The Kindness of Strangers

by Michael Usey

Genesis 12:1-9 (NRSV)

In 2017 I was in a group of ministers, priests, imams, and rabbis who met with two of the lead ICE agents from the Winston-Salem office.  We had two main requests: first, we asked if ICE agents would quit identifying themselves as POLICE when they were knocking on doors, or leading a raid.  We asked this so that undocumented persons would not become afraid of our local police, or at the sound of someone yelling “Policia!”  Undocumented persons are often the victims of crimes, yet they are terrified of police, so they are often the ones most vulnerable.  The second request we had was a plea for ICE agents to carry out the words of the administration and only arrest, detail, and deport undocumented criminals.  The two agents played the good agent/bad agent stereotype perfectly.  The good agent said they didn’t want new residents to stay away from the po-po, but they wanted to continue wearing windbreakers that said Polica because not everyone knows what ICE is, and that they certainly wanted to center on deporting criminals.  The other agent was much more blunt, and said that they were going to detain and deport whomever they found because everyone in the US illegally were, by his definition, a criminal.  The meeting was not a success.

As I mentioned last week, our summer worship theme is “Are We There Yet?” a phrase every parent has heard whined from the back seat.  The journeying motif as a characteristic act of biblical faith has many examples. Abram’s journey to Canaan is followed later by Jacob and his children traveling to Egypt to find food security, and the children of Israel will reverse that journey 400 years later as they throw off the shackles of servitude and head back for the Promised Land. Judah will lose that same land and will be carted off in the exile, from which his people will return three generations later. 

In the NT, the birth of Jesus will involve a journey for his parents, both to Bethlehem before his nativity (Luke) and after with his parents down into Egypt (Matthew). The gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as symbolically re-enacting the wilderness sojourn of the children of Israel as Jesus moves towards the culmination of his ministry in Jerusalem. After his crucifixion, it is at the end of a journey to Emmaus that those who had walked with the Risen Christ recognized him. And in Acts, Paul, like Jesus, is repeatedly engaged in long journeys to the far-flung corners of the empire following God’s leading to carry the Good News to the Gentiles, beginning in Jerusalem all the way to Rome.

The overarching lesson which pervades the scripture is that following this God, who comes as uncontrollable Wind in both testaments (ruah and pneuma), requires a kind of unsettled, at times rootless, way of life characterized by detachment from people, places, and things upon which we might otherwise depend.  Follow Jesus and you can easily end up apart from family, long-time friends, and even the place you once called home.

Commitment to that manner of living carries with it the requirement that we adopt the identity of what is referred to in biblical terms as “the stranger” or, as we might put it today, the immigrant, which is precisely what Abram is called to be in Genesis 12. It is difficult in the Information Age to imagine the position of Abram when God called him to leave kin and country.  In thirty seconds, anybody can go online and get a street view of virtually any address in a major city and a bird’s eye view of even the remotest corners of the planet. We can get 500 customer reviews of the most pathetic fleabag motel or unsanitary diner. Anywhere you can go, somebody has already been there and has left their thoughts about it for posterity. No one ever needs to venture to any location without being armed with mass quantities of data.

Abram has none of this, and the reader’s awareness of his situation usually elicits two responses. First of all, as a model of the willing servant of God, Abram’s example of detachment and obedience summons the reader to emulate his example. Indeed, he will become the paradigm in scripture for faith in God because of his openness to a summons out of his familiar surroundings, believing himself to be safe, wherever he was going, in the care of the Summoner. This is the most familiar application of the episode.

It takes only the slightest imagination to see in that story a paradigm of all human life. All human life is a matter of searching for the Promised Land. Your life and mine is a matter of moving from where we are now, often through some struggle or journey, to where we want to be. It takes only an accumulation of years to know that life is such that, if you should reach a state where everything is finally the way you want it to be, and you are living now in your own Ur of Chaldees, the call may come for you to move into an unknown future, often a future that you don’t want: Through the loss of a loved one, or a job, or through a divorce, or through anything that causes you to leave where you are now. You have everything the way you want it. You’ve worked hard to get it this way. Then it happens. Life moves you on into an unknown future. When that happens, then we are all Abraham, and we are all Sarah, with a choice. We can hunker down in fear and resentment that this has happened to us, that life isn’t fair, or we can go forth in faith, trusting that God keeps the promise to be with us as we enter new territory.

