By Amy Butler
It’s a pretty commonly accepted biblical mandate that we welcome the stranger. As we’ve witnessed in the news of late, in our better moments we people of faith can manage to cross wide valleys of opinion to agree on that sentiment. It occurred to me recently, however, that we make these determinations around occasional issues, and most frequently from the position of establishment — we’re rarely the strangers. We can be good about quoting Scripture, but I wonder if a change of perspective would make us even more vigilant about radical welcome.
What does it feel like to be a stranger? After my first week in a brand new city, I began to remember what, honestly, has not been a common experience for me. And, while acknowledging that my experience of being a stranger has very little desperation associated with it, this brush with being new has reminded me just a bit of what it might feel like to really be a stranger in a strange land.
The first thing I experienced in force was anonymity. While navigating the world with no recognition from the folks around you can be freeing, there’s also something a bit unmooring about it. When nobody trains their eyes on you with recognition, it’s easy to feel a bit adrift. The freedom to fly beneath the radar comes at the price of irrelevance. And I remembered: we all need to be recognized, to fill a role in the lives of those around us.
Being a stranger also comes with a strong discomfort. Nothing feels quite normal; everything is brand new. As soon as the excitement of the brand new passes, however, a nostalgia for the familiar rises to the surface. It’s not that the familiar was especially better but the territory was navigable. As feeling uncomfortable has been a constant companion in these days, I remembered: we all long for familiarity and comfort.
And this experience of constant newness brings to mind the built-in sense of incompetence that comes with being a stranger. Need to get across town? Milk for your cereal? A doctor? These are all puzzles of varying degrees, at first presenting a challenge but shortly growing tedious. As these experiences fill each day, the constant feeling of incompetence humbles, then wears down the spirit. Reminder: competence and value go hand in hand in our society; it’s discouraging to live with a steep learning curve.
With the incompetence of newness, the stranger finds himself in constant need of help. Asking for help isn’t always the most comfortable exercise, and living life as a constant receiver can be frustrating. To learn the art of accepting help can be a challenge for those of us who are accustomed to being on the other end of the equation.
I’ve noticed and tried to mark something especially valuable in the experience of the stranger. Strangers see the world around them with new eyes. In that little window of time before anonymity becomes familiarity, discomfort relaxes into ease, incompetence develops skill, constant receipt gives way to opportunities for generous welcome to others, the stranger can see her world with a clarity familiarity does not afford.
And that gift of new eyes may be worth the pain of newness. Once everything starts to feel a little more normal and I’m the one giving out advice on subway routes, I hope I can remember what I saw when I was the stranger. With that memory, perhaps a stranger’s perspective can more powerfully inform the way I navigate my comfortable world.
And welcoming the stranger might become, not an issue-specific anomaly, but rather a regular Christian practice.