“Oh, those are too big for you,” the woman sitting to my right said to someone trying on glasses across the eye doctors’ waiting room. “I don’t think you should spend the money on those.” She made a few more discouraging comments. Her friend didn’t respond.
With my eyes dilated, I was trying to read a book about three inches from my face. The woman turned to me anyway. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” she said. “People don’t always want advice.” Knowing how tricky giving advice to friends can be, I said, “Not always” in an agreeable voice.
“Especially from people they don’t know,” she said. She’d been criticizing a complete stranger.
They Got Along
My neighbor, who looked to be in her fifties, explained: “People are so unfriendly in Pittsburgh. I just moved here from Washington state near Canada. We all got along. You can talk to anyone. People will just talk to you.”
But Pittsburghers don’t. “They so unfriendly,” she said again, clearly vexed. “Why wouldn’t you want to know about the people you’re with?”
I thought about saying, “If you want a stranger to talk to you, don’t criticize her glasses.” I didn’t, because it might hurt her feelings and I didn’t have time to talk it out.
Instead I explained that Pittsburghers tend to stay around Pittsburgh more than people in other cities. I’ve read somewhere that the Pittsburgh area has the highest percentage of people living here who were born here. It’s much higher than any other American city’s.
Pittsburghers have unusually extensive networks of family and friends. They have parents and grandparents and cousins and old school buddies to hang out with. They have long-standing traditions, like the friend who’s watched every Steelers game with his brother-in-law for about 30 years.
“Why talk to anyone when you already know the hundred people you want to know?” I said to my neighbor. She nodded.
A Great Thing
This Pittsburgh closeness is a great thing, and I envy it. When we moved here, my parents and sister were 500 miles in one direction and my grandparents 500 miles in another. My wife’s parents were a little closer but they didn’t travel much. We’d have loved to them all close by, especially in the later years as all six of them got sick.
I’d love to have the networks so many natives have. They always have some place to be, some gathering where they’re insiders, members, family. They don’t have to work at making friends.
It’s hard on us outsiders. You want to invite new friends over for lunch after Mass. The odds are about two to one they’re native Pittsburghers. If they are, the odds are about three to one that they will be going to the wife’s brother-in-law’s cousin’s third child’s birthday party. They may well not even know the people. But family is family.
But here’s the great thing about the Church. It throws everyone together. The native and the newcomer. The well-connected and the outsider. The Pittsburgher with 27 family members within two miles of her house and the person who left his family behind in Oregon to move here.
The Church does this in two ways. She does it by pointing us to a deeper brotherhood than coming from the same family or growing up in the same town. We’re brothers and sisters in Christ, who share in his Body and Blood and look forward to being together forever in Heaven.
The old humorist Will Rogers said “A stranger is only a friend I haven’t met yet.” A stranger at Mass is only a fellow future saint you haven’t met yet. You may not be the wife’s brother-in-law’s cousin’s third child. But you’re kind of like that. You have a relation, an in. In theory, you could show up on Sunday after Mass and help yourself to a beer from the cooler and a burger from the grill.
She does it in a practical way as well. The parish offers all sorts of chances to tap into her life and work, and make friends that way. Ushering, rosary groups, adoration schedules, cantoring, lectoring, teaching CCD or RCIA, the Knights, the Lenten Fridays fish dinners, the parish festival, we have all sorts of ways to break in. There’s nothing like working or praying together for making friends.
God Don’t Think Like That
Of course we don’t live out the reality of a deeper brotherhood very well. We’re sinners and sinners get clannish and throw up walls to keep out people they don’t know or like. We could certainly be kinder and more welcoming than we are. That would be a great kindness in a society where so many people are lonely and separated from those who care for them.
But we have a truth to live up to and a work to be done, and both of those will make us at least a little kinder and more welcoming than we would be otherwise. If we’re not, that’s a sign we are not be the Catholics we think we are.
The nurse called my new friend just after I’d explained Pittsburghers. She turned around after a few steps. “Good thing God don’t think like that in Heaven,” she said. No, He doesn’t. But as an outsider, I’d still say that Heaven is a little like Pittsburgh.