The other day, I was in Trader Joe’s. I was running in to grab one thing, and I was in a hurry. I passed an employee whom I’d met the year before because he had helped with some translation needs with the refugee family a group from our church helped settle (he is from Somalia and speaks fluent French, one of the languages the dad of this Congolese family knows).

I had had multiple conversations with this person, some of which had made a deep impression on me—like the one where he described his Sufi Muslim faith and that oft-repeated (in that tradition) image of God being closer to you than the pulse in your neck. Or the one where he told me that love is what unites us, not religion or belief or culture. Or the one where he commended the work my church was doing with refugees and the homeless, because as a Muslim he recognized us trying to live out our Christianity.

But I wasn’t looking for a deep interfaith talk on this particular day, and anyway, I wasn’t sure he’d remember me (I presume myself not to be very memorable, which is a different issue). So I pretended I hadn’t seem him and rushed on toward my target at the back of the store.

As I turned to go to the register, I found myself face to face with this man I had blown by. He greeted me warmly and then cajoled me—gently, but directly—for walking past him. He knew I had seen him and had just kept going. He chided me lovingly, saying, “You’ve got to practice what you preach, sister.”

I apologized and asked how he was. After a brief conversation, I went on my way, feeling a little badly but grateful that he had chosen to confront me with such kindness.

And now I’m thinking about all the times I’ve seen someone I know—often someone I’ve met once or twice, perhaps a guest I recognize from the overflow homeless shelter our church partners with in the winter, or occasionally (I’m not proud of it!) a church member—and kept on walking.

I always have some excuse. I’m in a hurry; they’re in a hurry; I’m in a bad mood; it’s my day off and I don’t want to talk to someone from work; they didn’t see me; they wouldn’t remember me anyway.

I’ve often rationalized this as self-preservation—as an introvert, if I spoke to every person I recognized while out and about in my city, I would be exhausted in no time. There is a certain amount of boundary-setting I have to do around my time and energy.

But the way that Trader Joe’s employee put it has stuck with me—”Practice what you preach.” What little he knew about me as a pastor and a preacher was that I advocate love, inclusion, and hospitality. It hadn’t occurred to me that walking past him in the frozen foods aisle might have been contrary to those values.

But it was. I’ve been working in the last few years on being friendlier with congregants I see around the church and outside of it, because it was brought to my attention that my head-down, in-a-hurry, on-my-phone approach to life wasn’t terribly pastoral. Not only that, but I was reminded that, as a pastor at a large church, a lot of people know me, and even if I don’t really know them, my acknowledging and being kind to them means a lot.

I do sometimes resent the fishbowl I’m in as a pastor. Having hundreds of people know who I am when I might not recognize them definitely doesn’t help my social anxiety. But on the flip side, it presents an opportunity to show love and care to people in really small, simple ways. I know I always feel good when someone I know speaks to me in public. Why wouldn’t I take every opportunity to share that same validation with others?

So I’m working on not ignoring people I recognize in public. And I hope you’ll take that as an invitation not to ignore me, either. Because we all have opportunities every day to make the world a little bit kinder and more hospitable.


Published by Sarah Howell-Miller

"I believe in kindness, also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when it is not necessarily prescribed." {Mary Oliver}

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    1. Ha! I wondered if you might have that thought when you saw it. Yes, I would have spoken. 🙂

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