"Can I sleep in your house tonight?" asked Tommy, a homeless man who used to hang out in our neighborhood. Normally, Tommy slept in the boiler room at a local hospital. But this night, he was running late. The doors were locked.
I had two concerns. Would Tommy do something to harm my family? He was small and fragile, weighing less than 100 pounds. But he terrified the neighborhood children with his verbal assaults and odd behaviors. My second worry was less substantial. Tommy's clothes were soiled with dirt and urine. He smelled terrible. From my previous interactions with Tommy, I knew that there was little chance he would take a shower. And we didn't have any clean clothes that would fit his bony body.
After talking with my spouse, we agreed to allow Tommy to spend the night on our family room sofa. He caused no problems and left quietly in the morning, coffee in hand. Shortly afterward, he disappeared. We have never seen him again. Looking back, I wish we had been less guarded in our hospitality.
Why is it that we fear strangers? Without the context of a relationship, we have no way of judging their intentions. Perhaps they will threaten or take advantage of us. Once we invited a stranger into our home for a cup of cold water. He used the occasion to scope out our house. Later, he returned as a burglar. Or perhaps we see strangers as "competition" who might take our job in a tight market. Or even worse, we think that strangers might be terrorists.
Gary Percesepe, editor of Mississippi Review, notes that the English word for hospitality comes from the Latin word hospes, which originally meant "stranger," but later took on the meaning of a "hostile" stranger or enemy. Hospitality, says Percesepe, has to do with the power of a host in deciding what level of welcome, if any, to extend to the stranger.
Historically, God's people often failed to treat strangers as God's law required. Instead, they oppressed (Jeremiah 7:6), treated wrongly and violently (Jeremiah 22:3), extorted (Ezekiel 22:7,29), thrust aside, (Malachi 3:5), rejected (Matthew 15:23) and chose not to associate with strangers (Galatians 2:11-14).
Why are we to welcome and care for strangers? Because God loves (Deuteronomy 10:18), watches over (Psalm 146:9) and identifies with (Matthew 25:35) the stranger. God's concern for strangers is rooted in the fact that they do not possess the typical rights and privileges afforded to members of the community. They are especially vulnerable.
Furthermore, the biblical call to welcome strangers is explicitly linked to the fact that God's people had themselves once been "strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19). In welcoming strangers, we acknowledge our common humanity and need for God's grace.
Welcoming strangers is risky. It requires that we truly trust God for our security. And it can be time-consuming, calling us to live at a pace that offers time to turn strangers into friends.
Today, in an age of terrorism and heightened fear, there is great temptation to mistreat "strangers." Strangers are no longer simply ignored. They are actively isolated or worse. Fences and walls are being constructed on the U.S.-Mexican boarder and to separate Israelis and Palestinians. Harsher immigration policies and shriveling civil liberties disproportionately impact communities of color.
In the current "war on terror," there has been much talk from one end of the political spectrum to the other about destroying the terrorists in order to make the nation secure. There has been astonishingly little talk about learning to understand these "strangers," to address whatever legitimate concerns they may have and to seek to turn them into friends. This would appear to be God's plan for ensuring the security of all (Romans 5:10; Ephesians 2:11-14).
Hostility or hospitality? The choice is ours. But there is only one path to true security.