“It was during the war.” Lita spoke into the darkness of her room as I sat on the bed next to her, a rare moment of communion amidst the business of both of our lives. My grandmother continued: “In Europe, Jews were being kicked out, and the U.S. was refusing to take any of them in. But they came to DR [the Dominican Republic] and we took them in. Even now there is a Jewish presence on the island.”
Her voice petered out, and I was left with images of crowded ships landing on sunlit shores, of pale hands embracing brown ones in defiance of the horrors taking place across the sea they had just journeyed over, seeking refuge.
But as heartwarming as that romanticized picture of acceptance and harmony is, our histories are not painted in pure, clear primary colors–they have shades. The lived-in stories-like all things human-are much more complicated.
Allowed *Given Conditions Met
While the Dominican Republic did issue visas to several thousand Jewish refugees to enter the country in the late 1930s to early 40s, the motivations driving the effort were mixed. Far from a simple act of goodwill, Rafael Trujillo, standing dictator at the time, strived to increase the number of European peoples on the island. He hoped these additions would supply agricultural labor as well as to “whiten” up the country’s ethnic and cultural identity, partly to resist the influence of DR’s predominantly darker-skinned Haitian neighbors.
The transition of Jewish refugees to the island was also not free of economic and social problems (check out Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua to learn more about some of these stories). Refugees who had never held a trowel were forced to farm an unknown land. Adjusting to a new culture and language presented a challenge. The refugees’ arrival also strained the meager resources of the poor communities they settled into. These are the tough realities faced by both the strangers coming into a new space and the people receiving them.
But even though the reasons for DR accepting these Jewish refugees were not purely altruistic (if anything, there was a lot of self-interest and racism involved), this shade of history still lies before us: They took them in. And they took them in when bigger, wealthier countries like the United States would not.
The Cost of Reception
A stranger is commonly defined as someone who is unknown to you or to your community; they are unfamiliar, new, an outsider. The presence of a stranger at your door provokes an understandable anxiety because if I don’t know this person, don’t know anyone like them, how can I trust that they won’t harm me? How can I trust that allowing them to come closer will not compromise the things I value most? We have plenty of stories of how encounters with strangers can go devastatingly wrong.
There is a risk inherent in every decision to welcome someone unfamiliar into your space–and there is a cost. Like the refugee situation in DR, there is the inevitable financial strain, inevitable tensions that can arise when cultures, personal histories, differing ideologies and ways of being come into contact. There is a question of space and capacity and who can be feasibly accommodated. The choice to receive a stranger into your environment and allow them to share it is not easy; we need discernment to figure out how to approach and engage them.
But in this posture of discernment, we must be brutally honest with ourselves about two key points:
1. Why is this person a stranger to me?
2. What am I willing to give up to let this person in?
Why is This Person a Stranger to Me?
To kick off our first Critical Race Theory class, my Social Work professor posed this question to us: “Why are people poor?“ We looked at him puzzled–wasn’t it a simple answer? And yet as we started unpacking the question and discussing the choices available to different people and the factors that shape their access to resources, we quickly realized just how many follow-up questions were required to get at all the layers embedded in the question.
First we had to ask ourselves what “poor” meant to us. Then we had to question our own preconceptions of poor people–what images came to mind based on what we had been taught and exposed to by the people and media around us. Were the poor people we saw mostly black and brown? If so, why? Did we blame poor people for being poor? It was only after going through this unsettling self-analysis that we were finally able to begin talking about how social and economic systems are structured in ways that perpetuate poverty.
The professor’s point: We lack curiosity when it comes to the experiences of people outside of our sphere. We exercise curiosity when we can get something from them (see: cultural appropriation), but we do not ask the simple questions that will invite us further into their stories and complicate our understanding of them. Unlike the challenge posed by the hit song in A Star is Born, we remain in the shallows as creatures of comfort.
Asking “Why is this person a stranger to me?” demands our vulnerable entry into the deep. It calls us to reevaluate our orientation towards that person, especially if the reasons for their unfamiliarity relate to the communities they represent. If I ask “Why is this person a stranger to me?” and the answer lies in their Otherness in relation to me and the discomfort that fact provokes, that leads to a choice. I can choose to wrestle with the implications of that idea, even if it means that the process may reveal something broken in my attitude and actions towards that community. I could also choose to ignore the question altogether and leave that person a Stranger.
What Am I Willing to Give Up To Let This Person In?
