From a very young age, we are taught about “stranger danger” – fear and skepticism of the stranger, the other. They are unknown, unpredictable and don’t always play by our rules. The “other” could be people of another age group, like those loud, hormonal teenagers who run around kissing and yelling all the time; they could be people of another church affiliation, like those crazy Pentecostals with their joy and enthusiasm in worship; they could just be people with other passions, like baseball fans – I mean seriously, what kind of warped mind do you need to receive pleasure from such a boring sport? Whoever the other may be, we have been taught that our first reactions should be fear and skepticism. Keep them at a distance and ask, “What do they want?” Their mere presence makes us want to hold on to whatever we have a little tighter, just in case they might be out to take it from us.
Currently, the big “other” are refugees. Many of us have a big case of “stranger danger.” We are worried about what they are going to do when they get here. What if they are really terrorists in disguise? What if they come for my job? What if they come and live off my tax money? The “what ifs” are endless. What it boils down to is that we are scared. That is okay: admitting our fear allows us to deal with it. What makes fear dangerous is when we mask it behind other things. Instead of admitting that we are scared of the unknown, we pretend that our reluctance to invite refugees with open arms has a higher motivation.
I oversee a ministry that provides shelter for the most vulnerable people in Peterborough – people who find themselves homeless. Out of nowhere, I have found myself pulled into the debate about welcoming refugees. People state, “How can we welcome in refugees when we have so many of our own living in the streets? We can’t welcome people from other countries until we have looked after our own!”
Now, I am always happy when people want to do more to help house our homeless friends. But the remarkable thing is, until we started welcoming refugees, my homeless friends were the “other.” They were the ones we were worried about living off our tax money, living in our neighbourhoods and bringing down our house values.
I’ve sought out some of my friends who are actively involved in fighting homelessness, and I haven’t found many of them saying such things about refugees. Most of us feel that the increase in church and community groups engaging in refugee relocation has opened up conversations we have been trying to have for a long time. People who are working with refugee families are now saying to us, “Did you know people on Ontario Works receive so little money? How can anyone live on this? Did you know that there is barely any well-kept, affordable housing out there?” The more people realize that our systems of support are inadequate, the better it will be for both our homeless and our refugee sisters and brothers; it is not an either/or situation, but rather a both/and.
Looking at scripture, I find it really hard to argue that we should serve one person in need before another. When Jesus tried to present this argument to the Canaanite Woman, she bested him (where the religious elite were unable) and Jesus ended up healing her daughter. The question isn’t who deserves our hospitality, but rather how do we create a nation that is hospitable to all? How can the church lead the charge in caring for both those who find themselves homeless in our backyard and homeless on the other side of the globe? How can the church be a model of how communities can move from fear of the other to embrace of the other? The big question is not to whom we should show love but how do we love all?