Just a little
One year we also had a girl in our class who obviously lived in poverty and wasn’t taken care of. She wasn’t always clean and her clothes were worn and ill-fitting. And her hair was long and tangled and a real mess. I don’t think I ever knew where she lived or what her story was. I’m sure we all had a story about her and I’m imagine we were sometimes unkind both in our thoughts and in our actions. Our community was a mixture of families of all kinds of backgrounds and income levels, and a poorly dressed girl was not unique, but we kids could be pretty insensitive sometimes, too.
But one day, my happy friend brought a hairbrush to school, I think it might have been her own hairbrush, and while we were all standing out in the hall one day (I forget why but I still remember standing there) she brushed the other girl’s tangled mess of hair. It hung down below her shoulders and was thick and a little wavy, and after 10 minutes or so with that brush - maybe it was longer or just seemed longer to my 3rd of 4th grade self - 10 minutes of brushing which the girl first endured but then enjoyed as my friend kept talking with her the whole time, complimenting her, calming her, helping her enjoy having us all look at her when normally that would be the last thing she wanted, our focused attention. We all marveled at the transformation when the brushing was done. Her hair was beautiful! And the girl was beautiful, too.
It was just a little thing, bringing a brush for this girl who clearly was not well taken-care of. I seem to remember the grown-ups around wondering about whether or not the episode would produce a classroom full of head lice. Maybe it did. We knew we weren’t supposed to share brushes. I wasn’t even all that big on brushing my own hair at that age. But the infestation would have already been there. Lord knows, plenty of the kids in my class in my little small town school ended up with lice. The point was, my friend just offered a small kindness to an impoverished little girl and for at least a little while, that made a wonderful difference. Did it change her life? I don’t know. I hope she still remembers it. It certainly wasn’t a substitute for supporting policies and programs that help people get out of poverty. But we were all little ones then, and it sure changed how we looked at her.
In our short Gospel reading today, Jesus is finishing up his missionary talk and he is telling the disciples that people will welcome them, they will welcome their work. After all that he has said in these last weeks, the hard things he’s asked his disciples to do, he ends up with this simple message that even small kindnesses will have great impact in a hurting world. Following him will be hard, he has said, but it turns out that it doesn’t have to be heroic. Just a cup of cold water to a thirsty person will be enough. Just a brush for a tangle of hair. Just a smile - which we have to learn to do so that it shows through our eyes since our masks cover our lips. Just a kind word to the harried grocery store shelf stocker or cashier.
And like the grousing about lice, every kindness won’t be unambiguously praised. But as Cicero said, virtue is its own reward. Of course that was before Jesus. Jesus said that righteousness is the reward, but also that a prophet will receive the reward of a prophet, and we all know how that whole prophet thing turned out for guys like Jeremiah and Elijah, who were reviled by people who didn't want to hear what they had to say. Jeremiah ended up in a cistern before being carried off to Egypt into exile. But even now, studies show that just interacting positively with a stranger will cause happiness. Doing random acts of kindness. Giving out compliments, smiling, encouraging, writing a thank you note.
All of these are ways of making connections, even if they are fleeting, even if they are just in the moment. But it is in our connections that we experience both our own humanity and the humanity of others. Especially when we reach outside our usual circle.
And boy do we need to be reaching outside of our usual circle now. I am so disheartened when I see or hear about people fighting about wearing masks and keeping physical distance, even to the point of walking over and coughing in someone’s face. My mother used to use the phrase “act ugly” to describe some of the things we are seeing now. We are such a fragmented, even polarized society. And it’s so much more comfortable, so much easier, to just stay in our circle.
But it makes a difference to be kind to a stranger, to one who is different. I don’t know if it changes them, but it changes us. And now is the time to reach out. It doesn’t have to be heroic. Just a few minutes of brushing. Just a smile and word of welcome from even behind your mask. Just a cold cup of water. It’s how we change the world.