Less well-recognized is the second response that Abram’s calling seems to elicit in the reader: empathy towards Abram’s situation. Put differently, the first reaction of the reader to Abram’s calling, “That’s supposed to be me,” gives way to the second realization, which is “Big Yikes, that COULD be me.” And it is in imagining the fear and anxiety normally attendant to leaving everyone and everything behind that the seed is planted in the reader’s heart for concern for real-life strangers. In case the plight of strangers is missed the narrative will reinforce the point more bluntly just a few chapters hence in the tale of the strangers who show up in Sodom. Being a stranger can quickly land you in mortal danger unless the ethics of the community reduces the fear that comes from the appearance of difference in its midst. Just ask the Asian, Jewish, and African American citizens who’ve been harassed, beaten or shot down during any given week in the land of the free and the home of the heavily armed.

The challenge of the stranger in our midst is more pressing than it has been in perhaps a long time. In the US, we have faced several substantial waves of immigrants over the last 250 years, which have precipitated periods of social upheaval. Confronting difference is hard work and too often it’s simply easier to resist it. We are in a period, once again, when many strangers have crossed our borders, with even more at the gates.  Thomas Paine wrote, “The United States should be an asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.”

The US shares this situation with European countries, as the vast populations of the Southern Hemisphere are now moving towards the prosperity of those of us in the north. In the US, this wave of immigration is more troubling for our society. Let’s be honest. In the past, it was easier not to react against strangers in our midst, whether they were Irish or Italian or Polish or Jewish, for the most part, at least these people looked like “us,” and, more to the point, they were often willing to shuck off their previous identity and adopt what we considered the generic, white American one. The result was that, in a generation, the differences between us would be erased.  

That’s not happening in the current situation. Most of these folks don’t look like white America and they aren’t particularly interested in becoming like us, but rather seem determined to hold onto their differences. A similar situation developed in the immigration of Chinese workers in the 19th century who came here to work on the railroad. They could be funneled into one part of town, (and if you’ve seen the TV series Warrior, then you know this well).  This was designed to contain their differences. But these immigrants now want to live where they please. They want to send their kids to our neighborhood schools. “People come here penniless but not cultureless. They bring us gifts. We can synthesize the best of our traditions with the best of theirs. We can teach and learn from each other to produce a better America…” Mary Pipher wrote, but this has rarely been our first reaction.

A friend posted on facebook something she said she overheard.  A woman said to a waitress in a Mexican restaurant, “Speak English!  This is San Diego.”  The waitress responded, “How do you say San Diego in English?”  [Some of you won’t get this until after lunch and that’s okay; don’t be too hard on yourselves; by the way, the answer is St. James.]

So Abram’s immigration has something significant to say to those of us who might feel that our space and culture are being ‘invaded’ by all these strangers. The community of faith sprang from the faith of a stranger who was following God. When he came to his new place, he did not assimilate, but held fast against social pressure to the God who had come with him. How can we–how can we look down our noses at the strangers in our midst who “won’t stop with that gibberish and speak American”? Why are we, who know the promise of God in this text to bless the nations through this stranger, so certain that “our” strangers who just moved in across the street won’t likewise enhance and benefit our community?

I wanted to talk about this text for a couple of reasons.  First, AHA’s campus, that is the former American Hebrew Academy grounds, may become the ICE detention center for immigrant children.  Their well-being will likely depend on the largesse of Greensboro citizens.  Secondly, bigotry, racial hatred, abhorrence of certain cultures, and gender bias–all these demons are having their hayday. Outrageous lies and hate speech continues, even from shocking sources.  They have been legitimized by the former administration who fomented rage, fear, and prejudice. Lastly, as things related to covid are opening up–next week we are planning to be in-person, so we will once again be meeting and hopefully welcoming the stranger, who is also us.  We’ll be seeing friends who might be like strangers to us, having not laid eyes on them in a year and a half.

We can debate endlessly about what our government policy on immigration should be, both the degree to which we should open our borders, and the reasons, and even the numbers–as well as what we should do when the system doesn’t work properly, and how to fix it.  But I’m not discussing that here; I’m merely acknowledging (politics aside) many new citizens, immigrants, strangers are here among us.  And they will continue to enter our communities.  We are rarely in charge of determining their classification or deciding if their reasons for being here can be justified.  We can simply meet them as we go about our living.  And we can be vigilant in our kindness (both emotionally and practically) in welcoming them.  We remember our biblical narrative that reminds us to feel great kinship with them. We can hold space for the strangers among us.

What the text calls us to do in our current situation is to treat strangers like they were Abram and Sarai, plotting ourselves into the story and thus imagining the way we would ourselves want to experience being a stranger. If Abram is truly a paradigm of faith, and if his calling is also our calling—to live an obedient and unsettled life, cultivating some healthy detachment from people, places and things—then the prospect forever remains that tomorrow we, too, might be called to get up, go, and become a stranger ourselves in someone else’s space in response to the call of God on our lives.