How to be a Missionary: Welcome the Stranger
Water is the basis of all life, and according to Jesus, it’s absolutely basic and elemental for the gospel, too.
“Whoever gives a cup of cold water – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Jesus is sending the disciples out. Throughout this section of Matthew we are listening to his instructions to them on how they will take on the authority and the work they have seen in him. And if they are to follow his call and his commission, we learn that it will be dependent on the hospitality and welcome of others for the food that sustains them, a shelter in which to sleep, and indeed, even a cup of water.
Behind these instructions is a truth for us all: hospitality is the basis for the work of the gospel and the growth of the Kingdom of God. The gospel message – with all of its forgiveness and healing, justice and mercy, righteousness and hope, and so much of the things we need most – depends on welcome.
Our youth can tell us stories of this. They returned early Saturday morning from a week of mission and pilgrimage in Shreveport, Lousiana. It was a trip that was not only dependent on the teamwork among them, and kindness of their leaders, and the steadiness of their Holiday Tour bus, but also on the welcome offered to them by strangers.
Like the congregation of First Baptist Shreveport, who welcomed them to their cushy gym floor for the week. Or the guests of the “Blessing Dinner” on Thursday night, who welcomed them to their tables and opened up to tell them stories. They experienced welcome in their work project at the Millard Fuller Center, as a child, Nayeem, came out to paint with them and welcome them to his neighborhood. It’s the same kind of welcome they extended to each other across ages and friendships as they grew together as a community. And they remembered this welcome last Sunday, when after singing in worship and spending time with the youth group of First Baptist Shreveport, one of those younger students went home and made snickerdoodles – those cinnamon cookies – and skipped a pool party so she could bring them to her new friends that night with a note that said “welcome” and “thanks.”
The mission of the disciples of Jesus has always depended on such things.
I learned this myself the summer after my first year of college, as I worked in West Virginia as part of a small team that hosted mission experiences for youth groups from around the United States, who would travel to spend a week in the tiny town of Branchland, West Virginia. The community had set us up in a school, where I slept on a Coleman camping mattress propped up on some tables, and spent most of the summer in an old brown pick-up truck searching for work sites and delivering supplies to work teams spread throughout the hollers of the area.
This truck had its share of mechanical problems – halfway through the summer the starter went out and I had to park it on a slope to get a running start and pop the clutch. Amidst one such adventure, I found myself broken down and parked uphill on a remote, back road. Without a cell phone, or a clear plan, I hiked back up the road, where I remembered a small house. I knocked on the door asking to use the phone, and the owner gave an enthusiastic “YES,” before inviting me to sit on the porch. “What can I get you? It’s about lunchtime,” she said, before filling her porch table with fresh tomatoes, chicken salad, wonder bead and tea so sweet my teeth hurt just thinking about it. We ate and talked, sitting on her porch next to the mat that said “welcome,” until eventually my ride came and towed me back to town.
Could it really be so simple? So basic? Jesus seems to think so.
In Jesus’ day, a person’s representative was synonymous with that very person. Like Paul says in Galatians, “You welcomed me as Christ Jesus.” To welcome a disciple is to receive Christ, and to receive Christ is to receive God. As the rule of St. Benedict came to express, “Welcome all as you would welcome Christ himself…” Or as Jesus himself says in this passage, “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me…”
Such hospitality is encouraged throughout the whole of Judeo-Christian tradition. The call to welcome the stranger is anchored in Judaism, where the Torah assumes such welcome is part of what it means to be faithful to God. The people of God were to welcome a traveler – whether they were stranger or family – because these people of God knew what it was to be both stranger and family.
The same came to be true in the early Christian movement. Paul reminded the Romans to offer hospitality to the alien. In the Letter to the Hebrews the people were reminded to show hospitality to all for in so doing some entertained angels unaware. In Acts, the early deacons are described offering hospitality to those in need. In Luke, Jesus tells a parable that assumes someone who knocks at the door at midnight will be received. And throughout the gospel of Matthew, hospitality is a measure of faithfulness. Welcoming prophets, righteous ones and disciples or “little ones” was a disciplined practice of these early followers of Jesus.
Such welcome was risky. One religious scholar has observed that, “Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger.” (1) But we get to decide whether it will be risk or welcome that defines us.
Those early followers were defined by their welcome. Because they knew such welcome was absolutely basic and core to the identity of God and the call of Jesus. It allowed them to say “Yes” to the stranger with that same reflexive enthusiasm of that West Virginia porch, because at some level they knew God had said so much more to them.
The poet, Kaylin Hought, sums this up beautifully in a winsome poem that has become one of my favorites: “God Says Yes to Me.”
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
Jesus’ disciples needed to hear these words – for their very lives were at stake. Remember the context of this passage. This is what’s known as Jesus’ “missionary discourse,” as those who have followed him and admired him hear his call commissioning them to go and do the very things they have seen him do. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is described as one with authority, and now at the start of chapter 10 Mathew describes him sending them out with that same “authority” and the proclamation that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Hear again some of those earlier verses:
As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food… Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
He sends them not with full provisions or precautions, not able to insulate themselves or provide for all their needs, but with a sense of dependency. He says to them, “Present yourself to the world in a manner of dependence upon God and the hospitality of strangers.” Because this is the kind of world he wants them to embody. This is not practical. It’s theological. This is the faith he wants them to proclaim and prompt in others. He wants them to tell of a kingdom coming near in such things as relying on God, learning how to be a guest, and finding how you are changed as you encounter the hospitality of others. Let go of the things you’ve relied on and with which you have become so comfortable to walk with vulnerability through this world that God so loves and learn to love it as God loves it, and see it as God sees it. This is the very incarnation of God, who in coming to this world left every measure of security. Jesus, whom Paul tells us in Philippians did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped or preserved, made himself nothing, took the form of a servant, humbled himself even unto death.
