…I say to Him, ‘God is it okay to luff strangers?’ And God says to me, ‘Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.’
– Yitzak, Holocaust Survivor (via Kitchen Table Wisdom)
Welcoming the stranger is a key concept in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. We find this thread through the Torah in passages such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:81), “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19) and “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Lev 19:34).
These verses lead us to reflect on ‘hospitality‘, philoxenia in the Greek, literally a compound of “love” and “stranger.” This word is used in the Christian New Testament in the passage, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). Hospitality often means the practice of welcoming others into one’s home. Often, however, this word is used in conjunction with welcoming those who are not strangers into one’s home. We are accustomed to welcoming into our home or our lives those who are familiar (literally, already ‘of one’s household‘) but not those who are ‘strange’ (from elsewhere, foreign, unknown, unfamiliar).
On World Refugee Day we seek to recognize the excellent work that is being done to show hospitality to those that are new to the country and are often fleeing profound persecution, war or tragedy. In Canada, the Canadian Council for Refugees as well as non-profit organizations such as Matthew House (Toronto) and Matthew House Ottawa are doing tremendous work in serving newcomers.
As the focus of this forum is faith and disability, however, we want to take a step back and examine some of the common factors that lead to our refusing (rejecting or ‘giving back‘) the Other. These same instincts are those that create a hostile (or ‘belonging to the enemy‘) environment in churches, institutions, and communities for people with disabilities, newcomers to Canada, and anyone who is marginalized or discriminated against (no matter how subtlety). What is it about someone who is a ‘stranger’ to us that might cause us to refuse them, to want to ‘give them back’?
Perhaps it is helpful to think of the idea of shared space. Taken quite literally, it can be easy to focus on practical elements of resources, time, and living space. While in a materialistic Western society we tell ourselves that these are things we find meaning in, the facade of misguided pursuits is easy enough to see through (see Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, pgs 98-102). More fundamentally, Jean Vanier reflects on what it means to share in humanity:
Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.
– Jean Vanier, Becoming Human
This is the space, the home, the dwelling that we share and fortunately it is a place of belonging vast enough for us all. When we encounter weakness or difference in others, it hits ‘too close to home’ because we recognize our own weakness and self-stigmatization that we try to submerge. Ultimately, refusing the Other is not about the ‘strangeness’ of the Other but about the strangeness of ourselves to ourselves that rejects the Other. Above, Vanier points both to being a source of joy as well as to our weaknesses. Every one of us longs to know that our gifts and abilities are celebrated and our weaknesses are shared, not judged.
In coming to recognize our own ‘unfamiliarity’ with ourselves, we bring the Other from the place of being a guest (stranger) through the shared space, the shared root, of our strangeness to ourselves (ghosti, not to be confused with ‘ghost’) to a place where we are ultimately open to the gifts they offer to us as hosts. Even if they are not able to offer what is traditionally looked upon as ‘hospitality’, when we open ourselves to the gift of who they are then we can recognize together the reciprocity of shared vulnerability and celebrate the unique gift and ‘strangeness’ of ourselves and the Other.