I was born in Washington. I moved around from state to state. But I usually claim Mississippi as my home.
Mississippi is the hospitality state—and it’s a hospitality that most people think amounts to waving at every car that passes, offering sweet tea, and saying, “Yes ma’am,” at the right times. But southern hospitality is entirely different from biblical hospitality.
The Greek word translated hospitality is philoxenia which means to love strangers. The most clear instance that it’s seen is in Hebrews 13.
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
But after reading this, the question that always pops up in my head is: What is a stranger?
In this passage, is it the prisoner and those mistreated? And how do we love them? It seems like we are called to empathy—to imagine ourselves in prison or suffering.
And so I call to mind the times when I was a stranger.
I am an eight-year-old girl with long brown braids from Washington. I sit at the lunch table at Sam Houston Elementary. Everyone speaks Spanish, but I don’t understand a word.
I am an eleven-year-old girl being called “Yankee” on the playground. My protests of being from the Pacific Northwest fall flat. I use odd words and don’t have a southern accent. I am obviously not from here.
Walking down the steps of the plane, the cold air bites. My Ukrainian host mother waits for me. Speaking Russian, she pulls off my leather jacket and holds up a fur coat behind me instead.
Recalling these moments, I am comforted by God’s love for the foreigner. God tells his people to be kind to strangers remembering that they were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Yet, we can limit our idea of being a stranger if we stop here. These are the more obvious ideas of being a stranger. But other impressions enter my mind.
At a leadership conference in college, the room is separated into personality types. Looking around I notice that the other groups are huge while my group fits at a small table.
While sharing my testimony in a ladies’ group, the room stands speechless. No one comes to me later to say a word about my life story.
My Uncle dies of a heart attack. Life seems to be continuing as normal for everyone else, but suddenly I feel separated by grief.
As my mind processes these examples I realize that I can feel like a stranger because of my location, but other forms of alienation hurt more. My friend Elena translated at the lunch room table and I eventually learned Spanish. My southern friends learned to accept my quirky language, even as I developed a slightly southern accent. Although I felt like an outsider as an exchange student, I also felt very welcome.
But how do I overcome feeling different? How do I overcome feeling sad when everyone else is happy? How do I overcome having experiences that seem so foreign to others?
I realize that some of these experiences are more common than others. Others may not be experiencing grief at the same time, but we all experience grief in this world. Others in my life may not have felt my loneliness, but they have felt lonely.
In the pews at church may sit an elderly person who feels alone in a predominantly young congregation, a poor person who sees only wealthy church members, a person who struggles with same-sex attraction, an ethnic minority, or a person struggling with mental illness.
I may sometimes feel alone in an area of my life, but I am not alone in feeling like a stranger. We are all strangers looking for our home.
Later in that chapter of Hebrews I read, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:12–14)
What does this mean that we are to follow him outside the camp? What does it mean that we are to bear disgrace? Could it be that reaching out to strangers does sometimes seem this way? Why else would we know someone feels like an alien and not welcome them in? Are we concerned with the disgrace of associating with the prisoner, the sinner, the poor person? Do we not recognize that we all are the prisoners, the sinners, the poor?
As it says, here we do not have an enduring city. As Christians, this world is not our home. We have a better home prepared for us. In this world, we will always feel the tension of not belonging. But among God’s people, that tension should be waning as we prepare for our new home where there are no strangers—only family.
On that day, we will feel like the Unicorn in The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”
Cover photo by Yiran Ding.