Like most Americans of my generation, I learned as a small child to be afraid of strangers. “Don’t talk to strangers” was and probably still is a good precaution, given our God-given obligation to protect children, but I wonder if we’ve taken it too far. A lot of us, as adults, carry with us a fear of strangers—in the Greek, that’s xeno-phobia—and it affects the way that we think about someone whom we don’t know coming into our country, our neighborhood, or even our church. For many folks, especially those whose minds have been saturated with media that suggest that immigrants might be criminals, job-stealers, or disease-carriers, there is a genuine (if not factually-justified) fear that sets in when they begin to think of immigration on a large scale, and that fear affects their response (or lack of response) to immigrants.
Scripture gives us a very different idea about how to respond to strangers: the Bible is full of commands to hospitality—literally, to love the stranger (xeno-philia) (for example, Romans 12:13, 1 Peter 4:9, 3 John 1:8). In fact, this sort of hospitality is a requirement for leadership in the church (1 Timothy 5:10). For many American Christians, hospitality means having our friends over for a nice meal, hosting a party for a group from church, or preparing a comfortable guest room for extended family that might be passing through our town. Those are good and kind things to do—but they miss the heart of hospitality. Anyone can love his friends, Jesus tells us (Luke 6:33), but our call to love our neighbor extends beyond our family and friends to those who are strangers to us, as his parable of the Good Samaritan confirms (Luke 10:25-37).
While I have encountered some wonderful exceptions, I don’t think that hospitality is a virtue that thrives in our American cultural context. Many would more likely respond to a stranger in their neighborhood by calling the police than by welcoming him in for a cup of coffee and preparing a guest bed. We might do well to learn from other cultures, where this sort of stranger-oriented hospitality is still very much the cultural norm. The Bedouins in the Middle East, for example, will not even ask the name of their guests until several days after welcoming them into their home.
We can also learn hospitality from the example of Scripture. In the book of Genesis, we find Abraham pleading with passing strangers to accept his hospitality (Genesis 18:1-15). While this may have been customary in the Ancient Near East, it might also have been influenced by Abraham’s own immigrant experience; as someone who had often been a stranger in another’s land himself, he knew to extend hospitality. As he does, he finds that he is rewarded: these strangers are actually divine messengers who inform him that God is about to fulfill his promise to give Abraham a child.
We are called to welcome and receive strangers because God commands us to do so—but when we do, we might find that we are the ones who are blessed. We never know if, by extending hospitality to a stranger, we are really entertaining an angel unaware (Hebrews 13:2) or even welcoming Christ himself (Matthew 25:35-40).
Immigrants—strangers, whom we don’t know, whom our culture guides us to be at least a bit wary of—might just be blessings. Immigration to the United States—even the immigration of those who may be undocumented—presents an opportunity to extend the love of Christ, a love we were received not when we were already God’s close friends, but “when we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). As we counter-culturally extend God’s love to strangers, we’ll find that these immigrants are actually a great blessing.