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A worthy risk: Welcoming the stranger

By KRISTIN MAIER Guest columnist
Saturday, June 4, 2016

A member of my congregation was at the mailboxes of her apartment building when she noticed a new tenant, a Somali woman wearing a head scarf and long dress. She had seen her a few times so she stopped to say hello and that she hoped she was having a good day.

The woman was clearly surprised by the gesture. During their chat, it came out that hardly anyone else at the building had stopped to say hello, even though she had moved in months ago. The woman offered to answer any questions my congregant had about the Somali culture and thanked her profusely for reaching out.

It makes my heart hurt that the smallest neighborly nicety was so unusual in that woman’s experience. There could be any number of reasons that others had not stopped to talk with her. Some people are shy with everyone, others may have felt unsure because of cultural differences, and perhaps some were indeed acting from outright prejudice. We cannot know for sure why, but the effect is the same: Isolation. My fear is that this woman and others experience that frequently in our community.

Perceptions of differences, especially around culture and religion, can begin to feel like big barriers in our minds. Any of us can feel awkward if we are unsure about whether we will understand someone or be understood because of language or differences in customs.

And yet, we should never underestimate the power of simply being friendly and kind. Our good intentions usually show through our fumbling. For those of us from the dominant culture, we need only think about how much more intimidating it is for those navigating a new culture and what a big difference a kind and warm gesture can make.

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Perhaps that is why the world’s religions teach about the importance of welcoming the stranger. Hinduism stresses the practice of hospitality toward all, known and unknown. Buddhism teaches lovingkindness toward friend and stranger. The Qur’an calls for the care of the wayfarer. The Jewish Torah admonishes us again wronging a stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Jesus taught that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him. In my own tradition of Unitarian Universalism, we understand all of these teachings as a call to accept all people and to respect everyone’s inherent dignity and worth.

These are ideals, which we all very humanly fail to live up to sometimes. And yet, my congregant’s experience at the mailbox illustrates exactly why it is worth our effort to keep trying to better welcome others, especially strangers. It only takes a small effort, a miniscule risk, to help someone else feel truly welcome.

We would all be well served by leaving our assumptions and fears aside, for Hebrews 13:2 tells us “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” When we don’t reach out, we miss out on meeting some truly wonderful people.

The Reverend Kristin Maier serves as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northfield. Information about their services and programs for children and youth can be found at www.uunorthfield.org.

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