I was a stranger and you welcomed me!
Written by Pastor Propser
I was a stranger and you welcomed me! Matthew 25:35
How overwhelmed would your heart be at the hearing of these words from the lips of a thankful displaced soul forced to leave his country for a safe place to rest his head? Religious leaders and individuals, would certainly wish to be told these words: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”. Whenever an appreciation comes from the lips of a higher personality, the more valuable it becomes. How breathtaking it will be to hear these words from the mouth of the King of kings and the Lord of lords! However, welcoming as God requires has always been the most challenge in welcoming the strangers.
The global family of faith is in one month joining the forcibly displaced to celebrate the Refugee Sunday. The challenges and complexities of forced displacement made me reflect on this portion of the Holy Scriptures as recorded in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in its thirty-fifth verse; upon which the Savior Himself is clearly defining the criteria of His judgement. This important passage made me think twice on what might be the broader meaning of welcoming a stranger as Jesus meant it. Does it have a different meaning to locked out asylum seeker, the clergy or pastor reading this same scripture from the golden pulpit of a welcoming community worldwide?
Not only displacement is overwhelming and tiresome in its nature, but this season has strongly marked my own journey by the passing of a dear brother and friend who was on the move with us. His death, made alive in me the question about what maybe the limitations or boundaries of the welcoming concept as taught in this portion of scripture.
His death came to revive the frustrations and emotions brought by the limitations which most of the refugees are victims of. The family of the diseased and the entire community of displaced in which he was living helplessly shared the nightmare about what I call the culmination of the welcoming process. In one or two years, the same community lost more than ten people and the same “discriminative result” remained the unchanged.
This time again they struggled as in the past about not having a dignified place where the bodies of those of us who die on the move could be buried. That context motivated the desire to understand what I call the broader “biblical sense” of being welcomed as a stranger as understood by those we share the calling to see God’s Kingdom on the move with the forced displaced instead of the overwhelming numbers which makes the headlines. The theological approach and views expressed in this reflection are mine and shouldn’t be blamed on whomsoever.
My broader meaning of welcoming the stranger
The great Evangelist John Robert Walmsley Stott encourages believers to be global christians with a global vision because their God is a global God. It is my entire conviction that Jesus had a global and holistic perspective of the Kingdom He came to unfold. His view of the Kingdom was not only to saving people from the eternal death but also have the day- to-day life dignified. Otherwise, He wouldn’t have raised the dead, fed the hungry or healed the sick. He didn’t only care for those who were still breathing but also, He honored the death of Lazarus by even visiting his grave to testify the He was the resurrection and life.
Therefore, His mission can be summed up in these key actions: doing good, curing the sick, restoring the sight of the blind, making the lame walk, raising the dead back to life, feeding the hungry, driving away demons from possessed people and also preached and enacted the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was about life saving, life keeping and life dignifying in its full dimension.
Both in the days of the Old Testament as well as in those of the New Testament, welcoming the stranger was among the highest recommendation from God. Welcoming the stranger remained the most challenging experience both for the displaced and the hosting communities even then.
To make it God’s own matter, He was so keen to intentionally recommend Israel to treat the stranger who sojourns among them as a native Lev.19;33-34. With in mind that they have been themselves slaves and subjected to harsh treatment and in unrespectful manners.
The experience we now live prove that most of the nations instead, tightens their welcoming conditions to make it hard if not impossible for the forcibly displaced to crossing the borders. In the countries the journey of displacement brought me into, the death of the stranger and his burial is not at all considered as part of the welcoming process.
The Holy Spirit in His sovereign will, dedicated an entire chapter of 20 verses of Genesis 23 concerning the burial of Sarah. This is an account of a dignified welcoming of Abraham in the land of Hebron. There, his wife Sarah died while her, Abraham and Isaac were still on the move of God’s call.
It looks like Abraham’s hosting community has a kind of similarity with my hosting community. They all have burying places or caves privately owned where their dead ones are buried. At his request of a place where Sarah would be buried, Abraham was given the offer to make his best choices among the existing places.
That attitude was exceedingly biblical and welcoming to a stranger who lived among them. Providing him with the liberty to make a choice about where Sarah will be buried was good yet not dignifying. Abraham declined the offer and instead requested an owned land.
This reflection is a testimony from a living experience both as a displaced but also a believer. It is at the same time a shared experience with other displaced communities in our region where it has been a challenge when a refugee dies to get a dignified place to be buried. That situation keeps the puzzle unsolved. Welcoming the stranger gives no attention to his entire cycle of life. From the beginning of the journey which opened a big wound in the heart of the displaced, until the death which leaves the wound uncovered, untreated thus unhealed.
Some of the welcoming nations like Rwanda and Kenya have public cemeteries which both refugees and the hosting communities use with payment of a designated fees. While other countries like Uganda, have their burial system different. The point I am making by highlighting these burial systems is to help the reader understand, what really welcoming means in the eyes of Jesus, to a larger extent to the least of these and those simply preaching about these important verses.
