The Heart of a Stranger
I spent part of today listening to good stories. Our church hosted the AGM of MCC Alberta and, not surprisingly, much of the conversation throughout the day centered around the work that MCC is presently doing with the Syrian refugee crisis.
But we also heard stories of what MCC has done for other groups of people in other parts of the world. Saulo Padilla, an immigration educator with MCC USA shared of his own refugee journey from Guatemala to Canada, and the many twists and turns that his story has taken along the way. And he made one comment that has stuck with me throughout the day. He talked about being welcomed into a Hispanic church community in Calgary after a difficult few months spent trying to adjust from Guatemala to Canada. Speaking of his gratitude to those who gave him the welcome he so desperately needed, he said:
They knew how to embrace the stranger because they had the heart of a stranger themselves.
In other words, those who knew firsthand the experience of being outsiders, those who knew firsthand the desperation and loneliness that come along with being separated from all that is familiar and all that gives one meaning, security, and stability, those who knew firsthand the frustration that comes with not being able speak the language, those who knew firsthand what it means to hunger for embrace—these ones, have the heart of a stranger. These ones have hearts that are willing to make room.
And it made me wonder how much of the polarizing rhetoric around refugees out there right now could have this simple truth behind it: Many of us have never been strangers in any meaningful sense. Yes, many of us have moved to new cities; yes we’ve had to find new churches; yes we’ve had to navigate different school systems for our kids, different social circles in new communities. These are not trivial, but they are mostly the inconveniences borne out of choices exercised within the parameters of privilege. Mostly.
But have we been strangers in the same sense as a refugee flogged to distant shores by violence and political instability and poverty? Have we been strangers in the sense of arriving in unfamiliar lands with few possessions, no language, and years of trauma in the rearview mirror? Have we ventured forth in contexts where few people look or sound like us? Where the customs are incomprehensible, where the beliefs impenetrable? Have we been strangers in any sense deep enough to produce the kinds of hearts that Saulo spoke of today? I can only speak personally, but the answer for me is a fairly resounding, “no!”
And yet, those of us who live in places like Canada must admit that we are all strangers on some level, even if a few generations removed. Unless we are indigenous people, we are all immigrants. All of our families came from somewhere else. All of our ancestors at one point had a need for the embrace Saulo described—the need for someone to make room for people who were other, who looked and sounded different, who weren’t like them (even if those for whom room was made often ended up taking advantage of this!)
There is a forgetfulness that comes with time. I grew up hearing stories of my grandparents harrowing journeys from the Ukraine to Canada in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. At the time, I’m embarrassed to admit, I often filed these stories in the “stuff old people talk about” category in my brain. I didn’t truly think about what it must have been like for them—coming to this strange land with so little, with all of these people who were nothing like them. I didn’t have the capacity to imagine all that the word “stranger” might have entailed.
So I think about what it would take to develop the “heart of a stranger” in our present cultural moment, with so much polarizing discourse among Christians (and others) about the refugee crisis and what it asks of us. There is so much fear and racism out there, so many angry and misinformed words, so much reactionary and impulsive dismissal, so many arms protectively closing rather than opening in embrace. How might we move beyond these reflexive responses to better conversations?
Could it be as simple as looking a few generations back and remembering that nearly all of us are a part of a story of strangers on some level? Could our unwillingness to embrace the stranger be due, in part, to the fact that our hearts have lost or forgotten or never developed the ability to put ourselves in the strangers’ shoes? Could our chief problem be little more than a failure of memory or imagination—a failure either to remember what it was like to be the “other” that hungers for welcome or to even imagine this possibility?
Could the “heart of a stranger” be as near to each one of us as choosing to remember and imagine differently?
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the divine command to care for the stranger is tied directly to the fact that the people of Israel were also strangers once (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:19).
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus sums up all of the Law and the Prophets—and “all” is a pretty comprehensive word, it should be remembered—in the simple exhortation to do to others as we would have done to us (Matthew 7:12).
The former urges us to better memory, the latter to better imagination. We need both, if we are ever to develop the right kind of hearts.