You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(Exodus 22: 21, New American Standard)
The other day my wife and daughter dropped into work to join me for lunch in the college restaurant. Our daughter, who is three, entered my office announcing that we shouldn’t talk to strangers. Taken a little aback by the directness of her declaration, I thought that, generally, her statement made for sound advice but an odd greeting. My wife quickly explained that they had been watching a children’s program on PBS that had offered this advice. Our daughter had clearly been listening.
Then my daughter asked: What does a stranger look like? That, I thought, is a great question.
What does a stranger look like? I pass them every day. In fact, with all the new faculty, staff, and students at Young Harris College this semester, I think everyone of us pass innumerable strangers on any walk across campus. And, as has been confirmed on several occasions, I am one of them.
Strangers are people who are unfamiliar to us. They are people who might act differently from us. They might dress differently from us. They might talk differently from us. In general, there is something about them—from our perspective—that is “strange.”
Spotting a stranger is easy. Transforming a stranger into a neighbor, that is where true talent lies.
In the book of Exodus, Israel is admonished to treat strangers well. Included within a list of persons to be protected and explicitly cared for, strangers (or resident aliens or sojourners or guests as different translations describe them) were to be treated with a kind of radical hospitality because Israel had once been an entire nation of strangers in a strange land. Centrally placing the practice of radical hospitality as a cardinal characteristic of God’s people helped integrate an outside people into the community of God while connecting Israel with its defining narrative, i.e., the story of their exodus from Egypt.
In that story, Israel initially had been welcomed into the land of Egypt but shortly was demoted from guests in Egypt to slaves of the Pharaoh. Thus, by integrating the habit of radical hospitality into their central mandates for the followers of God, Israel was both remembering and reforming. They were remembering their betrayal by the Pharaoh but, also, their liberation and eventual welcome home by God. They were reforming their own potentiality to exploit the outsider, the vulnerable in their midst, as they had been exploited.
In other words, for strangers to become neighbors requires both the native and the outsider to change. Such communal and personal transformation demands intentionality. We do not accidentally develop good habits that change our communities and us. This kind of change requires good story telling and good practices.
As we seek to create a new, four-year community, several intentional habits must be central to who we are. One of those habits is the habit of radical hospitality. Radical hospitality is found in the stories we tell about who we have been and who we must become, in how we greet one another, in how we include each other in our conversations and activities, and in how we interact with each other in large and small ways. This will repeat the miraculous transformation of strangers into neighbors. The key to a great community is not whether its members can identify “what a stranger looks like” but if those members have the ability, first, to recognize strangers as potential neighbors, potential friends.
Have a great week, and don’t be a stranger.