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Welcoming the Stranger

It seems to me that in Christendom we became so accustomed to having “strangers” look more or less like ourselves that we’ve forgotten how to welcome a real stranger in our midst. Let me back up a minute. The baby boomers- my parents- left the church in droves, tired of the hypocrisy they found there and looking for something a little more rational to wrap their scientific minds around. Their children and grandchildren, however, have found out they’re still spiritual beings after all and find themselves wandering in search of home. You’ve heard the story of the postmoderns (for more on millenials and postmodern culture, check out Andrew Stephens-Rennie on The Community’s page: http://thecommunity.anglican.ca/generation/).

These young spiritual nomads, however, are wandering into our churches and they wander into my chapel at the college. Just this week, a young man showed up asking what time mass started, clearly unaware that there was a difference between my midday prayer service and mass, which is offered next door at the Jesuit college. When I asked him to read the Gospel, he replied, “Oh no. I’ve never been to church before.” Seriously? I thought to myself, He must be exaggerating. Obviously he wouldn’t be here if he’d never been to church before.

As it turned out, however, my new friend wasn’t exaggerating at all. That little prayer service was his first experience of Christian community in his entire 20 years of life. Now, for those of us who’ve been doing this since we were in utero, our reactions to such a visitor tend to be pretty predictable: first, disbelief. Second, make him look like us.

Have you ever met a child who doesn’t understand that someone else could possibly not speak his language? He just chatters away at you in Spanish, confused when you don’t respond. I’m afraid that’s what we’re often guilty of in church land: presuming that a visitor wants to be like us SO BADLY that she’ll jump right in, immersing herself in a foreign culture without any kind of translation or transition.

Unfortunately, however, it’s pretty uncommon for a stranger to see why they should learn our language. It’s just too foreign and too hard. It may not be that he’s obstinately unwilling- remember that postmoderns don’t tend to have the personal hangups with the church that their parents had- but it just doesn’t make sense. Take, for example, the code we so often use to guide parishioners through a service. “CP126”, the bulletin says. How would an exchange student from China ever know what that means? Occasionally I have a hard time following an order of service, and I’m a leader in the Church!

A friend of mine with extensive experience in youth ministry is fond of saying, “When God chooses to bless you, how will you make room for the blessing?” I’m afraid that sometimes we’re guilty of wanting to be blessed but being unwilling to make room for the stranger. A big part of my job at the college- and, I would submit, the call of all Christians- is to continually ask the question, “What would this look like for an outsider? How can our space be more welcoming to the stranger Jesus welcomes?”

Allison Chubb

About Allison Chubb

Allison Chubb is a chaplain at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba and a youth coordinator for new Canadians in downtown Winnipeg. She is particularly interested in how youth engage what Robert Webber called “ancient-future worship,” those rituals of old practiced in a postmodern context where a new generation finds itself searching for rootedness. She describes herself as “paid to hang out with God and hang out with people.” On the side she loves to create by cooking, gardening, crafting, and balloon-sculpting.

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4 Responses to Welcoming the Stranger

  1. Allison – In some ways I can relate. Spending October in the south of Spain, everyone’s speaking Spanish, and I can pretty much only order coffee (thank goodness!) and point at things on menus that I’ve deciphered with the help of Google Translate!

    I’ve been incredibly appreciative of those places that have an English translation of the menu (even when the English ain’t perfect). It’s shown a very gracious attempt to make things more accessible to the likes of an interloper like me.

    If we are serious about the gospel, and the fact that it is Good News – even for those beyond our current number – then yes, it feels as though we need to do more to translate and journey with those who are coming into our world, our language for the very first time.

    What a gift that this young person risked themselves to step into such a culturally foreign environment as a church! I’m glad you were there, and I’m so grateful for those who, like you, act as translators of the gospel for those who find their way in.

    If only there were more who saw things this way!

    • Allison Chubb

      Yes, Andrew- your example from the Spanish menu is a great one. Because it seems to me that the mere willingness to translate, to allow ourselves to become accessible, is 80% of the journey. Even when it isn’t quite translated correctly, you feel welcomed and are able to order your coffee (and yes, thank God for that!)

  2. Had a stark moment at church years back – woman (stranger to me) approached as I was tearing around prepping for preschoolers about to arrive for Sunday School and asked, through a language barrier, basically what the teachings of Christianity were and how they related to what was about to happen in the service…which had already just started, so no ducking — in that moment I was only living soul available for her to approach. I stopped, gobsmacked by the realization I couldn’t simply and meaningfully ‘translate’ that service for her, in any sense of that word, and certainly not in the time available. I tried, but jargon rang hollow without background. My final cop-out response as the tiny hordes swept in was to invite her to simply go in to join the worship and participate in what I knew was going to be a largely incomprehensible experience for her. Never saw her again.

    I failed that woman miserably but she did me a great service – showed me ‘the way we do things here’ with a stranger’s eyes, and forced me to look for better answers than the babble I threw at her that day. God is good — I encountered them shortly thereafter in the Godly Play approach and I’ve become a huge fan of it since for all ages – not only a simple accessible way to tell our sacred stories, but it relates them beautifully and so meaningfully to liturgy and sacrament. . If I EVER get a do-over, I would not quote creeds or doctrine. I’d start by saying, “There was once someone who did such amazing things, and said such wonderful things, that people just had to follow him to find out who he was….”

  3. Allison Chubb

    Thanks for sharing that story, Jennifer- you make a good point that translation is never easy and doesn’t have a predictable result. There are times when we become so immersed in our own language that we don’t even realize we’re still speaking it!
    I wonder, though, if God is even able to take our failed attempts to be made “available” and use them? Perhaps seeds are planted and watered and weeded when we least suspect?

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