Touching Strangers

Touching Strangers

November 12, 2013

by Aubrey Allison

When I first started going to the Catholic church on Sundays, my favorite part was holding hands. During the liturgy—not as a general greet-your-neighbors minute at the beginning of the service, but the liturgy—we held hands with the people next to us in the pew and together we said the Lord’s Prayer.

I go to Mass alone, so holding hands with the person next to me means holding hands with a stranger.

It reminded me of a story I’d read online: in a project called “Touching Strangers,” a street photographer named Richard Renaldi asked passers-by if he could take their picture. He would pose two or three people who had never met before, and have them touch and hold each other as if they were intimate friends or family. "I felt like I cared for her," said one man, who was posed with a 95-year-old retired fashion designer. "I felt like it brought down a lot of barriers."

Holding hands with the strangers in the pew beside me felt this way. We stand up from kneeling, wipe our hands on the sides of our pants, and one person reaches for the other. Our Father, who art in Heaven. Maybe the hand I’m holding has a more firm grip than me. I match it. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. The congregation lifts their hands and we say for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen. Moments later we turn to each other to say peace be with you, shake each other’s hands and look into the eyes of the people we pray with.

At the end of Mass, I leave the sanctuary feeling re-centered—not only re-centered on Christ but also on the humanity of each person I meet. So many of my interactions happen online, disembodied, where it’s too easy to see other people as flat: reducible to the opinions they post that I either agree with or I don’t. Text and pictures on a screen. This carries over even into the tangible day-to-day world, where I continue to feel remote from the people I pass until some touch snaps me out of it. Like the subjects of Richard Renaldi’s pictures, I begin to see the people around me afresh. They become not so separate—but at the same time, I see each person as suddenly more complex. It is like Marilynne Robinson writes: “. . . he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”

But, even with my eyes re-opened, my heart warmed by the simple presence of the people around me—still I file out of the wooden church doors and quietly walk back to my car, return to my dorm, and close my bedroom door. The people whose hands I held are no less strangers to me than they were before we touched.

This pattern went on for weeks. Though I saw them all with new eyes, strangers, for the most part, remained strangers.


The dorm I leave and return to every Sunday for Mass is an apartment-style dorm, and while I have a small bedroom to myself, I share a bathroom and a kitchen with a randomly assigned roommate. This year, her name is Kathy. She is a sequential art major, and like me, she will graduate at the end of this quarter. Her husband lives in Massachusetts, where their house is, though they’re trying to sell it so they can move to wherever Kathy can find a job. She is nice. She has long, light brown hair that she always wears in a bun. She keeps a bag of Oral B floss picks next to our shared sink and in the mornings I hear her coffeemaker brewing in her bedroom. We are friendly, but we don’t talk all that often, mostly because I keep my door closed out of a general spirit of introversion.

Two weeks ago, on Halloween, I was worrying the path between my bedroom and our bathroom, trying to paint my face like a skeleton but mostly making a mess of it. The white on my forehead and cheeks was all gloppy, and my attempts to smooth it out only made things worse. Kathy, who had just brewed fresh coffee so she could stay up and revise her portfolio for a review the next morning, peeked her head out of her room.

She didn’t say anything about the face paint at first, but soon my desperation became apparent. “I keep putting moisturizer with the paint to smooth it out, but it’s not working.”

“What kind of paint are you using?”

I showed her the tubes of one-dollar cream face paint.

“This is acrylic,” Kathy said. “The moisturizer is actually making it worse. Just use a little water and that’s all you need.”

“So I should wash this off and start over?”

“Yeah. I can help, if you don’t mind. I actually painted faces at fairs a few times, as a side job.”

So my potluck roommate set aside what she was doing for an hour and a half, and painted my face like a skeleton. She showed me how to dip the brush once into a jar of water, let it graze the lip of the jar as you lift it out, then dip the bristles into paint. She painted a white base coat, studied the reference picture I showed her and then studied my face. She rested the heel of her hand on the side of my jaw to keep steady while she traced the black lines of cheekbones and jawbones and eye sockets. We talked about painting, and about Halloween, and about the portfolio review she had the next day. Before I left, we took pictures of her handiwork, and I shared some cider and cookies I had stashed. Then I left to go to a party, and she stayed behind to work.

Since Halloween, I keep my bedroom door open more of the time. Kathy and I have gone to get coffee and take a break from work together. Most days when I get back from class, Kathy has made progress on an oil painting she keeps on an easel in our little living room, and we talk about how it looks and let the conversation go where it will.

On Sundays now, I come home from Mass with the warmth of holding hands, of taking the Eucharist and saying the prayers and listening, and I try to let that translate not simply into a general love for humanity, but a love and attention to specific people. It’s one thing to look into a stranger’s eyes and feel the depth of their humanity. It’s another thing to engage with them, to ask them questions and to share some of yourself, so that you won’t be strangers anymore.

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