Stranger in the nightMy husband and I recently joined the Couchsurfing website and hosted our first official couchsurfers last month. Three college students whom we had never met before showed up at our door to spend the evening with us and crash on our couches.

I’ll be honest – I did have some apprehensions going into the evening. What if it was hard to talk to them and we had to endure a whole evening of awkward interactions? What if they were creeps and I couldn’t fall asleep all night worrying about them in the next room? What if they stole our things or (worst case scenario) murdered us in our bed?

Written out in stark black and white type and looking back, my fears seem laughable and ridiculous. Our guests turned out to be three fun-loving and totally harmless young women who not only filled our home with laughter and good conversation, but also came bearing gifts – friendship, a loaf of homemade bread, and colorful origami cranes that are still decorating our dining room.

But my fears are not unusual. Our culture today is one that thinks the worst of strangers, and perhaps for good reason. We are inundated with news of random school shootings, street violence, horrific rapes, and internet scams. When we encounter a stranger, particularly someone who looks or acts differently than ourselves, we immediately stiffen and get defensive. Our first thought is, “How is this stranger going to take advantage of me?”

This reaction is understandable and only natural. Of course we want to protect our families, our property, our lives. But as Christians, I think this reaction is something we need to overcome.

As Christ followers, our lives should emulate that of Jesus. Jesus did not cling to his status as Son of God, to his family, his belongings, or even his life (Philippians 2). He willingly stepped into spaces of danger and disrepute, not because he was looking to get taken advantage of, but because there were people there that he loved. He welcomed the ones that others shunned as the filth of society, because he saw in them the image of his father. I don’t think that Jesus looked at strangers and stiffened in fear. I think he saw past their strangeness to their core identity as beloved by God.

A moving illustration of the Christ-like hospitality we are all called to embody is that of Bishop Curé in Les Misérables. I’ve never read the book, but when I watched the latest film rendition of the story, his character struck a deep chord. The Bishop welcomed Jean Valjean fearlessly and lovingly, giving him candlesticks even after Valjean stole his silver. Diana Soerens has already written a fantastic post on this topic, so I won’t dwell upon it here. I will add, though, that character of Bishop Curé is a sorely needed challenge to the culture of fear in our society.

Too many of our actions toward strangers are based on a deep-seated fear of losing that which is most precious to us – our culture, our social status, our possessions, our loved ones, our lives. But as Christians, all these things come second to following Christ. Our priority is not protecting ourselves, but loving our neighbor. Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). When we turn our backs to strangers for fear of being threatened, we may be “safer” in some respects but we lose the priceless opportunity to let our hearts and minds be stretched to greater capacity for compassion. By avoiding strangers, we may have decreased our physical risk, but we run the spiritual risk of hardening our hearts to God’s life-giving and unpredictable ways.

We also lose the chance to be like God in practicing generous hospitality and to receive the precious gifts that our would-be guests carry.  Consider the three strangers that Abraham welcomes at Mamre (Genesis 18:1-5). If Abraham had succumbed to fear instead of going out of his way to slaughter a calf and prepare a meal for these men, he and Sarah would not have received the wonderful news that Sarah in her old age would bear a son.

Let us be transformed in Christ before we conform to our culture of fear. In Christ, “all things are yours…all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Corinthians 3:23). We have surrendered everything to gain Christ, and having Christ, we now possess all things. We no longer have to cling to our rights, our statuses, or our lives. We can approach strangers not with fear, but with love. Henri Nouwen writes in Reaching Out, “We can only see the stranger as the enemy as long as we have something to defend.” Why would we need to defend anything when in Christ we have all things? We are now free to give, to extend open hands in hospitality.

Even as I write this, the realist in me is retorting, “Yea, right. But you don’t understand the way the world works.  You gotta practice street smarts, or you’re just being plain stupid.” Maybe so, maybe so. But as Christians, we have to ask ourselves, “Is the fleeting security I gain by avoiding strangers worth the precious opportunities I lose? Is my attitude toward strangers being driven by fear or by love?”

John writes that perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). I pray that as Christ followers we would be so filled with his perfect love that we could reach out to strangers (whether they are immigrants, people in our neighborhood who are different from us, or the family we’ve never met next door) in radical and countercultural ways, showing the world that God’s love is more powerful than all our fears.

 


Liuan Huska runs Inscript, Ink., a writing and editing company in the Chicago area, and also writes on embodiment and spirituality on her personal blog, Body & Being.

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6 Responses to How Couchsurfing and Les Misérables Challenge Our Culture of Fear

  1. Couchsurfing says:

    This is a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with the world!

  2. Phil Hoover says:

    I’ve hosted 132 couch surfers in a matter of 5 months. I’m not worried about couch surfers…I am worried that we are telling illegal immigrants they can come to this country, break our laws, and disregard everything that is American. They cannot. And we must not let them do so.

    • Liuan Huska says:

      Phil, thanks for sharing your concerns. That’s an amazing feat to host 132 couchsurfers in 5 months! By bringing up couchsurfers on this site focused on immigration, I wanted to make the connection that perhaps undocumented immigrants are like couchsurfers in many ways. They may pose a threat on the surface level (as all strangers do) but if you don’t take the time to invite one into your home and get to know one, perhaps you are miscalculating their level of threat and making them out to be more dangerous than they really are.

  3. Sorabji says:

    If only all christians though like you. Great post!

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