newcomers to find their way in – especially for those who do not have pre-existing relationships with other congregants; (2) it is harder for congregations to navigate tough and potentially polarizing conversations when congregants primarily relate to those in their own social groups; (3) those in the congregation who do not belong to a tried-and-true social group can feel increasingly alone; and (4) the overall mental, emotional, and spiritual health of the congregation suffers.
It is worth recalling that when I stepped out of the taxi, I felt more human, more whole, and more joyful. If by chance the taxi driver and I were to find ourselves on opposite sides of a polarizing conversation, it would be difficult to make our disagreements personal – after all, even in our short conversation, we saw each other’s humanity. Congregations, too, can become places where people leave each gathering feeling more human, more whole, and more joyful. This depends on stepping out of our tried-and-true social circles long enough to intentionally make space for those with whom we do not normally interact, and to open our circle of connection to those who differ from us, listening for the stories that make each one of us so delightfully unique.