As I think of my life in terms of welcoming the stranger as a lifestyle, rather than an antidotal event, I am forced to go back many years, even decades. Back in the day, my wife and I routinely welcomed strangers into our home for a night or even a few days, sharing food and clothes with them as they might have need. We also had a regular stream of individuals who stopped by our door desiring a bite to eat, and my wife was always more than happy to serve them soup, burritos, sandwiches, whatever we had on hand. I remember our two oldest children begging their mom to carry out the food to those who came to our door. We had wonderful, delightful times, even once when we think we actually ‘entertained an angel unaware’.
What has changed with time? I cannot blame the change in me on having been “taken advantage of.” I have better stuff now, perhaps I am afraid to lose what I have – my life, my stuff, my space!? Yes, I think that is it, not the stuff, but my space. I do not want to lose my space to just be, and in fact I jealously guard my space. Yes, this is all too true. In fact, as I consider all this, I would say I that I now actually take steps to not welcome the stranger.
Now I am not talking about choosing not to help people in need, for instance, by giving directions, helping them figure out the ticket machine or what train they need to take, or even, giving some change to someone who asks, but I do not welcome these people. I am kind, but I have definitely learned the art of arm length caring. By that, I mean the ability to be kind in a separate, polite way that creates distance and is anything but welcoming.
I travel on the commuter train and have discovered how to position myself to create the greatest likelihood of no one entering my space, no one sitting next to me, or talking to me. I also see my home as a place of sanctuary: my sanctuary – a place of undisturbed quiet leisure, unhurried being, a place free from disruption. As I write this, it appears to me that my stance toward others is not exactly in harmony with the way Jesus interacted with people. If say, I am sick and going to a friends mother-in-laws house to rest, I am not going to spend the entire night healing people, or if I head out to the country to get away from everything, certainly I am not going to volunteer to organize and cater a meal for some 5,000 people, nor if I am taking a leisurely walk on the water and a boat load of lunatics starts screaming that I am a ghost, will I choose to stop and help. I will keep on walking. The current state of my heart toward welcoming strangers is a tad unnerving. It is time for me to have a sit down with Jesus and talk this through in greater detail. I am grateful for a God who welcomes me, cares for me, and loves me just as I am and also invites me into new places of growth into Christ-likeness. It is time for my come-to-Jesus-talk regarding welcoming the stranger. What about you?
How are you at welcoming the stranger? Have you cultivated the ability to be kind and caring from a safe distance or do you, like Jesus jump right in the middle of these encounters?
Is Jesus inviting you to explore/expand your posture of welcoming the stranger? What might Jesus be inviting you into? What might that look like?
Are you resistant to welcoming the stranger? What might be behind this? Ask Jesus to search you and help you to discover what might be holding you back from welcoming the stranger.
Larry Warner is founder and president of b, a spiritual formation ministry working with pastors, missionaries, seminarians, and churches; he is a retreat leader and spiritual director; he teaches at a number of seminaries and is a consultant for churches. He is author of Journey with Jesus: Discovering the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. He has been married for thirty-five years and has four children and three grandchildren.