Welcoming the Stranger

We have finished El Camino de Santiago! For those of you who are interested in the practical side of this experience, David will be posting on his blog what our daily life was like, what we ate, how our feet felt, and all that stuff over the next few days, and I promise to put in the links. El Camino is a pilgrimage, which for us involved hiking about 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, to Santiago, Spain over about 31 days.

One of the most beautiful parts of the Camino is at the end, in the province of Galacia.

One of the most beautiful parts of the Camino is at the end, in the province of Galacia. So I put in a picture of that, rather than where we were walking when I had my melt-down. ūüôā

It was my fourth day of walking. I had injured my toes coming down over the Pyrenees mountains on the first day, and every step made me wince with pain. I was dying to take of my constricting hiking boots and put on my flip flops, but we had left the beautiful walled city of Pamplona early that morning, and I knew there was no place to go except the town that was still seven kilometers away. It was approaching my three o’clock melt-down hour. David and I discovered that no matter how short a distance we walked, if it got to three and we were still walking, I would become an emotional wreck. By the time I hobbled into the town, blindly following David, who was scanning the streets for the tell-tale yellow arrows that point out the way to the albergue (or pilgrim refuge), my feet were throbbing. We arrived at the albergue, and the hospitalero (volunteer host) greeted us with a smile. “Welcome! Please sit down, here is a glass of water. You must be tired. Just sit here until I am done checking these other pilgrims in.” We plopped down our packs and sat, sipping cool water and glad to be off our feet and out of the sun. I read a notice stuck up to the wall: “This albergue has been welcoming pilgrims since the 1300’s when the seminary connected with this church was first opened. The seminary students hosted pilgrims, and we continue this tradition today. Welcome home.” And that’s when I burst into tears.

Welcome home, pilgrim. You’re tired. Your feet are sore. You’re hungry. You come hobbling and weary. You come pretty much empty handed. But you are welcome. This is your home.

For the past month, this is what we have been doing. Walking (or hobbling) between little villages in Spain, with only one change of clothes in our backpacks, and praying for food and a cheap place to stay (since our South African rand do not go very far in Europe). And¬†even though I did¬†this for days and days,¬†it still struck¬†me every time– this bizarre warm welcome. I’m a stranger. I don’t speak the language. I have nothing to offer. But the churches (and sometimes hippy communities) who hosted us would fling open the doors and give us a place to sit, and serve us water, or cookies, or iced tea and give us a bed for a donation. We’ve been served hearty potato soap and salad in Logrono, cooked a communal meal of soup and roast chicken with 30 of our friends we met along the Way in Granon, been served a three-course gormet vegan meal at the hippy commune in Hospital, had strawberry short cake served to us by an Arizona church group working at an alburgue run by Cru, eaten our weight five times over in spaghetti at pretty much everywhere else, sometimes just alone, but often with other pilgrims who pitch in their garlic, or salt, or wine to make the meal better.

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David in the kitchen making food for 30 pilgrims with Paulo (Italian) and Cindy (Korean American) that we met on the Way. He looks too excited about that knife.

We were pilgrims, on a journey for different reasons. We wanted¬†to see¬†Spain, to have an adventure together before grad school, to transition between our South African home and our American home. But we also just wanted to see Christ better. That was my prayer each morning as I stuffed my feet back into my hiking boots. “Show us Christ today.” I had imagined that solitude and beautiful surroundings would have given me some kind of connection with God, but pretty much every place that I saw Christ was through people.

I know that God provides for all our needs, but the spiritual discipline of walking with basically nothing for a month, and seeing God provide again and again drove that truth very deeply into my soul. When people picture medieval Catholic churches, they probably picture stone and cold floors, hard benches, and weird icons– to us,¬†they were warm, welcoming refuges. And we were basically just tourists- sure, we were doing this trip without a lot of money but if there had been an extreme emergency, we would have been fine. They could have charged us lots of money for a bed and food and not felt guilty about it– but they didn’t. It was in this context that I started hearing about the xenophobic attacks happening in South Africa. About poor South Africans who were frustrated with how life was no different for them then it was under apartheid, and who turned their frustration towards the immigrants and refugees who have been pouring into South Africa from other parts of Africa. Horrible, horrible violence. Not a genocide, but¬†it suddenly made more sense how genocides can happen. And here was I, the stranger, walking through Spain with not a word of Spanish, being shown radical hospitality. I was reading the book Planted by Leah Kostamo, and this part jumped out to me:

The Greek word for hospitality–philoxenia–assumes a reaching out to those unknown. Taken apart, the word literally means love of stranger: philo, for love, and xenia, for stranger…The Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, but in now fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.” Jesus joins the two in the parable of the Good Samaritan explaining that the stranger is really and truly also one’s own neighbor.

