Our Call to Welcome the Stranger

January 31, 2017

Once, a man named Abraham, who loved God and was beloved by God, found himself facing a choice. Three strange men were approaching his tent. He was vulnerable — alone, in the wilderness, responsible to protect his wife. He did not know if the strangers meant him harm.

He was also called — by his culture, and by his faith — to respond with extravagant welcome to these strangers, whose well-being depended on his hospitality.

When Hebrews 13:2 refers back to this foundational story, it describes these three strangers as “angels.” They brought good news to Abraham — news so nuts that Sarah burst out laughing. News about God’s promise of abundance, of covenant, of faithfulness. These strangers had been sent by God to bring a blessing.

But perhaps the story would be much different, and our story much different, if Abraham had allowed his fear to eclipse his faithfulness that day.

I believe the facts are clear: refugees are not a danger to us. I think there’s overwhelming evidence to support that belief. And I’m aware that there are plenty of Christians who believe the opposite, and they’re ready to fervently defend their views. And while I’m alarmed at what this standoff seems to mean for us — this choose-your-own-source, there’s-nobody-we-can-trust, everything-is-spin-so-let’s-just-shut-up-about-it situation we find ourselves in — I’m more concerned about what we are sacrificing by allowing security to be the focus of our Christian conversation about refugees.

For Abraham, assessing the threat was not the primary task at hand when the strangers approached his tent. His role, as he saw it, was to embody faithfulness. And that looked like hospitality. Even though it made him vulnerable.

Friends of Jesus Christ: I do not recognize us right now. I see us hurling partisan talking points at one another, parroting cable news pundits, frantically drawing lines of “liberal” and “conservative” and mocking those who we think have been duped by the wrong side. I see us framing this issue as though it’s primarily about politics, and in so doing we are pushing aside Scripture’s loud, consistent, non-negotiable proclamations as irrelevant to the times we live in.

This is not who we are.

The notion that my Dutch Reformed sisters and brothers would be nodding in agreement with the shutting down of refugee resettlement would have been unthinkable just a year ago. For decades it has been our little denomination — the Christian Reformed Church — which has found its identity in welcoming refugees from around the world. My mom tells stories of sitting behind “the Hungarians” in her 1950s congregation, passing the long minutes of the sermon by imagining their life half-way around the world. My best friend at Christian elementary school told me about exotic-sounding foods she had tried, because her family was helping Salvadorans who were seeking asylum in the 1980s. Our pews are full of refugees who fled Cuba in the 60s and Asia in the 70s and Africa in the 90s. We are a church who welcomes refugees.

And that is because we are a church that takes faithfulness seriously.

Even if it were true that terrorists were scheming to sneak into our country through our refugee resettlement program (and it is not), I would still believe that we are not a people who elevate fear over faithfulness. I believe that we are a people who, like Abraham, are called to extravagant welcome as our primary identity.

We serve a God who points us to an abundant life. And maybe that’s not a safe life, or a comfortable life, or a life that makes no demands on us. But if we have learned anything from Scripture, it’s that this God loves to hide the good news of that abundant life in the face of a stranger. In the face of an “angel,” though we are unaware. In the face of a refugee. In the face of Christ, who proclaimed, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” I don’t want us to miss that.

Once, a man named Abraham, who loved God and was beloved by God, found himself facing a choice. I am so grateful that it was faithfulness, and not fear, that he clung to that day.

About the Author
  • Kate Kooyman is a pastor in the Reformed Church in America and works for the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice. She teaches about immigration issues in churches in order to empower Christians to discern their calling to advocate for justice. She also helps to coordinate the "Immigrants are a Blessing, Not a Burden" campaign.

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  1. Who pays for this? Who is the steward?

    The State, the largest political state in world history. Not exactly a charitable organization. And how does the State get its money? By creating it out of thin air, or by forcing people to pay it.

    So the State uses the threat of violence to force everyone to take care of refugees. That is not charity; it is power and dominance.

    1. This piece is a call to radical hospitality, the hospitality the Bible shows us. I suppose she could have written a similar piece on what would have happened in Abraham questioned how much would it cost him financially to welcome those strangers that night. I believe the answer would be the same.

  2. A thoughtful, eloquent statement on how we, as followers of Christ, can think about this important issue. Thank you Kate!

  3. The confusion as I see it is that the government does not have the same role as the church does. It is the church’s role to take care of hurt people like this and to be the hands and feet of Christ, however, the government’s primary job is to protect it’s citizen’s.

    1. We cannot resettle refugees without the help of the government. We cannot welcome immigrants without the help of the government. Our call of welcoming is threatened when the government takes that away from us.

    2. I don’t believe any Christians would say it is the role of churches and churches alone to receive and settle refugees, least of all those who emphasize the need to screen each refugee to root out those deemed dangerous or otherwise undesirable. There is a necessary partnership with government whose role is not just to protect citizens but their common good. Caring and protecting are very overlapping concerns.

      Who pays for it? We all do. Yes, partly through taxes. If you take the extreme Austrian and American Libertarian view that taxation is theft at gunpoint and the state is a criminal, well that is just not what we see in Christian thought from the Bible and wise traditions.

  4. God expects us to be vigilant, wise as serpents. Abraham’s situation does not parallel what we are facing in the world today. I am grateful President Trump is protecting my family from harm as much as possible. It is called being cautious.

  5. I know Jesus is no longer on this earth but we who claim to be his followers are. If you could ask him what your response to
    Trumps actions should be, what do you think he would say or do? I could quote scripture for a long time which makes its very clear what He would do. Let’s read it more diligently and more often and then PRAY that we exercise the love and faithfulness He requires of us throughout His Word.