Uganda allows two kinds of settlements for the refugees. There is settlement within the refugee camps and in that context a designated public cemetery, whereas in the urban settlement, such opportunity is not possible. Each family owns its private land designated for burial.
This reflection is not a claim for land ownership by the communities on the move. The intension remains to challenge the “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” misunderstanding, setting boundaries about where it doesn’t go beyond. Those on the move cannot read that verse the same way as those in the hosting communities as well as the global family of faith does.
Welcoming the stranger as Jesus happened to be in His incarnation is not simply limited to offer him a boat during His preaching to the multitude. It was further, offering Him a prepared tomb by a rich man to honor His death. To a forced displaced family, welcoming him would not simply mean to offer him a tent and poles to pitch it, it is also to think ahead that he carries within him a reason and a season to die someday and be buried. That is what I call the holistic welcoming which the Body of Christ should have in mind. Welcoming the stranger is caring for him even when his life comes to an end.
Welcoming is not only limited to open a door to live among us it is also saying you are welcome within us even if you happen to die. That to me is the biblical view which encompasses both life and death. This is the complete meaning of “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”. The “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” is more that offering a shelter, it is also giving room the grief and sorrow of the displaced.
My own experience in ministry with the forcibly displaced
As I grow older, my eyes on a daily basis are opened to this reality of not only enjoying life but also the awareness that death is imminent. The fear of death, forced me and my family to leave the only place we call home. The rest of the places we have been forced to live, we stretch both our emotions, will, rights, day and night to make them become home but in reality, they are not and will never be. Home is where both your life and death is honored and dignified. Home is where your best days and worst are mutual embraced, cherished and honored.
The unspeakable worries of the forcibly displaced are woven around being refused the right to fully belong. Though forced displacement depraves those on the move to belonging to a geographical area, but it never leaves behind the intrinsic insecurity luring over them all. This has been part of my daily reflection in my ministry to and with those experiencing displacement and its consequences for now almost a decade.
Would then the “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” be meaning the same thing to both those on the forced displacement and those reading this holy scripture simply from the pulpit of their cathedrals and comfortable homes? Would it mean the same thing to the family of my dear brother who went to be with the Lord and hardly found his final bed? Does it mean the same thing to this dear and innocent refugee father who was killed with his son by an over-speeding driver proud of the tarmac road of his country while the deceased was struggling to integrate in the hosting community?
ased on the pain and suffering inflicted to the displaced people, welcoming a stranger has lost its Christ-centered meaning. Which I believe goes beyond the act of opening boarders to include welcoming the good and bad days of the displaced person. Real welcoming of a stranger should get to the level of welcoming his life as well as honoring his death. Strangely enough, why would a displaced person be welcomed to live with us but to be refused to die amongst us?
The years I served as a displaced leader, I was challenged by my own understanding of the notion of being welcomed as a stranger. This is common to other displaced people I have talked too wherever displacement brought them. My conviction is that millions of new faces despite hardships, will cross the borders with uncertainties of whether they will be welcomed or not. Unfortunately, with the grief of displacement, they become strongly destroyed by the agony they face when their loved ones die. May this reflection speak to those we share faith with. Those who consider the Bible to be their unfailing, inherent and infallible Word of God and way of life.
The strongest challenge shared with both those on the move and those in their hosting communities is the fear of death as I mentioned. They equally die for either same or different reasons but they don’t receive the same treatment within the same community. For the forced displaced even in their death they are discriminated against.
Death is part of us all but for the displaced people, they die each day psychologically with fear of not die only but where would their bodies be buried. Most of them are dishonored while alive, the worse happens when they die. While they die like others, it becomes a big challenge about where the body of their loved ones will rest/buried. That is what the refugee community of Mubende has been suffering from since Heart For Global Grace Ministries was planted in 2015.
Mubende Town Council in Uganda is currently hosting more than hundred displaced families all from the DRC. They are all survivors of the slow-motion Genocide hunting down
the Banyamulenge community and the deliberate intention to uproot those who survive the killings by both the DRC army and the coalition of other Congolese tribes armed groups from the region. These people never enjoyed the right to belong in the only country they call home but rather they are till now forced to accept that they have no citizenship in DRC.
Like any other human being, despite their forced displacement, which in itself is an open door to suffering and pain, but also death is part of their daily challenge. Within these three years however, the refugee community living in cities have experienced a tough tragedy of not having where to bury their loved ones in dignity. So when they read “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”, the reality makes its application just a dream.
This community is slowly making Uganda and the city of Mubende a place to integrate. This community have lost in two years (11 people) and their burial was an added suffering to their displacement and a burden of psychological torture to their families.
The Ugandan culture allows each family to have its own grave yard where their loved ones are buried. In cities like Kampala, there is public cemetery. In Mubende Town Council the refugee community approached the local authorities whenever one of them pass, the answer was that like any other family of Ugandans they should have our own place. It is then hard for the displaced who live from the pocket to mouth income to be able to purchase like Abraham in the Bible a place where his loved ones will be buried.