I think each of us has that group of people we want to keep as Strangers. Not because they are an actual danger, not because they have personally harmed us in the past-though we certainly hide behind those reasons-but because at our core we are afraid of them and the cost of drawing near them. We perceive what is foreign to us as a threat and are too enamored with the idea of our own security and power to consider alternatives. The labels we use, the labels we give others accentuate their foreignness so we can justify the distance between Us and Them.
For instance, a Peruvian friend of mine asked me a few months ago why people in the United States call ourselves “Americans.” “Because we are?” I answered, brow wrinkled in confusion.
“But so are we.” She pointed out that many people in Latin America refer to themselves as “americanos” as well because we are all part of the Americas; the people she grew up with did not distinguish between a North and South America. There were those who were estadounidense (from the United States) but there was only one America.
Why don’t we call them Americans too then? I wondered, faced with a perspective I hadn’t thought of before. Is it because when we think “America,” brown people don’t come to mind first? Maybe we don’t WANT them to be in the same category?
How many other borders have I never questioned because I thought they were natural? How many strangers have been created because of false walls? How can that change?
I can change. I can challenge my assumptions about communities unfamiliar to me. I can exercise a critical imagination in the questions I ask about their stories so my understanding of their situation grows in complexity. I can ask God for courage to leave my comfort zone. I can also ask God to transform the way I see my strangers, shifting my reflex from fear to invitation.
This step requires loss, loss of pride, loss of resources, loss of the former way we see people and the world we inhabit together–and that’s hard. But if I am willing to give up these things to welcome someone in, I am making a conscious choice to no longer see them as a stranger. My choice identifies them as my neighbor.
Waiting at the Walls
During this season, we celebrate the coming of Jesus, and we call him King, Savior. But Jesus did not come to Earth as someone known to us. He came as a stranger.
Now use your critical imagination here: Imagine the all-powerful God coming to Earth as a vulnerable brown baby. He knew everything about us, the beloved people he came to save. We were known to him, name by name. Yet as Isaiah 53:2-3 points out:
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Even as an adult, Jesus was familiar with rejection; it was not reflexive for people to welcome him (he was nearly killed most of the time). People in his community didn’t even find him physically appealing! But here is the amazing thing: Jesus demonstrated the full breadth of God’s love for us by dying for us when we were still defined as sinners (Romans 5:8). By all accounts, because of our rebellion against the perfect God, we should be forever separated from Him, left estranged, but He didn’t leave us in that state.
By his arrival to Earth and his death on the cross, Jesus transformed our identities and made us his family (John 1:12-13). We like to keep him our Stranger because following Him compels us to lay down the things we cling to for security, but he is not satisfied with our distance. He does not demonize us, he does not merely tolerate us or use us for his benefit (as if the God of the universe really needs us to get stuff done). No, Jesus welcomes us with a love that maintains no borders and lists no conditions but this one: that we open our hearts to receive Him as the only one who brings us freedom from our fears.
What parts of our hearts can be opened, stretched for us to receive the strangers at our borders seeking asylum?
At a time where #GoFundtheWall trends on Twitter and the prevailing attitude is “America First,” do we have the courage to put other people’s needs before our own? This is not mutually exclusive from caring for our own needs, but our needs do not equate to a free pass so we can justify our refusal to help our neighbors. They are not “Those People,” left as brown-skinned strangers we call “aliens.” If Jesus has made us his family through his blood, they are our family too, and family members give to each other out of sacrifice, not convenience.
The political and economic complexities of our nation’s relationship to other countries do not erase the mandate to love God with our whole selves and to love our neighbor, whether we see them as “belonging” to our land or not. Only God can give us the awareness to translate that love into action so we can advocate for those who are most vulnerable. Policies, activism, action–they flow out of the orientation of our hearts…so we start there.
Who Now is My Brother?
One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “O Holy Night,” and I want to leave you with these words as we celebrate Jesus, the Stranger-Turned-Savior together:
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name
The old borders have been cast off, and those who were once unknown to us have names. Let us not cling to the pursuit of our nation’s prosperity and disguise it as providence, as something that is our divine right. Let us instead ask for the wisdom and imagination to learn about our neighbors’ needs and care for them, not to benefit ourselves, but to demonstrate the same reckless welcome we have been given through Jesus.
Jesus arrived on Earth to demolish the dividing wall. Years after his birth, we are still trying to build one.