Welcoming the Stranger
We have a houseguest.
Ken is an old friend from our days in Portland. He moved here in March to begin a new job in town. His lovely wife is still in Portland finishing up her job, doing the hard work of packing up their house, and saying good-bye to the community they have there. She will follow with their dog mid-May.
Now, it was a no-brainer to offer Ken a “place to land” when we heard he was moving out our way. It can be really hard to try to find a place to rent from a distance and for a short period of time, especially when you do not know the town at all. Additionally, we have ample room in our house and are eager to share our space or offer some form of hospitality. So we told him to plan on staying with us when he arrived.
Before he moved, in Joshua and I decided to regard him as a “new community member” rather than a “guest,” the idea being to acknowledge that we now have a shared living space, rather than thinking of all the space as ours and he is taking up some of it. It was kind of like “clicking back” into a mindset we had cultivated in our year of community as Jesuit Volunteers, one that has been enormously helpful.
We prepped the children for his arrival by explaining that we had a chance to help a friend by offering him a place to live. As we talked, we realized that it was a bit like sheltering the homeless or welcoming the stranger. Ken, of course, is neither actually homeless nor truly a stranger. But he was without shelter here, and he was a stranger to this town. So, in a sense we are getting a great opportunity to immerse ourselves in one of the works of mercy. And as a whole family!
We decided he would stay in Oscar’s room because it is the most spacious and opens directly into the bathroom. This meant that 15-year-old Oscar got to move back to sharing a room with 10-year-old Simon. Simon was thrilled. To his credit, Oscar knew he would feel the pinch in privacy and just overall space, but he was a great sport and did not really mind that much. Lucy for her part wanted a roommate too and lobbied hard to get Oscar in her room, or to give Oscar her room so she could move in with Simon. Sorry, sweetie.
These last several weeks with Ken have been a great experience, far better than I think we even anticipated. Like I said, we were mentally preparing for having another adult in the house full time, recognizing that there could be challenges to sharing space. But in actuality, sharing space is the greatest gift.
For example, we are pretty intentional about sitting down to dinner together as a family each night. Our meals as a family are good, if a bit brief. We talk about our days and even name what we are grateful for by way of conversation. But with Josh being a high introvert and me needing to recharge from work that is consistently emotionally taxing, topics of discussion wane fairly quickly and once we finish our food we are on our way to cleaning up.
By contrast, when Ken is home to join us for dinner now, there seem to be boundless topics that he may bring up or that he stimulates in us or in the children. Many evenings we have found ourselves, including all three children, sitting at the table well after we are all done eating, still chatting away and enjoying one another.
It makes me think that engaging works of mercy is like engaging the Paschal Mystery. That is to say, the fruit of acting mercifully is the same as that of Jesus’s suffering, death and resurrection. When we give ourselves in a self-sacrificial way, we are met with new and abundant life: not the same life we had previously, but a new life.
That is definitely what we have experienced by sharing life with Ken. Each of us may have little sacrifices. Oscar and Ken have pretty big sacrifices. But living with Ken is full of life, and for all of us it is new — totally different than before — and abundant.
A further thought I had was about the Scriptural exhortation to care for “widows and orphans.” In ancient times, widows and orphans were highly vulnerable because they had no connections, no personal local support systems. In our highly mobile society today, when people move far from family and hometowns for good jobs, folks who are new to town are subject to the same vulnerability. They do not have local connections nor personal support systems near at hand.
With summer fast approaching, it is the prime time for families to make a move. It offers a particular opportunity for those of us settled in a local community to “welcome the stranger.” While this may not include housing them, it could certainly involve extending any number of invitations to Mass, social gatherings, or just supper. It could mean stopping by and pointing out where the nearest post office, library, and grocery stores are. It could simply mean offering them your cell number and email address. Can we make the little sacrifices of stepping out of ourselves to welcome others into our communities? Assuredly those efforts will be met with new and abundant life.