“We Speak the Language of Elsewhere”

passport with quote

“A janitor is sweeping the courtyard. He’s a dark shade of sunny……So I go to Azibo, the janitor. He’s old and I’m young, but we both speak the language of elsewhere. We become buddies.” No Shade Under the Sun by Valerie Wilson


I stand in a crowded subway, pinned in on all sides. My eyes sweep the crowd, silent observer of those around me. I’m looking for those who may speak the “language of elsewhere.” It almost becomes a private game as I try to guess who else speaks this language. The young mom who didn’t know how to get on the subway and so was impatiently jostled – she speaks the language of elsewhere. The two students who are chatting in staccato German? They speak the language of elsewhere. And the women in hijab? She too speaks this language. There are others, but most of us are silent. Afraid that there will not be interpreters for elsewhere, that elsewhere is too vague and abstract to be interpreted properly. But for us, it is neither vague nor abstract – it is real.

When you grow up between worlds you speak the language of other, the language of elsewhere. While your appearance may say one thing, your inner life, should it be revealed, would say something completely different.

Loneliness floods over me – tsunami like in its strength. How could I possibly look and talk like so many around me yet feel this alone? And yet what prevents me from reaching out to those who also know this language, those who also experience the deep loneliness that is ‘other’.

The subway stops and I am birthed with the crowds onto the platform. I head home along a street that feels both familiar and foreign to me. I pass by houses that I’ve passed many times in the six plus years we have lived here. I pass by some people that I recognize but who I don’t know. I come to the Village Grill, the small neighborhood restaurant owned by Teddy, though we call him Theo. I stop and chat – he is a fixture in this neighborhood, as solid as the street lamps lining the side of the road. He’s Greek and proud of it. For a short time I belong.


Every September the streets of Cambridge and Boston fill with people who speak the language of elsewhere. They may be undergrad students, they may be those with fellowships, they may be visiting professors, they may be immigrants newly arrived, they may be refugees, finally settled after years of trying to get paperwork in order, or they may be third culture kids, those whose looks belie who they are on the inside, what their life experience has held thus far. There are all kinds of reasons but the language is the same. They are ‘other’. And initially life can overwhelm and threaten to undo them.

It’s not only Boston. It’s the streets of Atlanta, Seattle, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Miami, and so many more. It’s the expat communities in Cairo, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Phnom Penh. 

And to bridge this divide, this chasm of elsewhere, this block in language understanding it is imperative to reach across and learn to speak the language of elsewhere.

It’s not that hard. There’s no grammar or syntax involved and there is no morphology. Prefixes, suffixes, or infixes are absent. You don’t have to worry about past tense, or present perfect or superlatives.

But there is a lexicon. It includes tea, coffee, talk, meals, reaching out, asking questions, sometimes shopping, most of all – time. Time – that precious commodity that we think we have so little of until work ends, retirement begins, and suddenly we have all the time in the world.

All of us have spoken the language of elsewhere at some point – whether as a tourist or as a resident. And it starts out fun – it’s exciting! Everything is new and different. And then day 11 of our journey comes and it’s no longer exciting. Instead, everything is different and different is no longer good. Different is hard. Different means I don’t know the rules. Different means me and the stranger both wear shoes, but I wear them better. Different is lonely.

Into the lonely steps the one who has experienced this language before. There to lend a hand, an ear, even a shoulder to cry on. So this fall, if you’ve ever spoken the language of elsewhere – look around you and seek out those who are other, who share this language. It’s the only way to bridge the divide. 

“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?”


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

Enhanced by Zemanta