This article is part of the Easter 2020 Trinity Magazine issue. You can view the entire issue here.
By the Rt. Rev. James L Hobby, Jr.
Since I grew up in a lot of places (3 grade schools, 2 middle schools, and 2 high schools) and have lived in many parts of the country (the Midwest, the East Coast, New England, the South, and Southwestern PA), I have lived my life as a stranger and alien. When people ask me where I'm from, I give a travelogue instead of an address.
At the deepest places in our hearts, strangers and aliens long to belong. That's why my ears perk up when I hear Paul tell folks in Ephesus that they are “no longer strangers and aliens.” Is it even possible to find a community where one can belong?
In Paul's day, Jews lived as aliens and strangers in Roman society. Because of their fierce monotheism, Jews lived on the periphery of a Roman culture that was saturated with deities. Since the Church initially grew up under the umbrella of Judaism, followers of Jesus were given the same alien and stranger role. But, as folks from every aspect of Roman society began to come to Christ, tensions arose, leading ultimately to widespread persecution. That's why Peter says that all followers of Jesus are exiles and sojourners in this world (1 Peter 2:9-11), even those with deep roots in one place.
However, Paul telling the Roman believers that they were no longer strangers, rang with irony. Announcing that those in the dominant culture are no longer aliens, would have seemed odd. But Paul goes on to say, that the Romans have been included in the community of God's people and are now part of the household of God, a reality that transcends every human society.
I think that the heart issue fueling much of the current division and unrest in our culture is the question of who belongs. Who are the strangers and aliens? For 400 years in North America, folks with a Western European lineage who spoke English defined "normal" as being like them. If you wanted to belong, you needed to fit the mold. Everyone else was a stranger. Since the Civil War, the nation-wide definition of who belongs has been slowly shifting. And so, we find ourselves struggling to know who belongs and who doesn't.
I can't predict the outcome of our national struggle. But Scripture is clear that followers of Jesus from every language, tongue, tribe, and nation belong in God's household. We are no longer strangers and aliens. We are fellow citizens with all God's people. My prayer is that the Church will live into the unity that already exists in the Kingdom, that we would discover each other as brothers and sisters instead of treating each other as strangers.
That's why I'm committed to listening to different viewpoints, to joining conversations with folks whose experience and perspectives diverge from mine. For me (and I invite you to join me!), this means reading books or listening to podcasts by people of color. It means tuning into radio stations that present political views I don’t always agree with. It means working to understand others so that I can present their perspective honestly and accurately.
Heart of hearts, I want people to find a place to belong in God’s household. And I want all of our congregations to be the kinds of communities where strangers become siblings!
I originally wrote this column several weeks before COVID19 became a news item, much less a pandemic. The question of who belongs and who is alien and strange has an increased poignancy now. Asian-American brothers and sisters (who find themselves often treated as strangers) report an increase in discrimination, abuse, and violence. And the long-term impact of the current economic downturn on people of color, generally, is likely to be quite severe. You can add to the number of aliens and strangers, those who are homeless along with elderly men and women who live alone and have become isolated and lonely.
This then, is a time when the Church needs to look beyond our walls and our relational networks, to see the aliens and strangers that Jesus is inviting into His family. When we are no longer sheltering at home, may we have eyes to see those who are looking for a place to belong.