This is the gospel the disciples of Jesus proclaim. This is the kingdom they declare is coming near. And it is tied at base to things like a cup of water, a room in which to sleep, and an expression of welcome.
Missionaries Marc and Kim Wyatt have embodied this for years in their ministry in Raleigh, serving with refugees – some of the most vulnerable neighbors we have – through their ministry, which they have called “Welcome House.”
We’re a part of that ministry through our support of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and its Offering for Global Missions, and among the powerful stories I heard this week at the annual meeting of the CBF, it was so powerful to hear of the Wyatt’s ministry.
Marc and Kim described how recently they place a yard sign outside the Welcome House. It says, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” You’ve probably seen a version of this sign, some of you might have one yourselves. It’s a statement of welcome first expressed by Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA. The message is written in three languages: English, Spanish and Arabic – the three primary languages in the neighborhood of Harrisonburg, and three communities that all need to know the welcome of God. The sign was gifted to the Wyatt’s and they decided to put it up next to their “Welcome House” signage, not expecting it would draw much attention. And within an hour, there was a knock at the door. A woman, speaking Spanish, described how she had seen the sign. Just the day before, she had been in a grocery store in that neighborhood when someone heard her accent and shouted at her that she should go back to wherever she came from. “Do you really mean that? Do you mean what that sign says?” And the Wyatts said “Yes,” as they invited her in.
They really mean it, and they’ve expressed it in a variety of ways through the ministry of Welcome House, starting churches, and offering friendship, housing 150 people refugees from war-torn countries.
Among their partners, are the good people of Greystone Baptist Church in Raleigh, who have adopted a local after-school program, helping refugee children with their homework because their parents often have difficulty with the language. One of those saints, Loraine, went from volunteering in the after-school program, to actually opening her own home to provide a temporary room to a young refugee woman. Soon into their arrangement, Loraine became aware of the fact that her guest, Marthe, was uncomfortable calling her by her first name. In her culture it is impolite to call an elder by their first name.
“Well we have to work this out,” Loraine told Marthe. “What would you be comfortable calling me?”
May I call you Grandmother,” asked the young woman?
This caught Loraine by surprise. She thought about it for a moment and then said “If you do, then I’m never letting you go.”
In talking about how Loraine’s church first became involved in this ministry, Marc and Kim said they had called them as things were developing, because in Marc’s words, “We knew they were a church that said ‘yes.’”
A church that says “Yes.” It’s a “yes” that comes fairly simply in the end, because it wells up from lives that have been changed, and people who have come to know that our own survival and thriving is dependent on just such a gracious welcome from God, and from God’s people, in whatever language we need to hear it. Sometimes it comes in a word, and sometimes through a cup of water, or a room in which to sleep. Sometimes we even get to express that ourselves as a church.
Not long after I came to Greensboro, I received among expressions of welcome a letter from a woman whose mother had been involved in an effort of racial cooperation and conciliation back in the mid-20th century. This crusading woman is now a resident at River Landing in Colfax, but she still remembers those powerful early moments, and she talks about them frequently as she reflects on her life.
Her daughter wrote me and said that her mother had recently recalled an attempt to organize an interracial worship service back in 1951. It was to be the first of its kind in Greensboro. It was a monumental effort. It posed some measure of faith, and even some risk. And this older woman recalled how she had looked for a setting, calling on churches throughout Greensboro. Most declined. But she says she then called Dr. J. Clyde Turner, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church. And her letter said, “My mother always appreciated that as others declined, Dr. Turner said, “Yes.”
“Yes.” It’s a word we’ve said before. It’s a word we’ve expressed in the years since. It has carried through the years, in such ministries of hospitality and welcome as ministry to the Montagnard community through people like Ray and Phyllis Anderson. It was there with those families from our church standing in the airport a few months back with signs that said “welcome” in Swahili. I hear about it from mission partners grateful for the welcome and work offered throughout this community, and beyond. I hear about it was people write and say, “We thought to ask your church, because your church is known to be gracious, generous and welcoming.”
Because once you have experienced such welcome yourself, you recognize it’s not for you to distinguish between who should receive and who should not.
I wonder where else and to who else we need to say “Yes.” Are there people we have yet to welcome as Christ himself? Are there times we forget the spirit in which we ourselves are welcomed? Who are the vulnerable strangers, disconnected from family, church, economy, power – the least and the last Jesus will later speak of in Matthew, saying, “When you welcome them you welcomed me.” What languages have we yet to learn? What family ties have we yet to form? What disciples have we failed to recognize? Where else is God sending us? What else is God calling us to proclaim? Who is Jesus calling us to welcome?
It really is that simple. A kingdom coming near through such things as gym floors, and cinnamon cookies, cold water, and sweet tea, signs of welcome and new family, and through it all a transformed people who have come to echo the words of God: “Yes, yes, yes.”
(1) Ana Maria Pineda, “Hospitality” in Practicing Our Faith (ed. Dorothy Bass)
Cover Photo: “The Great Commission” – a commissioned work by He Qi in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship