Spirited Reflection: Honouring the Stranger
A friend was travelling across Western Canada and stopped at a service station to use the rest room. There he encountered a four year old boy washing his hands. The child studied my friend for a moment. “Are you a stranger?” he asked. “Yes,” replied my friend cautiously, “I’m a stranger.” The boy looked puzzled. “But you don’t look like a stranger.” Turns out all the “stranger danger” conversations his parents had initiated confused the young lad. “Stranger” in his mind conjured up someone who’d look rather monstrous and terrifying, not kind and approachable like my friend.
These days it seems like “stranger danger” is on the minds of many people. Especially when someone differs from us with visible signs of kin or clan, fear and suspicion stir in many hearts. Hostility, not hospitality, triggers our instinctive response. The terror and tragedy in Charlottesville this summer are reminders that hostility can organize, intimidate and even kill with the intent of shaping community according to one’s preferred norm, no strangers welcome. History is full of examples which demonstrate that when hostile attitudes and the fear beneath them are left unchallenged, persecution often arises. Nazi Germany is the example we often think of. But reading the opening chapters of Exodus, as the lectionary invited us to do this summer, reminds us that genocide is a strategy with ancient roots.
And so Scripture mandates hospitality to the stranger, not hostility. In Romans 12, Paul includes it in his long “to do” list for the faithful heart. “Persevere in prayer; contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers;” on we go. For those who resist St Paul’s encouragements, there are many biblical stories which demonstrate the same virtue of extending hospitality to strangers: Abraham, Sarah and the angels, Elijah and the widow in Zarephath, Jesus in the homes of Martha and Mary, Simon and so many others. The stories invite us into encounters where God is known in intimate, hospitable exchanges. For in hospitality, both guest and host bring something to the exchange. Each risks something. Each can encounter the Divine Stranger in the other who has come near.
For, indeed, strangers do represent risk. That’s why we coach our young children about “stranger danger”. Yet none of us gets through life without having to turn to a stranger at some point – to give or receive directions, offering a helping hand in an unanticipated moment. Well I remember arriving home late one evening only to discover my car, parked in the airport parkade, wouldn’t start. Looking around in desperation, I spied a young man pushing a cleaning cart. I asked him where to find a phone.
In a gracious Punjabi accent, he said, “Miss, it will cost you much money to call for help in here. Wait. I will find my friends.” He disappeared and my anxiety grew. But sure enough, a few minutes later a car appeared, full of Sikh men, wearing turbans and airport security badges. They had just finished a long day but they pulled up alongside my car. A few minutes later it sprang back to life. I was so grateful, I asked the driver if I could give them some money for their trouble. “Miss,” he said in the kindest way, “it is our honour to help you.”
I’ve never forgotten the kindness of those strangers. Those words bring back something else on St Paul’s ‘to do’ list in Romans 12. “Outdo one another in showing honour.” The call to welcome a stranger is a call to show honour to God’s possibility in another. So much of the work of KAIROS honours God’s possibilities in people and communities who have been marginalized by powerful influences. This honouring, this hospitality, draws us all into closer relationship where God’s Spirit works its miracles of genuine love, “overcoming evil with good,” as St Paul puts it. These are not easy times for those who find themselves labeled “strangers” by those with fearful hearts and hostile intent. May those of us led by God’s Spirit keep honouring the possibility that we will meet the Holy in one whom we first encountered as stranger.
Rev. Dr. Nancy Cocks is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, recently retired from a congregation in Medicine Hat, AB. She currently serves on the EcoJustice Circle and is active in an ecumenical sponsorship group welcoming a Syrian family to that city.