“I Was a Stranger”

 

strangerWhat is our first reaction, our spontaneous response, when we meet the stranger? 

“Who let’s these people in here anyway?” asked the man. He was agitated and shaking his head, in complete dismay. “I mean” he paused “The woman who served me coffee the other day was Moroccan!” His voice raised in incredulity at the end of this declaration. The man was a casual friend of ours and he was speaking to my husband on a chance meeting at a convenience store nearby.

My husband took a second then responded calmly “Who let your people in here?”

Brilliant.

But our friend didn’t hesitate and was not to be silenced. “My people came on the Boat!” he said with authority and pride. He did not have to specify “which” boat. Depending where you live, this conversation is not uncommon. It is not nearly as rare as I would wish it to be.

The French philosopher Zvetan Tdorov puts this response well when he says that “our first spontaneous reaction in regards to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us”.  If one could see the unfiltered version when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger, they may see this response.

Daily in our world we encounter the stranger.

Some times the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.

And now I speak to the Christian who is reading — the one who believes that the gospel message is for all people. Hear this: the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different then we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*

The stranger – that one who is foreign, not one of us, unknown.  From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The verse below is not ambiguous in its command:

‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’

We are told to “love” the stranger. Not just tolerate, not pass by, not ignore – but to love.

International students, immigrants, refugees – they all fall under the category of the ‘stranger’. The journeys that brought them to the United States are as varied as the tapestry of experiences they come with.

Take international students as an example. Figures vary, but the United States has over 800,000 international students that arrive every fall for the academic year. Statistics on international students show that 80% of them never set foot in and American home. Never. Former world leaders who were international students at one time include Benazir Bhutto, Fidel Castro, and King Abdullah of Jordan. The state department maintains a list of current world leaders who at one time participated in American academic programs. The list includes almost 300 former or current leaders.

I have to ask myself – were they ever invited into the home of an American? Was hospitality extended to them during their tenure as students? Or did they come to this country and leave, without so much as a cup of coffee in the home of someone from the United States?

Who is the stranger in our midst? Who is the stranger in your midst? 

And how do we respond to that stranger?

Can we ask ourselves this question and be honest in our responses? What is our first spontaneous reaction in regard to a stranger? What is our response to difference?

Do we consider some worthy of our hospitality and others unworthy? Some superior because they are attractive, or white, or clean, or smart, or beautiful? Do we love only those with whom we agree, because we believe the same things on faith and God? Do we believe those who look like us are somehow more worthy of God’s love and of ours?  Do we love because of obligation or duty which is really no love at all? Do we believe we are more lovable because of who we are and how we live?

Or do we love because first we were loved?

It is the Advent season and daily we are reminded of the Incarnation – God become man. If there was ever one to meet the stranger it was Jesus, the God-Man. Leaving all that was rightfully his, he came into our midst and encountered a world that didn’t know what to do with a Messiah. He engaged the stranger and found out their story, he entered into their story, and by entering their story – their lives were never the same.

So this advent, can we look at the stranger and imagine him as equal? Can we embrace the stranger with an invitation to dinner offering a side helping of genuine hospitality and pumpkin pie? Can we put aside our discomfort with difference, and see what might happen? Can we bring the stranger home?

What will our response be in regard to the stranger? 

*Matthew 25:35

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8 thoughts on ““I Was a Stranger”

  1. I am sure you are not surprised that this post really touched my heart and soul and I needed to share it with others, so I did on FB. Working and loving the refugees, international students, people in general enables this woman to say a hearty AMEN!! What seems so simple to me is not shared by others. And then I think of how fearful people are of anything different. Grieves my heart and I wonder what made the difference in their thinking and view.

    It brought back very unpleasant memories of a recent wedding we attended. When one woman learned that my daughter was working for an Iraqi women she went off in a tirade of hate speech (and this Iraqi woman was born and raised in CA before coming to our area and was a citizen). When I could no longer endure the ugliness, I expressed that I was thankful that America opened its arms, as it did to my grandfather when he came through Ellis Island! I was mad and my daughter said it showed :-) But it did not calm the woman only gave her more ammunition because she believed that only those who came from judeo-christian backgrounds should be allowed to enter our lands. What I saw was the ugliness of hate, not the love of Christ she claimed to embrace. But Jesus…!!! yes and Amen.

    Oh how rich others would be in ways unimaginable if they opened their hearts, homes and lives to the stranger.

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    1. Your last paragraph says it all– we lose out on so much when we Don’t take in the stranger. I’ve had painful encounters like yours before. Made far worse than the one I relayed because it is with Christians. One still makes me so angry I can’t even write about it. It defies my imagination how Christians think this is okay– that it’s okay to dismiss entire countries and populations. Would love to have a far longer conversation with you. Thank you though for reading and for this chance to talk.

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      1. Funny, I just read this post to my daughter and husband after our Sunday meal (and also shared portions of it in the devotional I had to do last night at a woman’s Christmas party), and told them I so want to sit down and chat face to face with you sometime. I read it because my daughter just said she wished we had a little more Israeli (and Palestinian for that matter)in us and our culture because of the hospitality she experienced first hand while studying in Israel. It does take a conscious effort and choice to be counter cultural. I have had people say that my appreciation of peoples and missions “must be your thing!” To which I thought, “shouldn’t it be all Christian’s thing?” Can it truly be just a comfort zone thing? really? Now that I work 5 days a week with close to an hour commute it is more challenging to have my doors open and my family misses that our table does not routinely include these that some would call the stranger. So, since our Christmas Eve will only consist of 3 this year, I am about to change that with invitations.
        Last night I challenged the women that the stranger is also the one who is right among us at church,we sing next to them, we pray next to them, we walk in and out, but do we see them? Do we engage with them and learn their story?

        Have a wonderful Christmas filled with family and former strangers that you now call friend, or brother or sister.

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  2. Great stuff! I could not help myself to think as I read about your friend’s response about the Mayflower-
    Well I guess the Native Americans let “your” people in! :)

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  3. Thanks, Marilyn, for your thoughts on strangers and what our attitude, particularly as Christians, should be toward them. I especially enjoyed reading the statistics about international students.

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    1. Thanks Christie– I remember when I first heard the statistic on International students being invited to homes and being shocked. Particularly as so many come from countries and cultures that place a high value on hospitality. What I wish I had been able to address is how fun it is. Once you take that first step you’re never the same!

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