In church tradition the ancient practice of offering hospitality is sometimes called “welcoming the stranger.” In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus shocked his listeners by suggesting that their own eternal welcome would depend on whether or not they welcomed others here on earth: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25). Galvanized by these words, Christians in every age have sought to meet Christ at the door. Groups like the Benedictines, Franciscans, and Catholic Worker turned hospitality into an art form.
My wife Tatiana and I were fascinated by the tales of these wild saints. Dreaming of ways to make hospitality central to our life together, we prepared to move to a nearby struggling community. But it only took one walk down our block to make it clear to us that, in our impoverished, all-black town, our neighbors were not the strangers – we were.
Ford Heights is a small, crumbling town about fifteen miles south of Chicago. Technically a suburb, its leafy-green streets are blighted by abandoned and burned out houses. Stray dogs and crack addicts roam the streets. Bordered by a tire incinerator, a junkyard, cornfields, and a Ford factory, the residents limp on in poverty and isolation. We expected our arrival to arouse suspicion, but we had no idea how much our crossing the tracks would set everyone on edge.
Kids playing in front yards stopped and stared, and boisterous neighbors lowered their conversations to a hush as we walked by. Whenever we were bold enough to initiate conversation, our greetings were met by stony silence. Everywhere we went, the air seemed to crackle with tension.
Ford Heights is used to strangers. They intrude on our town with a badge and a handgun or with a smile and a truckload of clothes. Although annoyed, I couldn’t fault my neighbors. From their experience, strangers came to town to hurt or to help, but never to know. Those who didn’t think we were undercover cops treated us like a wandering social service unit. They’d see us walking down the sidewalk and holler out:
“When y’all handing out school supplies?”
“Lemme get some of them peppers in your garden.”
“Here, come fix this bike.”
Folks badgered us to hand out food, give them rides, and replace their broke-down basketball rims. Folks we didn’t know, folks who didn’t care to know us. We felt sick to our stomachs.
I suppose if we had moved to Ford Heights simply with the desire to relieve our neighbors’ poverty, all would have been well. We would have received our pushy neighbors as “Jesus in disguise” and interpreted these encounters as opportunities to practice the works of mercy. But our hearts longed for something more. We longed for relationship. For friendship. For kinship. Mother Teresa once diagnosed the world’s ills by saying: “We have simply forgotten that we belong to one another.” While we respect activists and community organizers, Tatiana and I sensed that our calling had less to do with agitating for justice, and more to do with re-learning to whom we belonged. We came to Ford Heights praying that God would weave us and our neighbors together into family.
It turned out to be a far more difficult prayer than we had imagined.
I find it curious that, although the parable of the sheep and the goats demands a life rooted in the works of mercy, Jesus himself rarely practiced them. Think about it. When did Jesus clothe the naked? Give drink to the thirsty? Visit the prisoner? Shelter the homeless? As far as we know, Jesus fed the hungry one time.
The gospels reveal that some of Jesus’ most transformative interactions occurred when he was the guest, not the host: Levi the tax collector invited Jesus to dinner, the woman from Samaria drew water for him, and the resurrected Christ was not revealed until Cleopas and his companions welcomed Jesus as a stranger to a shared meal. When Jesus sent out the seventy-two, he stripped them of their resources and made them dependent on hospitality. Being strangers ourselves seems to be as important as welcoming them.
It was difficult for Tatiana and me to let our neighbors’ needs go unaddressed, but we took a deep breath and waited, as strangers, to be welcomed.
This posture confused our neighbors. When kids came to the door asking for food, we turned them away hungry. When single moms pressed us to give them rides, we politely declined. When homeless neighbors showed up on our front stoop asking to spend the night, there was no room for them in the inn. We didn’t fix bikes, host “open meals,” or start a nonprofit. Once during a season when it seemed like everyone was asking for produce from our garden, some young guys on the corner spotted me heading down the sidewalk and yelled out across the street, “Yo, where my green tomatoes at?” Instead of bringing sweet Jesus his share, I snapped back that we weren’t a food pantry.
I’m not going to pretend that we knew what we were doing. We only knew that we had come for community and treating our neighbors like “the least of these” only reinforced the patron–client relationship they expected. We were determined to overturn this paradigm – even if it meant being counted among the goats.