Encountering the Stranger

One evening I was at a mall when I saw a group of Amish people come in.  They were obviously Amish because of the way they were dressed.  The women all had little lacy caps on the backs of their heads, plain skirts with ankle socks and white athletic shoes.  Their jackets were in pastel colors.  I don’t remember the men’s dress as well — I must have paid it less attention – but it was also notably different.

I noticed that I couldn’t stop looking at them.  I was very conscious of not wanting to stare, or be observed looking, but I was drawn to look at them.  Because they are different.  I even know quite a bit about the Amish, and have a great deal of respect for them, for their values and the life they lead.  Yet here I was, feeling drawn to look at them, knowing how uncomfortable it must make them to be stared at when they go out from their communities.  I was drawn to look because they are different.  I realize that though I know a bit about the Amish people, I don’t actually know any Amish people personally.

Familiarity breeds understanding.  Once we get to know someone, we can understand them and appreciate them, even if they are different.  But if we don’t know them and they are different, it is natural to view them with curiosity, if not suspicion.

I recently visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historical Site down on Auburn Street.  I was impressed by the site, and found myself reflecting on the ways King’s work is still not finished.  He was, of course, a giant in the Civil Rights movement, helping us to see oppression and to work for justice by non-violent means.

King’s legacy lives on in the fight to end oppression everywhere.  He began with racism, but by the end of his life he had already broadened his focus to include poverty.  Had he lived longer, we can be pretty sure he would have spoken out against sexism and homophobia and stood up for the rights of all people.

The struggle to end oppression is far from over.

In the reading, the Mexican boys were beaten up for going into a white neighborhood.  They were beaten up by older boys who saw them as different, and vulnerable.  The Mexican boys were strangers in their neighborhood.

Unfortunately, we don’t always treat strangers well.  Even if we don’t beat them up, we may shun them or exclude them or abide by policies that exclude them.

But who is the stranger?

In the olden days, it was clear who was a stranger and who was not.  People lived in their isolated villages, travel was difficult and rarely undertaken.  Most people never left the area they grew up in.  When someone came to their village from another place, especially someplace far, they really were an anomaly.  Even if they looked similar, they probably dressed different, had different culture and manners and different speech.  They were viewed with awe and suspicion.  They were strange.

It wasn’t until more modern times that people started moving around more.  Innovations made travel easier and commerce made it more desirable.  People started moving around more – and more, and more.  By now, with our global economic network and amazing advances in communications and travel, there is virtually no part of the world that is isolated anymore.

Here today in the United States, and particularly in Atlanta, we have people of nearly every color and every culture, every religion and every language that can be found in the world living within our borders.  Some are the original inhabitants of this continent, the Native Americans.  Others came and still come because this is a land of great economic opportunity, and they come because it is a land of political freedom — the “land of the free.”  But just how free are they?

Unfortunately, minorities still suffer oppression in most places and even in our country that takes pride in its pluralism, its democracy, its ideals of justice.

In spite of decades of effort since the Civil Rights movement began, and many more decades since the abolitionist movement began, Americans of African descent still don’t have the same privileges as white Americans.  They struggle with poverty and the effects that has on their families.  They are easily seen as different, because of their skin color.  For many, black people represent “the stranger.”

Muslims have been a growing presence in our country for many years now.  They have always been regarded with distrust, especially when they wear clothing that makes their differences more obvious.  Since 9/11, they have been treated with suspicion and even hatred by people who don’t understand them and associate them with terrorists.  For many, Muslims represent “the stranger.”

Gays and lesbians have been encouraged by the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath to come out of the closet, and ask for full inclusion in society as they are.  They have been condemned as moral outcasts, treated with extreme hatred and even violence.  They can often hide their difference and still often must, in spite of growing acceptance, because for many, gays and lesbians represent “the stranger.”

Transgendered people probably face even more misunderstanding than gays and lesbians, though perhaps not the extent of moral condemnation.  But because they often can’t hide their difference as well, they are subjected directly to the ignorance and hatred that many view them with.  For many, transgendered people represent “the stranger.”

Who is the stranger for you?

Until I moved to Michigan, I had lived most of my life in big cities, in college towns, and a beach resort town.  I had never come into direct contact with hunters.  I tended to view hunters with distrust.  Though I’m not such a believer in animal rights that I actually disapprove of hunting, I still had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to go out and kill deer or other animals.  Then there was this whole macho male thing associated with it that I never could understand.  For me, hunters had been “the stranger.”

While living in Michigan, though, I became better acquainted with hunters and hunting.  I actually knew a few people who go hunting.  People from the Unitarian Universalist congregation I served there.  And these are nice, normal people!  Men, but not too macho.  What is important for them is being out in the woods, in the wilds – something I can relate to.  I have come to learn that there are hunters I can like and respect.

Who is the stranger for you?

We’ve all been a stranger at some point.  What was it like for you when you first walked into this building?  Did somebody greet you?  Did anyone talk to you at coffee hour?

As a kid, did you ever move to a new town and have to go to a new school where you didn’t know anybody?  As an adult, have you moved to a new town where you didn’t know anybody?

