Who Is The Stranger?
At this time when there is a continual focus on refugees and on migration I remembered that I had done a talk a few years ago for the Women’s World day of prayer on “Who is the stranger?” I thought it might be helpful to share some of my reflections from that talk in a series of posts and I would very much value your input and comments.
Basically a stranger is anyone who is outside our family circle, friends, church setting. But it is much more than this. In our Christian lives we need to reflect on what the bible says about how we should treat the stranger.
The focus of the bible is on the marginalized and disadvantaged, the hungry, the thirsty, those needing clothes, the sick, those in prison, who have broken the law – done wrong and been caught!
I am speaking mostly from my own experience of working in community with The Link Family and Community Centre in Newtownards for 15 years, and also with Tearfund as a freelance facilitator working with churches over 18 years supporting them through a Church mobilization process.
God has brought me on a journey of working with many strangers. Strangers from churches of many different denominations; strangers who struggled with addictions; strangers who had mental health problems; strangers who were from very different backgrounds (specifically the loyalist community; strangers who had a different sexual identity; strangers who have had many different disabilities; strangers who were from a number of different ethnic minority backgrounds. God certainly challenged my perceptions and prejudices on this journey and took me way outside my comfort zone. However, because of this experience – I have had to look at what is important in enabling me and people of faith to be welcoming.
It seems to me that our attitude is at the heart of how we behave towards those who are different to us.
We can have an attitude of “Us and Them” with us being the better, the right, the normal. “Them” would often therefore be the opposite – not as good, the wrong, the abnormal….
However the bible is clear – we are ALL created in God’s image, as equally valuable – God so loved the world John 3, 16
Psalm 139 – we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
I read Mathew chapter 25 and I noticed one thing bout the sheep and the goats. It does not moralize about why people are hungry, thirsty, sick, naked or in prison – it doesn’t wonder if they deserve it – it doesn’t judge.
I noticed too that the righteous (sheep) on the Kings right – don’t even know they have been serving their king – they have sought no reward for serving the poor, marginalized and disadvantaged.
There’s a sense that “we love because he first loved us”
We need an inclusive attitude. One that is ready to listen – without prejudice
One that has sensitivity toward people with other opinions and backgrounds.
This can be hard – even when we know that this is what Jesus expects of us – indeed when it is our job to do it.
Here is a story from one of my colleagues in Tearfund who was a church in Community advisor in the South of England.
Last summer one of our homeless guys decided to move on, and to be honest I was glad. He’d been hard work; he’d refused to engage with support networks but continued to demand our attention – loudly! Anyway, I was looking forward to a rest! But when I got into work the following Monday, I was dismayed to find 3 more homeless people, with big dogs and huge backpack, wearing combat clothing on our doorstep! Honestly, my heart sank. They looked like they were trouble. Their appearance said, ‘Clear off. Don’t come near.’ in the way homeless people often seek self protection by looking hard.
Anyway, I took a deep breath, and went to talk with them when they arrived in the cafe. I didn’t feel I had much choice – it’s my job anyway, and I needed to model this to the other staff members – and I did actually want to serve God in making a positive response to them though I wasn’t feeling very positive about it. When I sat down with them with a mug of tea, I was staggered by their story. Two of them were a married couple who did actually have accommodation after being homeless themselves but they had given it up in order to take the third guy around to all his old haunts and say his good byes to his mates, because he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was unlikely to survive the year. I tell you, that was massively humbling. I wouldn’t do that, and to be honest I didn’t know many people who would, Christians or not.
I’ve heard a lot of ‘sob-stories’ in my time, but I believed them. They were genuine people, they didn’t use their story to try to get anything from us which is what normally happens, and they gratefully received the help we were able to give – food and clothing, showers etc. Their gratitude was real and they left us cheerfully, promising to return on their way back. That experience touched me deeply and I have tried to learn from it not to judge from first impressions, but also to try to be more open to where God is already at work so I can join in.
I’ve never forgotten that encounter, and have been working at (but failing often) a way of ‘seeing’ people that tries to be open to God’s activity more.
In that meeting with strangers, I think I met God. It certainly changed me.
It certainly changed me. My question to challenge myself and possibly you is; “Do I actually want Jesus to change me?”