The kindness of strangers, and where it leads: that’s the theme of this week’s episode of NPR’s This American Life, which tells the story of a transformative relationship between Jewish runaway Jack Geiger and African-American actor Canada Lee.
It was 1940. 14-year-old Geiger had completed his high school coursework, but couldn’t find a college that would accept him. There was conflict at home, and after seeing Lee in a powerful theatrical performance, Geiger showed up on the actor’s doorstep — “a scrawny kid with a suitcase on a Sunday night.”
Lee opened his Harlem home to Geiger, becoming “an informal surrogate father.” In what he calls “one of the great educational experiences of my life,” Geiger had the chance to sit in on Lee’s conversations with leaders of the Harlem Renaissance: Langston Hughes, William Saroyan, Adam Clayton Powell.
“What I remember most is listening to the conversations about World War II and race and democracy and segregation in the armed forces; what was happening in the south, what was happening in New York City,” Geiger says.
Geiger went on to serve in the merchant marine during World War II on the USS Booker T. Washington, the only U.S. ship with an integrated crew and a black captain. And Lee loaned Geiger the money to go to college, when he finally found a place that would let him in.
Geiger — the keynote speaker at ASF’s 3rd Annual Fellows for Life Conference next month — would go on to become a leading expert on and activist for issues of health and poverty, whose work in human rights spans more than five decades.
He initiated the community health center model in the U.S., combining community-oriented primary care, public health interventions, and civil rights and community empowerment and development initiatives, and was a leader in the development of the national health center network of more than 800 urban, rural, and migrant centers currently serving an estimated nine million low-income patients.
Geiger is a founding member (1961) and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S. affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1985. He is also a founding member (1986) and past president of Physicians for Human Rights, a national organization of health professionals whose goals are to bring the skills of the medical profession to the investigation and documentation of human rights abuses, violations of medical neutrality, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and to provide medical and humanitarian aid to victims of repression. The organization shared in the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1998.
And all of this was all set in motion by the kindness of a stranger — in other words, the reverence for life of a stranger. After all, isn’t that what Canada Lee displayed by taking Jack Geiger under his wing?
Click here for information about how to register for the 3rd Annual Fellows for Life Conference and hear Dr. Geiger’s keynote.