There are a few places in the bible that tell us to be hospitable to the stranger, in the Old Testament and in the New.  But we don’t need a book to tell us to be kind to strangers; our own consciences should tell us that.  We should treat other people as we would wish to be treated.  That means more than just not hurting each other.  In the case of the stranger, we need to go the extra mile and take responsibility for the person’s welfare.  “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

You welcomed me.  Extending hospitality means giving food and drink, or whatever it is that the other needs.  It means talking to them, helping them to feel more comfortable.  For as uncomfortable as we might feel around a stranger, we can be assured the stranger is feeling more uncomfortable.  We are on our home turf, the stranger is not.  Extending the hand of human kindness can go a long way to relieving others’ discomfort.

It’s not easy.  There’s a natural fear of the stranger — of whatever is different or strange.  It’s a protective impulse to be cautious until we’re sure the new person or situation is safe.  But our fears are lessened by knowledge and experience.  It can help getting more experience of people in general.  Getting to know people who are different than we are broadens our understanding, and helps us to understand not just the group that this person belongs to, but all other people.  Ultimately we are all human, no matter how different we may seem on the surface.  We need to question our opinions and what we think is true about others if we are truly to understand others.  “It’s far easier to label than to understand.” (Emil Homerin, from the Key Reporter) Understanding takes some effort.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, a man is attacked by thieves and left half dead by the side of the road.  First a priest and then a Levite come by, but they each pass on the other side of the road.  Then a Samaritan came by, and when he saw the man he was moved with pity.  He bandaged his wounds and brought him to an inn, paying for his care there.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, the fact that it was a Samaritan offering help to a Jew takes on much more significance when we know the relationship these two ancient peoples had to each other.  They were once part of the same family, united under the leadership of the great kings, David and Solomon.  On Solomon’s death, however, the kingdom was divided into the tribes of the Northern kingdom and the tribes of the Southern Kingdom.  The northern kingdom was called Israel, and the southern kingdom was Judah.  Judah contained Jerusalem and the house of David and had a more secure monarchy, but Israel was larger and more prosperous.  A real animosity developed, such as can only develop between people who were once close.  By the time of Jesus much later, the northerners were called Samaritans after the major city of Samaria.  The Jews were people from the southern kingdom of Judah.  Both claimed to be the true descendants of the nation of Israel.  By New Testament times they were so divided that the Gospel of John says that ‘Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.’ (John 4:9).

So Jews and Samaritans were arch-enemies.  And yet it was the Samaritan who tended to the Jew, not the priest or the Levite, members of the Jewish religious elite.  These men had no time or inclination to help one of their own in need, but someone who might be considered an enemy found within himself the compassion and generosity to take care of this stranger, even sparing no expense.

Here’s an example much closer to home.  In our recent Snowmageddon, angels of hospitality appeared.  People went out with hot chocolate, water, food and blankets to the folks stuck in their cars that weren’t moving.  One man, Conn Jackson, was written about in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for putting people up in his home.  The article reads, “Jackson had already invited three strangers, stranded near the intersection of I-75 and I-285, to stay the night in his one-bedroom apartment just around the corner in Vinings.  He wound up inviting more and more people he’d never met before—10 in all.”  It further says, “He never hesitated in opening his home to people he’d never met before, never gave one thought to someone stealing his things or causing harm. . . . ‘To be honest,’ he said, ‘I was more worried about how I looked and having people trust me.’” (Sunday, February 2, 2014)  He even offered his hospitality on Facebook.

A recent article in Christian Century talks about how the Magi showing up in the birth story of Jesus was a radical, world-changing message.  Editor John Buchanan tells us that “while the shepherds were socially and economically marginal in their society, the Magi too were marginal—racially and religiously.  These Wise Men ‘from the East’ (Persia and Babylon, perhaps modern Iran and Saudi Arabia) were scholarly astrologers and mystics who studied configurations in the night sky, believing that great events in human history were announced by the stars.  When they saw something new, they tracked it down.”

Buchanan continues, “as outsiders—non-Jews in a Jewish story, Persians and Arabs at the manger with these Hebrew parents and child—the Magi give us a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus will shatter religious tradition and ethnic boundaries and bring strangers center stage.  Before the story is over, Jesus will challenge boundaries of race, social class, status and even gender.  He will welcome outsiders—sinners, the unclean, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, poor people, women and children, Roman soldiers—and share meals with them.  Jesus will scandalize some people with his radical inclusivity.” (February 5, 2014)

This congregation once scandalized people with its inclusivity. In the early 1950s this congregation, which had foundered on the rock of exclusivity, re-established the United Liberal Church on an explicitly integrationist foundation.  This made the congregation so unpopular that when it tried to find a new location in the early sixties, it was twice defeated by local resistance before it finally settled here.

Let us be radically inclusive – as individuals and as a community.  Let us be as radically inclusive as Jesus was, as Conn Jackson was, as our forebears in this congregation were.  Let us greet the strangers we encounter and extend hospitality.  We can share conversation at coffee hour with someone who is a stranger to us.  We can extend our hospitality beyond our walls, as we do in our programs for social justice.

Whenever you encounter the stranger; wherever you find the stranger, whoever the stranger is for you — if you extend hospitality, if you seek understanding, you are fulfilling Dr. King’s legacy.  It is something we can all do to help make the world a better place.