In 1419 the Silk Guild of Florence established the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents) to care for unwanted babies. A one-way wheel or turnstile was constructed to allow the poor mothers to place the baby on a gentle chute that brought it to safety.. Over the centuries it is estimated more than 350,000 babies were delivered and received in this way. The hospital still cares for needy children
The kindness of strangers is a beautiful thing. And mysterious. Why, after all, should we care for people and their dependants, whom we don’t know, who don’t fit our social world and may never show us any appreciation or gratitude? As the Pope said recently, there are those who build walls against the strangers who threaten us and there are those who do everything possible to help the stranger as if they were their own kin.
Ali, my minicab driver in London, is a young immigrant from Afghanistan. Ten years or so ago, the Taliban infiltrated his village and members of his family were being killed. So his father raised some money and told him to leave. He travelled through Iran and into Greece, then through Europe and finally hid in a lorry across the Channel. It was a gruelling ordeal for a sixteen year old boy. I asked him how the officials who received his application for refugee status treated him. Were they nice? They were very nice, he said, and treated him with great kindness. He was housed in a home where ten young refugees were looked after by a house mother, taught English and eventually helped to get a job. Now he is proud and safe with his British passport.
When he told me how kindly he had been treated I felt both relieved and deeply proud of the English. I had feared he might have been coldly and grudgingly accepted not warmly welcomed. When the spark of compassion jumps from one island of humanity to another – we are all isolated islands in the vast sea of humanity at times – the whole world is transformed, hope and happiness return to sad and lonely lives.
The gratuitous kindness of a stranger towards us awakens our capacity for kindness towards him and others. The immense fragility and vulnerability of human beings, however strong they may appear, is revealed and shared in the connection. The kindness of stranger is not the same as philanthropy. It is not a handout. It is a meeting of redemptive intimacy. When two vulnerabilities, who do not know each other, meet and are kindness to each other the gates of heaven open and the perpetual sunshine of the kingdom floods into our dark and drizzly world.
If we are doing Lent well, we might be feeling a little more capable of this extraordinary perception that changes the world – of seeing the needs of a stranger as our own.