How to write to strangers
September 6, 2020 1:25 PM   Subscribe

I volunteered for my church's card-writing ministry, which seemed like something I can do as an immunocompromised person during COVID. The recipients provided their names, so I'm going to assume they want to hear from strangers, but what in the world do I say?

So there are a few parts to this question.
1. How do I identify myself? Should I put the name of my church on the envelope somewhere? Do I just introduce myself as part of the letter-writing ministry in the body of the letter?
2. Since I don't know these people, I have no idea what they're going through. I would guess they are mostly elderly and many probably have difficult health conditions. Plus COVID is probably especially hard for them, and they may be isolated from family and friends. I have a baseline of our being connected to the same church, but I don't think even that tells me much. What can I say that is sincere and not assuming too much? I don't want to make anyone feel worse!
3. I have found a few places online that discuss this a bit, and I've found them not especially helpful. Injunctions to "be creative" and "be personal" are less useful than some examples of what I can actually write. The guidelines from the church say that the letters should be uplifting and cheering - but it's hard to figure out how to do that. I would really like to hear from MeFites, especially if you've known people who have been the recipients of these kinds of cards and know what's been appreciated.
posted by FencingGal to Human Relations (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Is there any guidance from whoever else has volunteered for card-writing, or whoever coordinates it? At the very least they would probably have suggestions for question 1--how and where to identify yourself and why you're writing.

If they don't have any guidance about content, I'd probably pick an approach--maybe enter it with why you decided to volunteer for this, and how it's been tough for all of us to get out less, and then share a few fun things you've been doing. I'd probably mention some good books I'd been reading, or how lucky I am to have neighbors who garden and give me their leftovers because I can't grow anything. Maybe a funny anecdote.

But then, I'm a babbler.
posted by gideonfrog at 1:43 PM on September 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hi Penpal,

I am writing you as part of church's card-writing ministry. Since I am in so much of the time, I felt like this was something I could do and I am happy to connect with you!

This weekend it was pretty hot. I wanted to go for a walk (with my pet/friend; listening to music/to a garden), but it was too warm. It would be a good idea to get up earlier but I don't want to set an alarm for the weekend. How is the weather for you- do you like the heat or prefer Autumn or Winter? Are you able to get around?

Another thing I wanted to do this weekend was (work on/read/cook X). Last weekend I made lasagna from scratch- well, I used boxed pasta! I tried the kind where you put dry noodles in and it worked out. I was surprised. What is your favorite thing to eat?

This is a really crazy time and I hope that you are doing well. I read news headlines in the morning but there is so much going on I find it stressful at times. If you feel comfortable, you can write me back, even if it is a short note just to let me know you received this and would like to hear more.

Take care,

Share about what you are doing, ask questions as if it is a conversation. Invite them to write you back, but state you will not impose (in case they do not want it). Be generally positive but acknowledge how crazy things are. I write a lot of letters (often to those I do not know through Mefi cardclub etc). If you would like a letter from me, message me your address. :) You could add (church's card-writing ministry) on the back of the envelope or by your address.
posted by maya at 1:56 PM on September 6, 2020 [21 favorites]

Best answer: Dear PenPal,

Our church asked for volunteers for the letter-writing ministry. I am happy to write to you, and if you'd like, you can write back. I'd like to learn more about you and your interests, if you wish. If not, consider this letter as a friendly hello.

My day job is as a (insert job), but some of my interests in my free time are jogging, painting, reading mystery novels, and baking. If you like baking and aren't aware of it already, I highly recommend The Great British Bake-Off, which airs on PBS. It's a wonderful funny show about all the different treats it's possible to bake. It's made me look at my own baking and realize I've been making lumpy messes all along. I don't mind, though. It all tastes good.

My cat was being very entertaining today. Do you like cats or dogs? My cat Frisky is a stray I rescued from outdoors. Now she greatly enjoys the "zoomies", meaning she runs like crazy all over the house, and likes to play catch the string. It's brought me a lot of pleasure to be able to help her. If you want to continue to correspond and would like to see a picture of Frisky, I will send one along next time.

Best wishes and (church salutation of choice),

posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 2:12 PM on September 6, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: This essay is about writing to friends but I think you'll still find it useful.

I'd check with your church for guidance and any useful details that might help you form a connection with your new pen pals. However if that doesn't pan out, here's what I'd do:

1. Identify yourself in the letter as having volunteered for the church letter-writing ministry. There's nothing wrong with putting a note on the envelope or above the return address (Church of X letter ministry / FencingGal/ 123 Main St. / etc).

2. Talk a bit about your connection to the church. "I started attending Church in 2014 and soon after got involved in the soup kitchen with Pat and Jim - perhaps you know them?"

As far as making people feel worse - don't worry about this. It's a compassionate concern to have, but without knowing more about them as individuals it's impossible to say what might or might not possibly be hurtful. As long as you don't complain too much or boast too much - and I can't imagine you doing either - you'll likely do just fine.

3. Try to include a few different "hooks" (potential shared interests) that might give them something to respond to. For example, if you mentioned cooking, local news, and maybe swimming - there's a decent chance that any one person will have some level of interest in at least one of those topics. But choose subjects that interest you and leave the door open for them to talk about whatever interests them. "I just finished a knitting project last night - a blanket for my new nephew. Do you have any hobbies you enjoy?"

4. If it makes sense for your church culture, you might include a poem, scripture or quotation. I've sent a lot of mail to people I don't know well, and quotes have been well-received.

5. Personally I'd get some fun stationery - beautiful or interesting notecards/postcards. People love that stuff.
posted by bunderful at 4:00 PM on September 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'd check with the church a few things first , most importantly how people are selected for the list. If they are congregants it opens you up to including religious content. Does the church have any extra information on them? If you're writing to a single mother of three kids there's room for different content than writing to an 85 year old widower. But my preforma would go like this:


I'm writing to you as part of the CHURCH NAME's card writing ministry. I'm looking forward to sharing beautiful cards with you.

Today I found THIS THING that brought me joy. THIS IS WHAT WAS LOVELY ABOUT IT.

Here is a BIBLE VERSE that relates and that I find inspiring. I hope you find it inspiring too!


So it could go "today I weeded my garden. It always makes me happy to see all the flowers in bloom, and even the tenacity of the weeds is beautiful in their own way. They have a place to be, a desire to grow, and by gum do they grow! It's really good to be out in the sunshine, just tending the good earth. I've got some tomatoes growing but not very well, but I'm learning how to be a better tomato grower every day.

I am reminded of Isaiah 58:11: "The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail."

I'll write again soon!

posted by Jilder at 4:54 PM on September 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I would also double, triple check With your religious elders and the individuals organizing this project that the names and addresses given to you are from consenting adults.

Since the pandemic started we’ve had a serious uptick in religious mail including handwritten letters, form letters and tracts sent to myself, my wife and/or son by name. I’ve suffered a great deal because of religious groups growing up and would prefer them not contacting me (when they do, I usually have a pretty significant trauma reaction that can last for days, and that stress stacked on top of the difficulty and stress of just dealing with life in a pandemic, seems like a highly...mean for a religious group or sect to engage in).

So, taking the time to double check that you’re not actively doing harm would be a great way to start working with this project.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:28 AM on September 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

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