Sacred conversations: the privilege of learning from neighbours
By Sharon Benjamins
It was a cool October morning. A little after 9:30, people began to arrive and wait in chairs, chatting quietly. I was working at Neighbour to Neighbour Centre, a food bank that serves people from all walks of life in Hamilton, Ontario.
My role was to provide “emotional first aid” as one of the many services available at Neighbour to Neighbour Centre (n2ncentre.com). When people asked for someone to talk to, they would be scheduled for a 45-minute appointment with me. Our sessions were kind of like therapy, but I found myself doing a lot more listening than I did anything else. People just wanted someone to listen, and I was happy to do that.
On this particular Wednesday, however, I was tired. I hadn’t slept well and was feeling the weight of life heavy on my shoulders. But I settled into my office and began to welcome people for their appointments with me – and as usual, I was amazed by the resilience and generosity of the people I met.
That same day, an unassuming man made his way into my office and said a quiet greeting. I asked him how he was doing, and he paused for a moment before responding, “I’m alright, you know. Just trying to get by.” I could see the shine of unshed tears in his eyes. As we interacted, I made sure to not rush him, being both gentle and careful.
As he was leaving, he turned back to me, hesitating before asking me about the dental program that Neighbour to Neighbour runs weekly. He told me that he and his wife are in need of a checkup. “I feel safe with you,” he admitted to me with a small smile on his lips, “I thought I could ask you for help.” Hearing him tell me he felt safe with me brought tears to my eyes; I was grateful he felt both comfortable and safe with me.
He had difficulty walking, so I offered him my arm, and we made our way slowly out to the bus that holds the dental program. He told me about his and his wife’s journey from Iran to Canada over ten years ago, explaining to me how different his life is now, and how much he’s enjoyed his time here. Once we reached the bus, one of the hygienists booked him an appointment and made sure he knew where he and his wife needed to be, and when. Then as I walked him back to the food bank, those same tears shone in his eyes and he gave me another smile, gripping my arm gently. He told me that sometimes it is difficult to meet someone with genuine kindness, and that he felt that there was something genuine with me. He told me that he was so glad to have come for his appointment that afternoon.
In my placement at Neighbour to Neighbour, I was privileged to share countless moments like these with individuals I met. People shared many smiles, tears, and stories with me in what felt like sacred conversations.
Prior to beginning my placement, I’m not sure what ideas I had about people who would come to a food bank. Perhaps I had a naive notion that people going to a food bank would be sad and upset with their lives. But that’s not the case at all. Yes, they all are facing hardships – but many people were soft-hearted, vulnerable, and kind. Many would open up to me about their lives while also making jokes and making sure that I felt comfortable.
Not everyone is the same, of course, in their experiences or their walks of life. Some of the people I met had a very hardened exterior, and I wouldn’t push them; I’d just be as kind to them as I could.
My courses at Knox taught me a lot in preparation for my placement – including how to be a good listener, and what tools to use to keep myself protected from not absorbing all these very hard and very heavy stories I was hearing. The courses also taught me how to be open-hearted, and to understand what mental illness and other struggles can look like in people, and how those vary from person to person.
I can see how someone might find this context difficult, working with people in need – but I mostly see it as hopeful and something to approach with curiosity. I like learning about people, hearing about their lives, and being a small part of their lives, even for an hour or two.
Many were incredibly kind and open-hearted towards me and everyone else at the food bank. They showed me the sort of kindness that I desperately wanted to spread in the world, and they showed me how easy it was to do that.
With their hilarity and generosity, they taught me how to take life one day at a time when it all feels like too much, and how to be patient with myself. I provided a listening ear, and in return I came to understand different worldviews, cultures, and many other ways of seeing how our lives are intertwined in this complicated, beautiful world.
Sharon Benjamins is a 2023 Knox College Master of Pastoral Studies graduate.