What If You Were The Refugee In Need Of Welcome?

Some evenings I stand in the doorway of my kids’ rooms, watching them sleep. They are snuggled deep under their quilts, cheeks pink and little mouths slightly open. I wonder about their futures: who will they become, what adventures will fill their stories? Lately, as I watch them, I wonder what it would be like if we had been born somewhere else. 

What If My Life Were Different?

What if we lived in a place where tucking them in at night wasn’t about snuggles and safety, but one more moment of fear in a long string of terrorizing moments from the day?

What if we didn’t play “monster” after dinner, chasing them around the house as they giggle and scream with delight, because the monsters were real and could barge through our door at any moment?

I wonder how it would feel to choose between risking their lives by staying put, where there is not enough to eat and their little eyes see violence every day, and risking their lives by leaving home. I imagine throwing a few items into a bag, 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 could to try to usher my family to safety, only to discover there was nothing for us anywhere else. Only to discover no one wanted us. 

Because we were different. 

Because we carried the stench of death and terror on our clothes. 

Because we had 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

My Ancestors Were Strangers…

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. 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
— Matthew 25:37-40

Take a Risk on Hospitality…

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 Honduras in a little village that had no running water. You knew who was “rich” because they had glass 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?

welcome the stranger

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 big pots of soup and share a meal than build fences.

As I watch my children sleep, I wonder if I am doing all I can to raise them to be people who welcome others.

How You Can Help:

I first posted this in 2015. Four years later in 2019, we still have lots of chances to welcome strangers. If you are as heartbroken as I am about the conditions of immigrant children at the border, here are a few things you might do:

  1. Download Prayers for Justice: Five Days of Praying With Scripture (it’s free when you subscribe to my monthly e-newsletter).

  2. Listen to the stories of those who have been there, to those who are on the ground, in the trenches.

  3. Donate to an organization that is working to meet the needs of the kids and families at the border. Here are a few I’ve seen, but it’s up to you to research and decide which one(s) you’d like to support:

    Save The Children

    The Women’s Refugee Commission

    Together Rising

  4. Contact your government; let your representatives hear your voice.

  5. Find ways to welcome immigrants and refugees in your own city. Can you volunteer at a newcomers’ centre? Can you get to know your neighbours? Can you make a pot of soup and share it? This won’t change the situation for the children detained at the border, but it will be one step in making your city more welcoming.

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