Pixabay image of children on playground

Our capacity to connect

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By Martin Elfert

He laughed again. “Ah, Rachel-le, I say to Him, ‘God, is it OK to love strangers?’ And God says, ‘Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.’”

– Rachel Naomi Remen, “Kitchen Table Wisdom”

From time to tine, a video resurfaces on social media of a New York-based artist by the name of Richard Renaldi. I never get tired of watching it. Renaldi is a photographer and, like a lot of the creative people whom I admire, his work defies easy categorization. It is equal parts art, social experiment, and divine prank.

Renaldi’s conceit is to find two or more strangers on the street and then to pose them for a portrait as though they were close friends or, perhaps, even a couple. He gives his models – newly introduced to him, newly introduced to one another – instructions on how to stand, where to look, where to place their hands. In many of the pictures, two people hold hands or embrace one another.

The results are sometimes awkward. More than one of Renaldi’s photos remind me of the comedy of Ricky Gervais, so that I am unsure whether the appropriate response is to laugh or to wince. But more often, the photos are beautiful. If I didn’t know the backstory of these photographs – if I saw them without any kind of explanation – I suspect that I would tell you that the people in them have known and loved one another for years.

Reviewing Renaldi’s work, it is hard not to conclude that, in it, we see recorded a timeless and a deep human yearning. A yearning to make contact with one another, to love and to be loved. Anyone who has hung out at a playground has seen children transition in something close to an instant from strangers to friends. In the first photograph the children do not know one other. In the next they are playing tag or digging in the sand or crafting a world built from the grand vaults of their imaginations.

Somewhere across the years, however – sometime during that melancholic and hard and, I suppose, necessary process that we call growing up – most of us lose the ability to make friends with such rapidity and such ease. We became cautious, guarded, reserved.

What Renaldi’s photographs suggest, however, is that we have never entirely lost the capacity to connect that we knew on the playground. Just beneath the surface, it is still there.

A moment ago we were apart. And then some accident of the Holy Spirit blew us to the same place. And now, picture this, we are here. Together.

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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