Alena’s story is an exploration of the power of forgiveness. Because Alena holds onto her anger for so long, building it into “a high place in her heart,” what happens when she lets it go is extraordinary. Few people can forgive their would-be murderer, let alone offer condolences to his widow or inspire a whole church congregation to a mission of reconciliation at his funeral. It takes faith and courage to confront oppressors gently, but most of all it takes a conviction of God’s love.
Despite her dramatic reversal of attitude, such forgiveness does not descend on Alena immediately. First she must give her hatred and resentment up to God. It is notable that when she first tries to do so, huddled in the storeroom, she is not sure if she has reached God. However, having unloaded her confusion into God’s hands, she is subtly changed, so that when the moment comes when her life’s direction hangs in the balance, she makes the right decision. Once she no longer “has to hate,” she can connect with those near her in genuine friendship and love. She can help build bonds of community in her Chicago neighborhood. Finally, she can reach across the boundaries to the “Samaria” of the book’s title—those strangers who may even seem to hate her. Hence the ideal of connectedness complements the primary theme of forgiveness. Without the latter, fragile and precious relationships with others cannot endure.
Also notable is the book’s focus on prayer. Not only is prayer the path by which Alena connects with God; it is a resource and discipline by which one can deal with problems that otherwise appear hopeless. Deac prays for Pearl, in the hope that the younger man be saved from his downward spiral of bad behavior. Miranda Bates and her pastor pray all night, after she fails to dissuade her husband from his plan to murder Alena. As in life, prayers are not always answered in the way the requestor expects. In Passing by Samaria, at least, there is no doubt that prayer contributes to God’s working his will in mysterious ways.