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A Stranger's Gift: True Stories of Faith in Unexpected Placesby Tom Hallman
I’d pulled a Sunday shift at The Oregonian, the Portland newspaper where I’ve worked for decades, and when I arrived in the newsroom that morning, I found my assignment—a single sheet of paper that changed my life.
An assistant city editor planning Monday’s paper had left instructions for me to write about Life Change Christian Center, a predominately black church holding a Sunday service at its new building.
Fire had gutted the original building, and after eight long years of nonstop fundraising, members had bought and remodeled an abandoned grocery store to create a new home in what had been a neighborhood eyesore. My job was to attend a service, interview the pastor, and gather quotes from members for a story that readers would soon forget. That simple story launched me on a journey to discover the meaning of faith.
I’m not a theologian, can’t quote Bible passages, and live in one of the nation’s top three least-churched cities. During my life I hadn’t given religion or faith more than a passing thought. That made me the perfect traveler for this journey. I had no agenda or itinerary, nothing to prove, and no one to convince. I let my curiosity be my guide. In the pages that follow, I’ll introduce you to some of the people I met along the way. All are struggling—a word I’ve learned to take great comfort in—with faith and how it applies to their lives.
I’ve written two books and numerous national magazine articles, but chose a somewhat different structure for this project, as it best serves the purpose of trying to explore and explain what stirred in me that day I was sent to Life Change.
The news business has taught me that readers are bombarded and overwhelmed by facts. Answers to most questions can be found within seconds on the Internet. What we long for is meaning and connection at a deeper and more universal level.
Since I was going to explore something so nebulous as faith, I turned to people from all walks of life and asked them to share with me stories of faith.
What is it?
How did they discover it?
Why does it matter?
The familiar writing mantra—show, don’t tell—doesn’t apply here. How does a writer show something so internal? I could describe a couple holding hands and then kissing, and you’d rightly say you’re witnessing love. I could write scene after scene in a church, putting you there in the midst of the sights and sounds, but as I learned on this journey, those moments are but a small part of the faith experience.
Faith is looking in the mirror in the morning and wondering why. It’s about doubt and hope, catching a glimpse of a beacon piercing the fog of life and walking toward it, never knowing if you’re headed in the right direction but pressing onward nevertheless. Even in a crowded church with people sitting so close that their arms touch, not one of them feels, contemplates, or uses faith in the same way.
Faith is catching a glimpse of a beacon piercing the fog of life and walking toward it, never knowing if you’re headed in the right direction, but pressing onward.
My dilemma was to write about something so formless in a way that would engage your heart, soul, and mind—the three elements I came to believe are necessary to tackle the question of faith. I decided to invite you on my journey as I sought out people who could reflect on particular aspects of faith that intrigued me.
People are willing to give advice on how they dropped ten pounds in a month, improved their sex lives, or made a killing in gold. But talking honestly about faith cuts close to the bone. Some people I met told me their faith life was so personal that they’d never even talked to their spouse about how they felt. I engaged in multiple conversations with people who invited me into their lives and became what I considered my faith teachers. Through these long conversations, they showed me the mystery, grace, and power of faith in a way that made it real, relevant, and usable. I attempted to weave it together: my journey and the character’s stories and conversations that—given context—became meaningful and thought provoking in ways that linger long after the page is turned.
I’m a man with hopes and dreams, with flaws and strengths, a man who has experienced good times and bad. I’ve butted up against doubt and ego, enjoyed great professional success, and experienced the pain of embarrassment. I’m just like you. At this moment—you reading words I’ve written—we’re connected. That’s a powerful reminder that God works through people.
A writer’s job is to filter: pluck a quote, paraphrase, condense, and find certainty. I, of course, did that. But as much as possible, I wanted you with me during these conversations, listening and weighing what relates, doesn’t relate, or could relate to your life. Narrative writers talk about a story’s moment of insight when everything makes sense. Within these pages you won’t find one moment. You will have to discover the moments that resonate within you as you set out, or continue, on your unique journey of faith.
When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, I had just taken off from Chicago. The pilot was forced to turn around and, like all the nation’s nonemergency civilian planes, we were grounded. I spent three days in an airport hotel before I boarded a train to Portland, Oregon.
So many people were heading west that Amtrak added extra cars. We settled in, ignoring one another in the way strangers segregate on an office elevator. The dining car, though, was packed, and we had to share tables. We were in a bubble—no one knew what was happening in the rest of the world—and we made small talk as we looked out the windows. Then, only because we were strangers, we let down our guard.
Through conversation, we learned about each other. Not just facts—our names, where we lived, and what we did for work—but how we lived. Because we knew we’d never see one another again, we felt free to ask probing, almost intrusive, questions that none of us would have asked in any other situation.
We heard about the man battling booze, the woman worried about her children, and the salesman growing old, fearful that he wasn’t going to make his monthly figures. Instead of talking about politics and sports or gossiping about celebrities, we had a conversation that ended only when dinner was over and we went our separate ways. Back in my seat, I was unable to sleep. The conversations made me think about my life, where I was headed and what I wanted.
Anyway, that’s what’s going to happen in this book.
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