People are sometimes surprised to learn that I was cripplingly shy as a kid. A barnacle on mom’s leg, nearly. There were many reasons, like getting lost at a festival when I was really young and many hours reading alone or hiking with the dogs as I got older.
That isolation started to chip away in high school theater and college, but it really weakened once I got hired as a reporter. My JOB was to approach strangers and talk to them, and my paycheck depended upon it. Strong motivation and a good opener really helped overcome the shyness.
Inside, though, I still have some of the introvert left. No one sees it because I’m generally gregarious and loud, but it’s there nonetheless.
I just asked Tracy, “Do you consider me an introvert or an extrovert?” Her head immediately shot toward me, eyes wide, already exclaiming, “Extrovert. There’s really no doubt.” Married nearly fourteen years and still discovering each other…
See? Tracy has a point, but the introvert has come back a bit the past few years. Long removed from my necessary extroversion at the paper and even from my later interactions with students and colleagues, I have had many days of no contact with anyone other than her and the kids.
Approaching strangers has therefore gotten a little uncomfortable again at times, so it was helpful to get sent out by a workshop’s teachers at the convention last week. Find a stranger, establish rapport, and take a portrait that conveys a story.
Couldn’t I just become a barnacle again instead?
On the street, about twelve of us scattered, scanning everyone we met, trying to see whether any seemed open to making a passing friend and being photographed. People everywhere, but rushing home from work or out to dinner or some other place (none said where they were going, none were asked, none had seemed willing to chat). I considered a pizza place but then saw a classmate come out and declare that another of us was in there with “the mean lady” who owned it.
I turned the corner and walked up a hill. The neighborhood was beautiful and full of character, urban and concrete and stone
but artfully designed and built. Walking by a church, I noticed a little iron gate. Open. Inviting. A sign stated when it wasn’t open to the public, implying that it was then. Inside was a courtyard full of grass and shrubs and trees, dormant flower beds eager to bud, and plaques dedicating areas and declaring God’s love. A safe place for an introvert to venture.
A man was walking the brick path out, away from a building. I introduced myself and what I was doing; he chatted with me only a moment but told me I could get a good meal from the folks inside that door just over there. Inside, I met two greeters, who talked with me about the food program and the church but pointed me downstairs for pictures of the program itself. Deeper into a church, into familiar territory and old habits.
Downstairs, the program was over and the crew was cleaning hurriedly. I introduced myself to Mike, a whirlwind with a broom agreeable to being photographed perhaps because that was faster than arguing no. Keeping him in focus and in the frame was a bigger challenge than approaching strangers, but I got some shots that were usable.
I went further into the cleanly painted basement and met Pat, an Air Force safety manager washing dishes. It was his first time helping the program, having been invited by a friend. I got my best shots of him, partly because he was moving quickly but standing in one place.
I met two more crew members: Gail, the lady to whom I was directed after asking where to send the pictures, and Denise, the pastor who explained that they were from a different church but manned the program in this one on this night. A group of thirteen churches from many denominations work together to make sure the homeless can get a hot meal every day in Lancaster. I always admire that sort of cooperation.
In under ten minutes, I’d introduced and explained myself to about a dozen people, all of whose names I knew that night (but have mostly forgotten by now, a few frantic convention days later). I’d gotten to knock some rust off – about being shy, about being slow with my camera or notes, and about being inattentive to open gates and doors – and I’d met some people working hard for the benefit of others.
I’d also remembered my manners. Having gotten so much from them, I walked back downstairs to ask if they’d like a group portrait. They did, minus one person who seemed a bit shy; I guess we’re not all extroverts.
I headed back to the hotel, stopping in that shop for a slice of pizza. The owner saw my camera, so I (mindful of my classmate’s earlier warning) assured her I was done with that and just hungry. Maddie and I had a nice conversation, actually; by the end, she’d even let me take her picture anyway. She and her husband, Renato, have owned the place for about forty years, and they and their employee Willie were very interested in our missionary work (Willie I saw twice more: once when he came to see me at the convention and once when we bumped into each other at a play). Mark, a man who’d declined my introduction on the street, chatted with me by the counter, perhaps reassured that Maddie seemed to accept me. Truly, I didn’t spot anything mean about her, and that was another good reminder: form our own relationships with people, don’t adopt someone else’s.
The next day, our class had to do it again, this time getting three pictures: an overall shot, a dominant portrait, and a detail shot. Approaching folks didn’t seem as uncomfortable, but asking them for three pictures sure did. I was tempted to go into Maddie and Renato’s, but that seemed too easy.
I briefly thought I’d get my pictures from my first contact. I met James, a bail bondsman standing outside his office. He was friendly and explained his work and let me take one angle of him by his sign, but that was all he had time for, as he had to file papers with a judge. I approached a few more who walked by hurriedly. Walking by the previous night’s church, I snapped a picture of its historical plaque; further down that street, I tried entering a tattoo parlor to get photos there; it was closed, but two words scrawled in chalk on a brick wall made an interesting shot. A lady about to cross a street seemed promising, so I took the overall shot and prepared to introduce myself for the portrait and detail, but she angled straight to her car. A city parks and recreation employee seemed approachable but got into a truck and headed off. It was daytime, and people were busy on their day. Rather than get what I needed easily, I started to wonder if I’d be going back for pizza.
I greeted a passing man and paused; he walked on before I could say more, yet he turned back, too. He’d seen the word “ministry” on my convention nametag lanyard and asked me about it. I explained that I was a missionary journalist in town for a convention and needed some pictures for a class, and Leonard (“Lee-oh-nard”) explained that he works with a homeless ministry. We talked for close to eight minutes on the street, of our ministries and churches, of past mistakes and the joy of God moving us past them. He let me take all the photos I needed; I let him have the water bottle I hadn’t opened. I prayed for him and his friends and ministry and church. He took a prayer card and promised to pray for our family and work in Cape Town.
In two days and two walks, I’d had many reminders, gotten over some shyness again, and made some new friends. Among them were Renato (whose Spanish name means “to rise again”) and Leonard, “the lion-hearted.”
Rise again, lion-hearted.
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9 (NIV)