Welcoming the Stranger
[Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by Rev. Laura Shatzer on July 16, 2017. No audio is available.]
You’ve likely heard this passage from Matthew before. It is one my favorites, a signpost for me in my ministry.
I work as a pastor and chaplain for common cathedral, a ministry that builds community with and provides spiritual care to unhoused and formerly unhoused people, as well as building bridges between the housed and unhoused. When I leave United Parish today, I will head downtown to the Boston Common for lunch and worship outdoors, held every Sunday no matter the weather.
When people think of ministry with those experiencing homelessness, we often focus on meeting people’s basic needs – when I was hungry, you fed me and when I was thirsty you gave me drink and when I was naked you clothed me…these are the tangible things. It feels good to prepare food and donate old clothing to those who need it.
Then there’s visiting people in the hospital and in prison. This is harder for most of us. Even if we are there to sit beside someone we know, we can’t control the environment. This ministry requires a certain amount of being okay with discomfort.
And then, lastly in Jesus’ guide to discipleship, we hear: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.” In my experience, this admonition from Jesus may be the most challenging of all.
We meet Jesus when we have the courage to welcome the stranger in our midst. We are living in a world, and in a nation, and in an urban context, in which almost everyone is a stranger – someone we don’t know, or with whom we have not made a connection as a fellow human being.
Often the standard for urban life is to avoid contact with strangers. I come from the Midwest, in Iowa, where at the grocery store and on the street, many folks make eye contact and smile and make small talk about the weather. Here, in Boston, it’s different. It is possible to go grocery shopping or ride the T without talking to another person – maybe a quick greeting to the cashier at the store, but that’s it.
Culturally, in urban New England, we resist interacting with strangers. And that’s okay.
But what are we missing? How many times have we missed an opportunity to meet Jesus and learn from him in our daily life going about the city?
Because of fear and prejudice hidden within us, we may resist engaging with people who appear different to us -- sometimes unconsciously and sometimes consciously.
There is a man named Charlie who hangs out on Washington St. downtown. Maybe you’ve met him. Charlie has a lot of support; he has lived in a Downtown Crossing apartment for decades.But most of his body is paralyzed. He rides around in an electric wheelchair and is always dressed appropriately for the weather. Charlie can’t feed himself, but he can communicate. Not perfectly.
But enough to tell you how grateful he is to be alive, that his faith keeps him going, and to ask you about your day.
I am ashamed to say that it took me months of doing street ministry to actually have a conversation with Charlie. I would wave hello from a distance, but I resisted deeper engagement because a part of me didn’t want to put in the effort of forming a relationship with a man whom I might not be able to understand, or who might not be able to understand me. I was afraid.
I learned when I finally stayed with Charlie, that I could understand him enough. Enough to understand that he was thirsty and needed me to take the cold water bottle from his bag and pour several swallows into his open mouth. Enough to feel welcomed and seen by him, a denizen of downtown Boston for much longer than I.
That day, when I finally crossed the street, Charlie was no longer a stranger. He became my neighbor, and I his neighbor. Charlie reminded me of the story of the Good Samaritan, the stranger passing by who stopped to help the traveler in desperate need when no one else would. “I am out here because of the Good Samaritans who stop,” he told me.
Welcoming the stranger, however, is more than being a Good Samaritan. It’s not just about serving someone in need. Rather, it’s about creating holy human ground between us that acknowledges that we are each worthy of serving one another. We welcome someone else not only by offering them something to eat or something to wear, but by being open to receiving the gifts that they have to offer us.
One of the most rewarding things in my ministry is getting a glimpse of the welcome that unfolds between two vastly different groups of people. During our CityReach urban immersion program, teenagers from often affluent suburbs of Boston come to learn from people who have lived on the streets and in shelters for years.
The teens do this in part through hosting a clothing open house. They often arrive thinking they are there to “help the homeless people,” and then they realize somewhere along the way that it’s actually people who are most in need who are welcoming them. They arrive fearful of talking with strangers, and then the strangers welcome them, with big smiles, and eye contact, and abundant gratitude.
One of my favorite writers, Palestinian-American Naomi Shihab-Nye, wrote a piece about a meeting of strangers that began with her translating for a distraught Palestinian woman in the Albuquerque airport. As the woman was reassured about her delayed flight in her native tongue, she felt so welcome in this strange place of the airport that she began handing out homemade cookies to all the women at gate A-4.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
This can still happen anywhere. Strangers don’t need to remain strangers. We can look up from our Smartphones, and take out our headphones. We can pay attention to the people around us on the street, on the train, in the store, in the pews.
And the thing is, when these connections happen, when strangers become neighbors, we become more ourselves. We as Christians are reminded that kindness and mercy are part of our shared humanity. That we all need to be seen and cared for as God sees and cares for us.
In our work, in our errand-running, in our commuting, and in our leisure, how many times do we cross the road of difference to meet the stranger?
What are the excuses we make for not engaging with those around us? Are we too tired or too busy? Or, if we really check in with ourselves on a deeper level, are we afraid? Afraid of not knowing what to say? Afraid of someone else’s reaction? Afraid of feeling helpless because we don’t know how to really help? Afraid because we are so different from each other?
Jesus was always on the road, constantly meeting with strangers. His ministry was one of drawing the circle of welcome wider and wider. He helped his disciples begin to see strangers as neighbors.
Our faith is at stake in this practice of welcoming the stranger. Jesus calls us to step out of our comfort zones, to risk awkwardness and rejection, to see beyond our differences.
A final story: I am walking down Mass Ave. carrying heavy grocery bags. A woman and her teenage son are strolling along in front of me, and when I pass them, the woman sees how I am struggling under the weight. She insists on carrying one of my bags. I am hesitant, but I figure the worst thing that can happen is she could walk off with my bag. Instead, she tells me in broken English about her homeland, Cape Verde, and skips along, giggling, while her surly son scowls, embarrassed by his mom’s joy. Now I am the stranger. She has welcomed me.
This can still happen anywhere. This meeting of strangers who become neighbors and welcome each other. AMEN.