He counted the change carefully, brow furrowed at my question. “Sorry” he shrugged, “my English…not good”. “It’s okay”, I answered, “Welcome to America”. And then, turning back, I looked into his eyes. “I mean it. I’m glad you’re here.”
I thought of my immigrant grandparents, struggling to learn English after long days of bricklaying and housekeeping. They came from a simple farm life to the dirty, overwhelming city that was Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1900’s, from an agrarian existence to a small apartment over a row of shops on a noisy street. Did anyone welcome them?
I looked at this gas station attendant and I thought of my grandparents’ courage and persistence, their struggle to make a home far from all that they had known.
When my children were young I made sure our summers included learning as well as play. One year we memorized the last stanza of the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
Never forget, I told them, you come from immigrants.
We hosted international students for years. They taught me a lot about the universal need for family. They taught our kids the importance of welcoming the stranger. Our family is infinitely richer from having them share our table all those years.
When I was in high school our small town welcomed two refugee families from Viet Nam, and I befriended the older girl. Her father had been left behind in one of the Communist government’s brutal “re-education” camps, and she mourned him daily. I don’t know if they ever learned his fate.
They had been professionals – doctors and university professors in their native land – but here they became cleaners and cooks as they worked to adjust, to start over. The women made us tea with flowers in it in thanks, smiling and nodding at us as we sipped.
“We are aliens and strangers in the world,” Peter wrote. I feel it keenly lately. Do you?
This sense of sojourn, this ache for home, lives in the breast of all of us. Our sense of self is informed by where we fit on the playground, on the social ladder, in the performance evaluation, in the “likes” and invitations we receive.
So we “nest”, carefully arranging our living spaces, our circumstances and our relationships, and curating our online presence to provide a sense of emotional security in a world often harsh and unsettling.
Some of us include in our spaces only those who support our biases or our preferences; or those who have been born into our circle or have earned membership there.
But the Bible is filled with admonitions to welcome and care for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. It doesn’t say anything about first determining whether or not they deserve it, or how well they live up to our cultural ideals.
The Israelites were commanded to remember Egypt, that place that symbolized wandering in a foreign land, through a special meal to be celebrated down through the generations. This Passover meal incorporated bitter herbs, in order to remember the bitterness of their bondage.
This was the meal that Jesus ate just before His crucifixion. He tasted the bitter herbs that symbolized our wandering, our searching for home, at His last earthly meal.
“I remember my affliction and my wandering,” the exiled prophet wrote, “the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.”
But then he continues. “Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.” (Lamentations 3:29-22)
“I am preparing a place for you,” Jesus said, “that you may be with me.” We have a place. A home. We are no longer strangers in that land of eternal belonging, and soon we will step into that everlasting welcome.
So let us remember where we come from. Let us be kind to those who are strangers and aliens in our own land, our own city, our own neighborhood. Let us open our doors, our circles and our hearts because we all have this in common: we are on a journey to another place, exiles together here as we make our way home.