Stranger to Me

I don’t think I’ve met you. My name is Margie. I said this as I held out my hand, warm and friendly, to a young woman standing in the foyer after church.

It’s possible for someone to attend for quite awhile and I might not recognize her face. That’s easy even in our relatively small church. We’re out of town. They’re out of town or working. Add a little weekend sickness, and there’s a chance you might not notice a new person for weeks, maybe years. So even if I suspect I’ve seen them before I never, ever ask, “Are you new to Trinity?” I’m conscientiously neutral so we can give each other an out. “I don’t think I’ve met you.” “I’ve been in India.” “I need cataract surgery.” Anyways, it’s risky – the whole business of introducing yourself to strangers. I force myself to do it, thinking I deserve a little pat from God saying, “Nicely done, Margie. I know meeting strangers is hard. Your memory is bad. You need to pay better attention. Focus. (Her name is Heather. Heather.) I know you’d like to just go home, fix an omelet and watch the Vikings lose, but you reached out to someone who needed a warm greeting. Enter into paradise.” Then that person will be really grateful for this small gesture and perhaps it will be the beginning of more. Who knows?

None of this happened with the above nice, young woman. She looked me in the eye and said, “Well. We have met before. “(I’m thinking. Okay. Yes. That’s entirely possible. However, for forgetting your face, I’ll make it up to you by being utterly charming here.)

“In fact,” she went on, “I stayed at your house last year.”

You know how comedians sometimes use the bass drum, snare, and cymbals to deliver a single, syncopated beat? Ka-ta-boom. I heard it there in the church foyer, and it drowned everything and so completely derailed my concentration that when she did tell me her name, I still didn’t get it. Remember “Bunny Suicides” calendar I’m so fond of? I thought of several bunny ways I could flush myself out of the system right then.

So much for the meaningful practice of hospitality. So much for years of modeling “I was a stranger and you took me in.” I can’t even remember someone who stayed in our home less than a year ago. There was a little more to the story, but later. Feeling like an idiot is pretty familiar territory and I’ve learned to quickly move on – or write about it. Being confronted with one’s limitations and failures isn’t such a bad thing. Jung liked to point out we learn nothing from our successes and everything from our mistakes, not that I base my entire life on what he says. Christine Pohl clears it up further when she writes: “Humility is a crucial virtue for hospitality, and especially important in keeping hosts’ power in check. Power is a complicated dimension of hospitality.” (Making Room by C.D. Pohl. p. 120)

Who Knows What Risk?
As Christians, we’re called to practice a rhythm of hospitality at all times and in all stages of life. We practice it not because we’re perfect in caring for others or because we never stumble in remembering the details of another’s life or are wealthy or have a lot of free time. We invite the stranger into our lives because we answer Christ who calls to us through them saying, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Mt. 25:35)

Moving out of the safety of private orderly lives, we meet Him in the lives of the marginalized, poor, and fatherless. The fatherlessness part of the equation interests me as my own father was killed in an accident leaving my seventeen year old mother with no means of support. However today,I believe the fatherless includes the one whose father is alive but has abandoned the family. Or he may be a father who is there but too busy with his own life to be engaged in the lives of his children. We must be aware that many we meet don’t carry their hungers on the surface of their lives, rather they remain buried under layers of enculturated behavior that require gentleness and time to peel back.

Over the years we’ve invited people into our lives, and approaching the age of dirt allows me to look back and pontificate about this practice of touching the stranger in our midst. Sometimes our encounters were brief and soon forgotten – like the young woman above. (After that Sunday in the foyer I learned she had visited Paige who at the time was renting our studio apartment behind Toad Hall. Paige brought her over to meet us one evening, and I had utterly forgotten.) There have been times when it seemed whatever we did was wrong or not enough, or made no difference at all. Not knowing the outcome of our efforts, we may be tempted to ask, “Will the interruption to my life be worth it? Is this person deserving of my sacrifice? Does he know I should be fixing the leak in my roof rather than hearing about what shenanigans his teenage daughter is up to? And what if my shower drain gets matted and clogged with creepy stuff, and pages are turned down in my favorite book, and the drill is never returned because I got involved?”

When we engage a stranger, we can’t know the risk involved, nor should we make it our goal to see long term effects of our hospitality. The early church fathers viewed acts of hospitality in the light of the welcoming acts of the Incarnate Lord. Long before modern humanitarian relief efforts, Augustine argued directly against the tendency to gauge the worthiness of any particular person by saying, “We are not to search out only those we consider worthy, in case the worthy might be excluded. You cannot be a judge and sifter of hearts.” (The Good Works Reader by Thomas Oden) Augustine goes on to teach that our giving should not be based upon moral worth since we ourselves were taken in by Christ when we were dark and broken. We receive strangers because in doing so we are loving Christ as he has loved us. Often we connect for a longer time and the person who comes in need becomes a friend who gives back many times over.

