Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Conversations with Strangers (stories)

Introduction: Beginning a series of stories that focus on "conversations with strangers." I will be adding stories one at a time until.... This series is open ended at this point. Initially I am writing for the TT-PiSTLE weekly newsletter sent out to members of the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, Iowa.

Story 1: A Ghana and Nigeria Coffee Hour

A fascinating coffee hour conversation took place a Sunday ago. Two strangers, one from Ghana and the other from Iowa City began a conversation. After a few exchangers between these two strangers it was revealed the one from Ghana caused the other to say my husband and I lived in Nigeria. Both are countries in West Africa and the connection changed the dynamic of the conversation. They were now more animated in the continuing exchanges. Conversations are for connecting our stories in order for new revelations to be revealed on a variety of levels, some surface and some in depths.

Years ago I had a short conversation with Sir Roger Banister, the man who broke the four minute mile. He had become a neurologist specialist of the autonomic nervous system which includes the Shy Dragger Syndrome. My question before we were interrupted was what is going on in the autonomic nervous system that causes the facial expressions to change during a conversation? He said the placebo effect. I was left with perplexity. A year later in a journal I found an article on placebo and nacebo. The English define placebo differently than Americans. “The relationship a person has with another is as important as the task.” 

Coffee hours become places of healing where we live out our Baptism. Our well being can be enhanced. The Holy Spirit is among us.  

Story 2: We don’t know each other yet. 


After being ordained Deacon in June of 1955, Bishop Smith assigned me to be vicar at St. George’s, LeMars, IA., and curate at St. Thomas Church, Sioux City, IA. I soon learned it was C.B. Chesterman (owned both the 7UP and Coca Cola franchises) who was funding my salary. Not only that, he wanted to meet with me once a month. That had me more than curious. The once a month turned out to be a dinner at the best restaurant in town. I was the guest of CB and his wife. Picture a 25 year-old at dinner with a couple in their 80’s. We soon were comfortable with each other and the evenings were great. He didn’t pry too much into what I was doing as a curate. I don’t remember when it was, but they were an amazing couple and I had to ask, “You both seem to enjoy each other, and you have a lot of laughs, what is the secret to your relationship?” Without hesitation, CB replies, “We don’t know each other yet.” I had to repeat that to see if I understood correctly. I remember we briefly explored what that meant. I have kept that one liner in my consciousness, and I hope the line resides in my sub conscious as conversations move to a deeper level beyond the casual. I extend this invitation to all of us, “we don’t know each other yet.”

Story 3: We knew each other before we met


When pastor Lavin was at St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Davenport, IA., back in the 1970’s, he had a number of small groups that met regularly. They were called koinenia groups. They were patterned after books written by Howard Clinebell, a pastoral theologian. 


A Lutheran pastor from the Netherlands came to America to learn more about the small group movement. When he visited St. Paul’s, Pastor Lavin told him about our Befriender program. I soon had a visitor in the pastoral care office at St. Luke’s Hospital.  We began to share information about our training lay people in pastoral care. Each of us understood the other since our programs were almost identical. They were so much alike we began skipping thoughts since we knew what the other would say. I have never had a conversation like that since. He said he had written a book about his work. I said send me a copy. He said it’s in Dutch. I said that’s okay. He did send the book. And in the front page he wrote, “We knew each other before we met.” I had a Palmer student from Holland translate certain pages that helped me know about his pastoral work. We were definitely ground breakers at the time in our separate countries.

Story 4. Two Iowa Farmers give me a Lesson in Metaphors.  

(part 1)


Back in 1976 I was still seeing people before surgery. I called on Mr. Giebelstein who was from the same Cedar County farm area where I lived for 8 1/2 years. While focusing on his surgery I learned he had gone to barn dances where my father was the fiddle player. The new information caused me to negotiate a visit to tape record some stories. He agreed. I concluded with a prayer and left.  In a few days I was back to record. 


To introduce my father as a fiddle player I said, “I have the violin and the case. It needs some strings, the bow needs to be restrung.” 


He said, “Well you know they wear and give out with age. Just like we do. Wither away.” I provide an open-ended response. “There is wear and tear to us.” 


He said, “Yah but you gave me quite an encouragement. You know when I came to the hospital I had given up all hope and faith of coming out of here. …”


There is more. No stories about my father. I am being called to respond as a chaplain. He has moved the broken bow strings to his own life, wear and tear, and not surviving. A metaphorical move of the first order. 

(Part 2)

I was hoping to record information about my father as a fiddle player for barn dances during Mr. Giebelstein’s recovery from surgery. Instead he kept moving the conversation to other topics. 

He had been very nervous before surgery thinking he might not survive. My visit had been helpful he said. Now he reviewed a different approach provided by his friend, he said, “you have to stay with the boat.” I countered with “there is no large body of water in Cedar County.” He continued with his friends approach, “you have to stay with the boat in order to survive.” We had been reading the Noah and the flood story in morning chapel and now the story becomes a summary for support. After surgery he had an update, “So you just stay with the boat and you’ll come out of it.” I suggest, “Maybe the boat is a kind of religious symbol.” His reply, “That could be. You know, Noah used the boat.” He makes the connection.

Transcribing the recording provided a metaphorical conversation with strangers. Remembering the chapter on language in a philosophy book, there I found underlined passages on metaphor 24 years before. Aristotle is correct. “Find the metaphor.” I experienced a paradigm shift (1976) in how to listen and I changed the way I trained Befrienders to be story listeners. I reviewed my conversational life and found I had already been making decisions based on metaphor without knowing. The Lord works in mysterious ways. The door was now open for many more revelations and healings. Aha! Thanks be the God!

Chaplain Whitmer, BCC (Ret.)


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