It’s no surprise that Abraham was indulging himself in a siesta. In the Middle East, the sun is strong. The three men at the entrance of his tent must have interrupted his gentle sleep. Abraham rushes to meet them. He greets them with warmth and with typical Middle Eastern respect – appropriately deferential. He relates to the leader of the group – once again embodying his hierarchical culture – encouraging the three men to relax, to put their feet up at his expense and to eat. They all accept. With speed, Abraham hurries in quick succession to the tent, the herd and the servant. The meal is extravagant: yoghurt, bread, lamb and goat. The meal is served. The men eat while Abraham stands discreetly by. Then the divine identity of the strangers is gradually unveiled. If Abraham treated strangers like he did the three men, how would he have treated his family and friends? What a fine host.
The principle that hospitality should be offered to the stranger runs throughout the Bible. Graciousness to those in need is seen as a way of honouring God. This practice is replete in the Bible: Laban offers his visitors water to wash their feet and food to eat, while their camels have straw and fodder; Reuel repudiates his daughters for not inviting Moses, ‘the Egyptian’, to have something to eat; a couple in Shunem make provision for Elisha and, in a time of little, a widow, wrapped in the cloak of indignity, shares with Elijah the last morsel of food she has for herself and her son. As evidence of his integrity, the suffering Job keeps an open door for the traveller and the stranger. The book of Ruth, a narrative rooted in hospitality, portrays the gift of hospitality as a non-negotiable virtue.
The hospitality message is not only echoed throughout the Old Testament but throughout the New Testament as well. It is no coincidence that the Greek word used for hospitality is ‘philoxeni’, meaning ‘love of stranger’. Loving the stranger is what the Early Church did. They ‘devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’. All the resources in the Early Church existed for the wellbeing of the community. This included the very rich and the very poor, the hungry, the sorrowful. For the Early Church, loving the stranger was a natural expression of their collective humanity. The free gift of hospitality extended to all people, but particularly to the migrant, refugee and persons on a quest for sanctuary.
How to care for the stranger is among the most ubiquitous and politically charged issues of our time. Measures – such as a ‘skills levy’ that those businesses employing migrants will have to pay; tougher visa rules, and potential salary thresholds to stop businesses using foreign workers to undercut wages – do not constitute care for the stranger. Such draconian policies punish the stranger. So how can churches care for the stranger, the migrants?
Firstly, we need to understand what is behind their need to flee their land. Put another way, why would any human being want to live in Syria, which is on the cusp of physical implosion; or Afghanistan, controlled by Al-Qaeda; or South Sudan, the world’s youngest country trapped in civil war; or the chilling poverty of The Gambia and Senegal; or the horror of Somalia? These are just some of the countries that swathes of migrants are fleeing from. Each of them locked in a downward spiral of violence and de-escalating poverty. No matter the height or length of the fences installed by the British and French governments in Calais; the ferocity of the prowling dogs, or the bourgeoning number of police officers protecting the French, Mexican or Hungarian borders, history records that poverty, desperation and the quest for human dignity are the drivers that force even the most exhausted of migrants to surmount the most insurmountable obstacles.
And what about advocacy, the second way in which churches can care for strangers? Advocacy is not simply throwing money at a project. That’s easily done. And many of us do that as a way of assuaging our consciences. Advocacy is a political process that aims to influence decisions within political, economic and social systems. At its very best, advocacy is speaking with and on behalf of those in need. Migrants need advocates. Not just lawyers, but writers of letters and speakers of truth to systems, institutions and people. Most migrants would not have a clue how to navigate these spaces. For migrants washed up on the shores of the UK, advocacy can be their only source of hope.
Hospitality is the third. What migrants need and deserve is rights-based hospitality. This transcends private charity, personal benevolence or governmental largesse. It is love in action. Yet again, in the field of just hospitality, the Roman Catholics lead the way. It is in the vanguard of its campaigns against the humanitarian problems associated with the US border wall, the barrier that has been constructed along seven hundred miles of the Mexican border to stem the number of undocumented immigrants entering the US from Mexico. In the UK, too, many churches are engaged in rights-based hospitality. Christian volunteers attend hearings, UK MPs’ advice sessions and removal centres; they provide advice and support. Many demonstrate hospitality by collaborating with NGOs to challenge harsh and cruelly implemented government policies.
Concerns about migration are now on our doorsteps. Thousands and thousands of people are fleeing their countries to find sanctuary in Europe. And, with some governments doing everything they can to wash their hands of the situation, it’s time for the churches to fill the growing void by caring for the stranger.