A Thousand Reckless Ways
The difficulties and joys of hospitality lie close together and the following illustrates both unexpected blessing and the struggle of limitations when we encounter strangers.

When Denis answered the door a slight, young woman with blue eyes and straight blond hair down to her waist stood on the steps clutching a worn backpack. Denis called me to come because she was asking to stay with us and we had a policy of no crashers. I picked up our one-year-old daughter and carried her with me to the front door. Denis introduced me, “This is Nancy. She’s asking to stay with us.”

“But we’re not a crash pad.” I said it with a note of accusation. It was 1971 and there were still plenty of disenchanted hitchhikers crossing the country searching for a place to drop acid and find the Stairway To Heaven. I was annoyed that Denis hadn’t just sent her away. The four young men already living with us were funny and charming, but their all-night jamming sessions and the amount of food they required were taxing my patience. We were leaders working with a large assortment of newly converted or spiritually searching young people. We called our home “His House” – which at the time sounded more evocative. Our living room was open forum every night for music, discussion, prayer, and coffee, but we had to have limits.

“My dad dropped me off over there,” she pointed to the Piggly Wiggly parking lot across the street from where we lived “and I told him I’d be staying here. He’s gone back to Las Cruces.” She looked at us. “Please? I heard you were Christians, sort of like L’Abri, and that you took people in.” She was barely twenty and spoke with an appealing little lisp. There was a vulnerability about her and it seemed uncaring and dangerous to be simply dumped off in the middle of our run-down neighborhood in Albuquerque. We looked at each other and a slight nod passed between Denis and me. “You can come in and stay the night, but I’m not sure about after that. We don’t have a bed for you, but we have extra blankets and there is the floor.” Her face brightened, and she entered our home and claimed a corner of the living room. That night, when Denis led a Bible study discussion, it was crowded as usual, and Nancy made some precocious, insightful comments – enough to swivel my head and capture our full attention. Late that night after everyone left she told Denis he needed to read more of Francis Schaeffer. And she told him exactly why. We learned she was a new Christian and had just come back from a place called Swiss L’Abri. She stayed the next day and the next, and that summer became the first of several summers she spent in our home as part of our family. We’ve loved her ever since. In 2005 Nancy Randolph Pearcey’s book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity won the Gold Medallion Award for best book of the year.

The same year we met Nancy, Kathy Barboa found us – or maybe we found her because I don’t remember the first time we met her either.

Kathy had been on heroine and living on the street for a year when Teen Challenge took her in and taught her something about the power of the Gospel. She made a profession of faith and really wanted a new life. She was fifteen when she moved in with us.

Kathy had wealthy parents, but they got sick of her troubled life and kicked her out; she talked some about their detachment. When he was home, her father sat behind the newspaper never looking up, not answering or engaging her when she talked to him. To get her mother’s attention she dropped syringes and needles in the hallway and on the front steps, hoping her mom would find them and be alarmed. But her mother never said anything.

Over the Rhine has a song titled All I need is Everything in which they sing, “Inside, outside, feel new skin / all I need is everything / feel the slip and the grip of grace again…” (From the CD Good Dog, Bad Dog, 2000) Certainly it’s true that bottom line we all need that “Everything.” But Kathy was so wounded she needed rock bottom everything. And what did we have to offer? Not much. We were young and poor.

One night as I sat on Kathy’s bed saying good night, we talked about little things, nothing profound and suddenly she sobbed and couldn’t stop. My sitting there so casual, tenderly, almost absently touching her was something her mom had never done. Just this ordinary thing undid her. We loved her, but not perfectly. She was a huge trial for us, combining little girl needs with sexy street-wise attitude. Sometimes she made me really mad. In the end she left us because she couldn’t stay off drugs or away from the men who used her. We told ourselves, it wasn’t our fault. For four years we heard from her, sometimes in the middle of the night crying, wanting us to pray, needing us to come pick her up from some dump. She wanted life to be different, but she never overcame her terrifying addictions.

Then one day as I prepared dinner listening to the news with half an ear, I heard an item that made me drop the dish I was holding. A young woman had been shot by an ex-boyfriend in a lover’s quarrel. I turned to look and saw Kathy’s body lying on the sidewalk in a pool of blood covered by a sheet.

So had she been ushered into heaven that day? I thought so. All her wounds would have been healed by the time of the newscast. I saw her as fresh and virgin in a way that wasn’t possible here on earth. Jesus would have killed her blues forever. Someday, I’m going to be so glad to see her again and laugh about the way she sometimes shocked me.

We play small parts in the lives of many people we encounter. Hospitality is practiced in a thousand reckless little ways. We don’t know what will be the outcome of caring for the stranger. God is under no obligation to tell us, and yet he notices and controls the consequences of each little temporal act, and they will not go unrewarded.