Welcoming the Stranger

Sometimes I watch my Littles while they are sleeping, snuggled deep under their quilts, cheeks pink and little mouths slightly open.  Lately, as I watch them, I wonder what it would be like if we had been born somewhere else.  If we lived in a place where tucking them in at night did not symbolize security, but one more moment of fear in a long string of terrorizing moments from the day.  If we didn’t play “monster” after dinner, chasing them around the house as they giggle and scream with delight, because the monsters are real and could barge through our door at any moment.

I wonder how it would feel to have to choose between risking their lives by staying put, where there is not enough to eat and their little eyes watch acts of brutality play out before them, OR risking their lives by leaving home.  Throwing a few items into a bag and waking the Littles in the middle of the night, whispering to them that we have to leave, but not being able to tell them where we are going or if things will be okay once we get there.

I wonder what it would be like to leave my home, to do all that I know how to do to try to usher my family to safety, only to discover there is nothing for us anywhere else.  Only to discover no one wants us.  Because we are different.  Because we carry the stench of death and terror on our clothes.  Because we have been marked.  As dangerous.  As needy.  As unworthy.  As a burden.  As someone else’s problem.  As a threat.  As any number of things.

I wonder what it would feel like to huddle in the darkness with my children—these children I’m listening to play happily as I write this—and whisper to them that it will be okay, even though I don’t believe it myself.

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt
— Leviticus 19:34

I have strangers and foreigners in my story.  Many of us do.  Those brave men and women generations ago who left their homes to seek a better life for their families.  Some because of persecution.  Some due to a sense of adventure.  Some because they had no hope of a future if they stayed where they were.  But this part of my story is quickly forgotten.

So, when there is an opportunity to welcome the stranger, instead of seeing a bit of ourselves in their eyes or hearing a faint echo of our own stories in their story, we only see the “other.”  We become expert fence builders, doing what we can to keep ourselves safe by keeping others out. 

Could we change the world by offering hospitality?  Not the kind where we have our closest friends over for dinner, as lovely as that might be.  Could we change the world by offering risky and generous hospitality? 

 

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.
— Henri Nouwen

I once spent some time in a little village in Honduras.  A village that had no running water.  A village where you knew who was “rich” because they had glass in their windows.  These families didn’t have much—hardly anything, really.  But rather than holding tightly to what they had, they offered it to us, welcoming us with the gift of hospitality.

And yet, here I sit, in one of the richest countries in the world.  A place where some of us have so much extra stuff that we have to rent storage units to keep it all.  Yet we think we have nothing to spare.  We think we have no room for anyone else.  Hospitality means we make room for others.  

It makes sense to ask good questions about resources: do we have adequate housing available?  Do we have the resources to help people adjust to a new place? Do we have the systems in place to ensure they get the help they need?  Will there be enough jobs for everyone?

But what if, in the name of risky hospitality, the answers to those questions don’t determine whether or not we welcome the stranger, but, instead, help us determine what we need to do in order to welcome them better?

When we practice risky hospitality we are not guaranteed that everything will work out the way we think it should.  We are not promised that it will be easy.  But I would rather err on the side of grace and generosity than fear and isolation.  I would rather make pots of soup and offer a cup of coffee than build fences.