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When I go to churches for my job (which is to educate congregations about immigration reform so they’re equipped to be advocates to change the system), we often get to talking about hospitality. It’s a big deal in Scripture.
I read once that while there are 36 passages in the Old Testament that instruct the faithful to love the stranger, there’s only one that instructs them to love their neighbor. I think this informs the way hospitality is talked about once we get to the New Testament — hospitality being the translation of the Greek word philoxenia, which is the love of the stranger, the xenos. While God certainly requires that we love those who are known to us — those close by either in proximity or in their similarity to us — the impulse to love the ones close to us maybe doesn’t need so many reminders. But it is the stranger for whom love, over and over, is reiterated.
“Welcome the stranger” is a preamble, though. We’re called to it, but the remainder of the phrase shows us that we’re not called to do it because it’s a kindness, or because it’s a show of faithfulness. It’s because of our memory. “…For you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
I’ve never been to Egypt, though.
By this, of course, I mean that I’ve never spent much time as the stranger. Living how I’ve lived — white, American, Christian — I’ve been so long in the center of the story that I’ve rarely had a sense for what being “the other” is like. And this works well for me when I’m shopping at Target, or interacting with the police, or watching the State of the Union. But I think it puts me at a disadvantage when I read Scripture and try to actually live its truths.
Christine Pohl is so smart about hospitality, and has so much to teach. She says that half the practice of Christian hospitality is welcoming others — but the other half is being welcomed. We’re not actually practicing hospitality in its fullness if we are never “the other” who is in need of welcome, who allows another to extend their gracious gifts. In fact, Jesus was not often the host in the stories we tell about him. He owned no dishes, no table, no welcome mat. Jesus himself was, most often, the receiver of hospitality (and, often, receiving hospitality from someone who was decidedly not “one of us” for the Jewish community he was part of).
And I need this challenge, because the Christian language and Christian life that I’m most immersed in has a lot to say about my call to serving/helping/saving/fixing, and little that holds me accountable to the calling to be served, helped, saved, fixed. It leaves me without that grounding that Scripture takes for granted, the one that says “you were once strangers.” It is memory that is critical, and I don’t have it.
In a world that seems built for me — for my whiteness, my wealth, my religion… a coffee shop full of gals in Carhartt caps seems to be on every corner of my neighborhood — I have discovered that I need to pursue opportunities to be “the stranger” if I want to recover from this spiritual handicap. In receiving welcome, I might find ways to unlearn the lie that God has appointed me to be the helper, and others to be the project. It might help me shift out of assumption that my world is the only world that a person would want to experience.
Congress is working frantically to reach a deal on a border fence right now, driven, I believe, by fear of the President’s flippant threat of a State of Emergency. At the same moment, we’ve learned that there are thousands of separated children — thousands *more* than the ones we already knew about, the ones we already freaked out about — who were not valuable enough to the government to even warrant a paper trail. The government admits it’s unlikely they’ll see their parents again.
I’ve been surprised, shocked really, that there really are church members who do not see this turn of events as an obvious time to “welcome the stranger.” I’ve been shocked that there is even a debate in the church about the merits of this wall. But perhaps this is because so many of us have no memory of our own that helps us to recognize the humanity of those awaiting welcome. Maybe it’s because we simply don’t know what it feels like to have someone offer the thing we need, in the time we need it. To be thirsty, and have a Samaritan woman draw us water. To lay half dead on the road to Jericho, abandoned by our “own people,” and find ourselves plopped on the donkey of one of “them” on our way to safety. To be threatened that we will watch our children die if we don’t comply with the drug cartel in our community, and after a frightening journey to safety, find that a community of faith has prepared a place for us.
Welcome the stranger, you who believe you have shown virtue by standing independent of any need for help. For you, too, were once strangers. You might need some practice remembering, though.
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