~ Welcoming the Stranger ~
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Dear Members and Friends,
Have you ever found yourself among a bunch of happy, talkative people who were so glad to see each other that they barely noticed a stranger (you) in their midst? I had that feeling some years ago when I was asked to spend a week living and lecturing at a well-known summer event in our region. (Names are withheld to protect the guilty.) I was a missionary, just home from the field, and this was a yearly event that was all about missions and missionaries. It should have been a perfect fit. But alas! The people who attended this annual gathering had been seeing each other for one week every summer since time immemorial. You can’t blame them for sweeping past a stranger to make a beeline for familiar faces. After greeting me hurriedly, they all rushed off to talk to their old once-a-year friends, leaving me to sit alone, eat alone, and walk the grounds alone. I’m not threatened by solitude. I often enjoy it. And yet, it felt awkward to be a visitor to an unfamiliar group of people, and one of their lecturers, but left entirely to my own devices. They sang their hand-clapping songs, and listened to their guest speakers, and complained about their declining numbers. “We need to get new people to come next year,” they would say. I’m just not sure they truly wanted newcomers. What they really wanted was for their old-comers to live forever. They wanted to press their beautiful memories of that annual experience into the pages of a timeless book, like some fading autumn leaf, and keep it forever just as they remembered. They weren’t prepared to welcome new people into the fold. It’s too bad, too, because they really did have something singularly good to offer.
In time, you’ll forget the words that people have said to you, but you’ll never forget the way they made you feel. And now, years later, I’m a local pastor who could be a cheerleader for that summer event. I could be encouraging my congregation to take part in it annually. But I don’t. It’s not that I bear a grudge; I really do understand the rare joy of getting caught up with old friends. It’s just that I felt snubbed there—a decade and a half ago. I probably won’t go back because I associate that event with a feeling of isolation, which isn’t anything I want for myself or anyone else…especially among fellow Christians.
By comparison, I once went hiking in the Allegheny National Forest only to find that I’d wandered into the annual gathering of the Rainbow People—a New Age group that meets once a year on public lands to chant, and dance, and meditate amid clouds of marijuana smoke. Several hundred of them were doing a pagan circle dance in a large clearing, all to the beat of an African drum. It’s like an old fashioned camp meeting for New Agers, and the whole thing always comes to a crescendo on July 4, when 12,000 people join in to chant, and meditate, and pray for peace. I was just a local, out for a hike, but many of these folks had traveled all the way from the West Coast to attend the annual event in the forest where I walked weekly. Can you believe that nearly everyone I encountered greeted me? (It became tiring.) Many of these visitors even yelled, “Welcome home!” It was an odd thing for a visitor to yell to a native. Some offered me food…and some offered me other forms of, um, refreshment—that I declined. (Alcohol is not permitted inside the Rainbow People’s camp, but alcohol is not what I’m talking about.) A few people struck up conversations.
How is it possible that I, a Christian pastor and former missionary, felt more welcomed by the Rainbow People than I did by fellow Christians who had gathered to talk about missions? Hebrews commands us to welcome the stranger. This has implications for our national and churchly lives, but what does it say to our life as a congregation? Are we more like the unnamed Christian gathering that made me feel so unwelcome, or the Rainbow People who embraced me despite my obvious allegiances to the establishment? I sometimes hear church members say, “I can’t greet visitors. What if they’re church members that I don’t know?” Here’s a little trick. Instead of saying, “Hello, are you visiting?” try saying, “I don’t think I know you, my name is…”
In Christ’s Peace,