I believe spiritual disciplines (including welcoming the stranger) are as much caught as taught. Spiritual practices can sort of rub off others onto us. Hence, the presence of a very good person in our lives has an enormous result. I saw this a while ago.
As I sat comfortably nestled under a bunch of telephone kiosks in Chicago O’Hare Airport, I worked hard on notes for a class I was going to teach on contemplative spirituality. The only electrical outlet I could find for my laptop was located in this cubbyhole and I was relishing how hidden I was from others.
But I noticed an elderly Indian woman who kept walking toward the phones and staring at them in a forlorn way. So I tried to talk to her but she didn’t speak English. She showed me a phone number. I dialed it and found out she needed 4 quarters to make the call. I handed her a dollar and pointed to a cashier where she could get change. She did not understand and walked away.
So as I continued to work on putting together a class on how relational God is and how knowing God causes love for others to flow out of us, I knew I’d done wrong. If my husband had been in my place, he would have gone the extra mile. He would have shut down his laptop, packed up his lunch and gone to get the change himself. But I hadn’t wanted to stop working. He reaches out to strangers without thinking about how he is inconvenienced. His ongoing presence in my life for thirty-seven years made me finally want to do what he would do that day.
So I started watching for her. Finally she came back, and I jumped up to speak to her. I shut down the laptop, packed up my lunch and got out my dollar. I left her with all my stuff and dashed to get the 4 quarters. I came back and dialed the number she showed me and gave her the phone. She got her party, but then she looked confused and gave the phone to me. Her friend told me she had a boarding pass for a flight to Nashville. Would I please take her to the gate? A little voice inside my head said, He’s never been to O’Hare Airport, which no kidding seems to sprawl into at least three states.
So I went through her papers. Nothing. She opened her purse for me and there I found the boarding pass. Wow, her gate was in my terminal, but her flight had already left. So we headed for that gate, which turned out to be only 50 feet from us. I explained to the agent that she’d missed her flight and that she didn’t speak English. The agent motioned to her co-worker – maybe he spoke the language she spoke. He talked to her. Their languages were close enough. All this time, I’d been 50 feet from getting her to someone who could really help her.
I burst into tears in relief that SOMEONE could now help her. I headed back and rebuilt my nest under the phone kiosks and thought about how I – Little Miss Social Justice who has shown up regularly for 18 years to volunteer with the homeless — had not been able to reach out to an elderly Indian woman. One reason I so admire Jesus is that so many of his miracles were interruptions in his day; I’m not good with interruptions.
But I also knew that beating myself up would not help. Neither you nor I are surprised that I’m so self-absorbed. So I just sat there and thanked God for an Urdu-speaking gate agent.
This and many other instances have pointed out to me that the mere presence of very good people in our life can show us how to welcome strangers. Their love for God rubs off on us. Even when they’re not with us, their goodness and mercy follows them (Ps 23:6) into our everyday life and points the way for us.
Jan Johnson is the author of twenty books including Invitation to the Jesus Life and Abundant Simplicity and a thousand articles and Bible studies. She speaks at retreats and conferences, and teaches (adjunct) at Azusa Pacific University and Hope International University. Also a spiritual director, Jan holds a D. Min. in Ignatian Spirituality and Spiritual Direction. She lives with her husband in Simi Valley, California. You can visit her at JanJohnson.org.