As I read more and more articles about the xenophobic attacks, and watched my friends Facebook feeds, I was saddened by what I saw. Often the people who were calling on others¬†to “love the stranger” were the same ones who had been terrible at “loving their neighbors”– the poor South Africans in their communities. As this perspective, or this perspective¬†of a poor black South African explains, “We see you coming in and giving food and blankets to the foreigners, and you’re so worried about their safety, but for the past twenty years we’ve been living in these townships and poverty, hungry and homeless and you never once came to help us.” While I don’t think anything justifies violence against other people, in these articles I could glimpse a sliver of the frustration and anger that systematic oppression had created in many people. And I realized that for many wealthy white South Africans, their neighbors are strangers.

The love of neighbor and stranger should extend to the poor, jobless refugees fleeing from violence and poverty¬†and also to the poor, underpaid domestic worker living in your own home. It doesn’t have to be either/or. In Jesus, we see it’s both.

I’ve been a stranger for the past month. I’ve been confused about how to get where I needed to go, I’ve been needy and lost, and tired, (but I never once was living in terror for my safety or the safety of my family and friends)– and yet I’ve been welcomed by the church. I’ve been given refuge.

The parish refuge at Granon has a rule that they don't turn anyone away-- they feed and house pilgrims for whatever pilgrims can donate. In the summer, when there are lots of pilgrims, people sleep on the floor of the main church area- we got the loft since we were there in spring. When there are too many people to eat inside, they move the tables outside and have the communal meal out there.

The parish refuge at Granon has a rule that they don’t turn anyone away– they feed and house pilgrims for whatever pilgrims can donate. In the summer, when there are lots of pilgrims, people sleep on the floor of the main church area- we got the loft since we were there in spring. When there are too many people to eat inside, they move the tables outside and have the communal meal out there.

This is my prayer for South Africa. That the church will be a refuge.

That followers of Christ living in poor townships will be able to rise above the frustration and anger at the economic injustice and love the strangers in their midst.

That the followers of Christ in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods will stop living at the expense of the poor, and instead sacrificially simplify their lifestyles so that everyone has enough.

That we will welcome the strangers into our homes and our lives, and fling open our doors to give soul-weary and poor wanderers a place to call home for a while.

PS: GREAT series of blogs by Annie Diamond, a university friend, on the theme of welcoming the stranger here. You MUST read them. Dry Bones Denver, the organization she wrote these blog posts for, exists to serve the homeless youth and young adults in Denver, Colorado.

I’m proud of You

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Photo credit: Emily Bak Toldam, iThemba Denmark Team

Sometimes encouragement comes from the most unlikely of places. I probably would have shooed him away. He was drunk. Not drunk enough to be aggresive, just drunk enough to be honest. He decided to join in on Sizwe’s Life Group last Friday. He had seen my car (and the car of the Restoration Hope team), and figured it was about time he visited. The teenage boys had gathered on the back porch of our host’s home, and we were all discussing the journey of faith, and the story of Peter walking on water with Jesus. The topic turned to the fact that these young men could make the journey of faith easier for their own children one day, through their example as good fathers and good husbands. The whole reason Sizwe and the other discipleship field workers spend so much time with kids and youth in the community is to be role models for them, to build relationships with them and give them the support they need to make wiser choices.

Then he (this unknown drunk man) showed up and sat down in the circle with us. He had plenty to say. “I am just so frustrated.” He repeated over and over (in English, since there were a lot of us umlungus there). “I have four children, all from different mothers. I don’t have a job. I am just so frustrated. I need counselling.” He was about thirty, maybe a bit younger. He was pretty well dressed, but he never smiled.

Sizwe very skillfully explained the teen boys had homework, so we would talk with him after we wrapped up the lesson. The lesson finished and we all left, but Sizwe stayed to talk with the newcomer.

We are told stories in the Bible of entertaining angels unawares, of welcoming the “least of these” and really welcoming Christ himself. I think maybe one reason is not that we will be rewarded with a good feeling for helping them, but that these people actually have the ability to bless and encourage us. Our iThemba team has been pretty discouraged lately with some very serious situations in Sweetwaters/Mpumuza with the kids/teens we work with relating to suicides, AIDS and poor choices. Everyone has been running low on energy, and on hope.

Our new (slightly drunk) friend sat Sizwe down and explained, “You know, you guys are making a difference. I have seen you come here to this road to meet with these boys every day for the past three years. And I told myself, one day I will visit. You know, even though we parents don’t really speak much with you, we do appreciate what you are doing. And it is impacting even us at home. My child always stops me now to pray before we start eating. That is from learning about God with you.” Then he said something which has been ringing in Sizwe’s ears all week. A message from the God on high who sees the work iThemba is doing, who understands the long, hard road it can sometimes be, an echo of what will be said one day at the end of time: “You know what?” the man said. “I am proud of you. I am so proud of you.”¬†

Well done, good and faithful servant.