Strangers here?

During the last several months, there have been lots of visitors celebrating Eucharist with us. They come from points north where winter has been unrelenting and particularly harsh this year. They are easy to spot. While we have all donned our sweaters and jackets, they are in shorts, polos, and flip-flops. Many of them introduce themselves to me after Mass and comment on what a beautiful church and how welcoming we are as a parish. They tell me of the great experience of parishioners greeting them, chatting with them, and making them feel welcomed. One couple remarked “There are just no strangers in your parish!” As pastor, it affirms that we are what we profess in a tangible way. We live in a way that impacts the visitors among us. Thank you!

The essence of biblical hospitality is welcoming those other than friends and acquaintances, in other words, “strangers,” and meeting their varied needs, just as God welcomed and provided for us in Christ, when we were estranged from Him. So, who is a stranger and what hospitality do they need? I suspect there may be some gaps in my musings, but it seems to me there are at least four basic types of “strangers” who enter into our lives.

The New Stranger. There are lots of people who are not estranged from God, but now find themselves in a situation in which they do not necessarily (or not yet) belong. This group of “new strangers” might include neighbors or associates at work just moving in; military families just assigned (or on temporary assignment) at MacDill AFB, incoming freshmen or international students at the University of Tampa, a new mom with no nearby family or friends, people just moved into one of the nearby retirement or assisted-living facilities, and any number of people I haven’t thought about.

The Emotional Stranger. “Liminality” is a word used to describe people who are “betwixt and between” what they have known and what lies ahead. It is a place in life that can leave one a bit befuddled and flummoxed emotionally. For example, a professional working woman turned new mom, someone recently widowed, someone now unemployed or underemployed, couples that find themselves empty-nesters, folks facing formidable medical challenges, the lonely, people who need a break from care giving, people who are emerging from a broken relationship, and in general, people whose emotional-safety net suddenly has some serious holes in it.

The Strange Stranger. “Strange” is defined as unusual or surprising in a way that is unsettling or hard to understand — or simply not before known, heard, or seen. We have lots of conventions in Tampa, e.g., the Comic Con convention. That weekend we certainly had some folks in church, in costume, that would meet the definition of strange. But then we have parishioners who might seem “strange” to other parishioners. Perhaps it is an unusual hair color or style, a tattoo, clothing from a native culture, folks pulling wheeled-luggage from their cruise ship wearing aloha shirts and sandals. Perhaps it is language or accent, the hue of their skin, their manner of being present, or their manners in church. Perhaps it is a homeless person (or at least we think they are homeless), someone who doesn’t look like you, or someone who doesn’t necessarily look like they are sure where they are.

The Known Stranger. I think we have lots of these in our parish. You know them. You have seen them in church for many years — after all you go to the same Mass each week. Perhaps you wave to them, smile, ask “How are you doing?” — but darn if you know their name. Maybe you miss them when they are not in church, maybe not — but you notice when they show up again. “I wonder where they were?” And then there are the people in our lives, well known to us, but perhaps they do know God, have no relationship to a faith community, or they did know at one point in their life, but have drifted or been pushed away from their faith home — the divorced and remarried, gay couples, the immigrant, the undocumented.

“There are just no strangers in your parish!” We are probably very good at welcoming the visitor and for love of Christ need to ever be aware of the biblical hospitality we extend to the “strangers among us” — all the ones right there in pew next to us.

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