Hospitality to strangers is an integral part of our faith tradition. In Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson states it was “a hallmark of virtue for ancient Jews and Christians” (2005, 127). The writer of Hebrews holds up Abraham’s welcome of strangers for emulation. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without know it” (13:2). Hospitality was viewed as being “a way of meeting and receiving holy presence,” (Thompson, 127). Indeed, it is a means of welcoming the presence of Christ. “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25:35). Matthew portrays the baby Jesus as having literally been a Middle Eastern refugee, taken to Egypt to escape the murderous fury of King Herod.
The welcoming of refugees fleeing terror and violence is therefore an important aspect of living out our Christian faith. As we watched the mounting refugee crisis in Europe last year and viewed the heart wrenching pictures of desperate Syrian families with children, willing to risk the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean Sea in overloaded boats, we at Prairie Baptist Church wondered what we could do. At a community forum on the issue, we ran into a Syrian American physician by the name of Dr. Sophia Khan, who had recently started an organization called KC for Refugees. Their optimistic aim was to make Kansas City the most welcoming place in the nation for refugees. Working with the three refugee resettlement agencies in the city, KC for Refugees finds ways volunteers are needed and communicates this need. We invited Dr. Khan and a resettlement worker to our church for an informational session. And several of us began to attend KC for Refugees meetings to learn more about what was happening in our area.
It was at one for these meetings, that two Syrian American men who were working with newly arriving Syrian refugees spoke of the desperate situation being faced by Syrians in their home country and the great challenges they encountered in coming to a new land. At the time, there were eighteen Syrian families, or around 100 people, who had been resettled. As they closed their time of sharing, one mentioned that if anyone would like to have a family over for dinner, he could help with translation. One of our members Sherry Webb, feeling a divine prompting, looked at me with excitement and said, “Why don’t we invite them all to church for dinner? We can do that!” A little bit surprised, I nodded sure, and off she went to talk to them about the possibility.
This was last fall, and so it seemed most appropriate to make this dinner a time to celebrate Thanksgiving in a special way – by welcoming the newest arrivals to our country with hospitality and festive food, even as the Pilgrims had been welcomed by those already residing in this land. Not all were able to come, but a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, four or five Syrian refugee families of around thirty people gathered with our congregation for a wonderful turkey meal. It was mostly through smiles and gestures, along with a few words, that acquaintances were made between Prairie folks and our new Syrian neighbors. We learned of their traumatic experiences, their brokenhearted love for their country, and the challenges they now faced. The Syrian refugee crisis now was seen in the faces of beautiful children and friendly adults.
Of course, our congregation wondered what else could be done. Soon we had a list of needed items that we publicized to our church, and donations of clothes, bedding, and household goods started flowing in. Church members sorted through the donated items. Yasser, one of the Syrian American men assisting new refugees, has continued to work with Sherry to help us know what is specifically needed, and how else we can be supportive and involved with these families.
More than ever in our current political environment, refugees need to know that they are welcome in our nation. Many in our congregation have asked that we have another meal together, and so a date has been set for the next “Meet Your Syrian Neighbors Dinner.” There are now over 28 Syrian families in our area. We hope to share not only food, but also some fun with games and music, and build new friendships across very different languages, cultures, and sometimes religions. It’s such a simple thing, and it’s something churches can do well – to have a festive potluck dinner and invite new refugees as guests. But such hospitality is not only greatly needed, it is living out our faith, and it opens the door to new relationships and new ministry.
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology, Central Baptist Theological Seminary and Associate Pastor, Prairie Baptist Church