Home/In a Dark Time, Do You Dare to Welcome the Stranger?

About a year ago, I encountered a few words that changed my life.

When we first met as roommates, we weren’t sure we had a thing in common. Nearly 10 years later, her friendship is a treasure.

You know what I mean — it’s the moment when a lyric from a song or a verse from a poem suddenly shoots right through you. It’s that AHA of recognition that comes when you read something and say, “That’s it exactly.”

This happened to me last year when, after leaving a stunning photography exhibition featuring actors and actresses with developmental disabilities in the Duvteatern troupe, I rode past a building with these words on it:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me … As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

That day, I glimpsed a new truth within those old, familiar words. Before, I’d understood them like this: Do good to others, and in doing so, you’ll serve God, too. While that interpretation is valid, another meaning surfaced.

The words opened themselves differently, saying, “I am the least of these. You’ll find me — the love that sustains the universe — in your brothers and sisters with special needs, the ones the world considers strange, broken, or disabled. And I am within you when you are the one considered strange, outside, alien.”

In other words: I am found within the stranger. Turn away from the stranger, and you turn away from me.

To know me, you must meet the stranger with open arms.

***

Having said all this, you’d probably guess that the focus of my forthcoming Kindle Single, I Was a Stranger to Beauty, will be on my time at L’Arche DC, and the people I was privileged to know there.

But in fact, the new book, which launches on Monday, January 14th, is largely about my relationship with my brother, Willie. L’Arche DC plays a significant role (and will receive 5% of the proceeds from the first month’s sales), but the story starts and ends with Willie.

Why? Because Willie — the person I grew up with, my younger brother, my only sibling — was once a stranger to me. About ten years ago, Willie started struggling with aggressive and self-injurious behavior. I’ve written extensively about these difficulties, but I’ve never fully shared the loneliness that that time brought with it.

For years, I thought I had lost my brother. Even though he was alive, I thought that maybe his spirit, his humor, and his kindness were gone forever. (And I am so happy to have been wrong.)

But it wasn’t until I could welcome ‘Willie the stranger’ … that is, Willie of the rages, Willie of the black eyes and screams — that I could begin to rebuild our relationship.

That kind of acceptance is what welcoming the stranger is all about. It’s not about trying to change people (though change may come). It’s not about condoning harmful actions or denying what’s real. Instead, it’s about embracing what is, not needing anyone to be anything other than themselves, and moving forward from there.

***

Sometimes, welcoming the stranger may mean inviting them into your home. At other times, it may mean keeping a safe distance while acknowledging another person’s humanity, and dropping your previous judgment.

Willie and Dad

And sometimes welcoming the stranger means staying present to a person you don’t relate to or even recognize. It means being uncomfortable and unprepared, and, in doing so, giving a stranger a chance to become a friend.

To be fair, this is scary. That’s why we avoid it. We don’t know what to expect when we ‘welcome the stranger’ … and that’s the point. Crazy things can happen. Maybe we sense this, deep down; maybe that’s why we shy away.

But in this time of tragedy, in the face of death and destruction, we cannot afford to turn away from the darkness in others, in ourselves. We must not flee, but instead, bring light.

As Anne Lamott wrote last week: “I called [my friend] yesterday as soon as I heard about the shootings. Neither of us said anything interesting, but we hung out together on the phone and listened to each other’s voices, and grieved for the families of Newtown, and that helped.

These tiny bits of connection to the broken are very real, and the kindness and attention people show to one another create a tiny bit of light. That is my plan for today, to love as if my life depended on it; to breathe, and keep it simple, go easy on myself.”

I couldn’t agree more. We cannot afford any choice but compassion, for others and ourselves.

We cannot afford to be anything other than love.

***

How have you welcomed a stranger?

Tell your story in the comments below for a chance to win a free, full-color, print copy of Love’s Subversive Stance: Ground Yourself and Grow in Relationship! (Winner will be chosen & notified as of noon CST on Thursday, Dec. 20th.)

Update: This week’s giveaway is now over – thank you to everyone who submitted a comment! Your words were so beautiful and heartfelt, it was so hard to select just one to receive a book!

Yet we’ll have more giveaways in the future, so for now, I’m happy to announce that Harry Brash will receive a complimentary copy of Love’s Subversive Stance.

***

 

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  1. Yenelli December 17, 2012 at 6:03 PM - Reply

    “As you have done to the least of these” is probably my mantra since 3rd or 4th grade.

    In high school or college, another realization came by the way of a song, “I learned the truth at 17, that love is meant for beauty queens,” and I knew I’d never fit with the “in” crowd, because their “exclusivity” has little or no compunction to be inclusive of those who are different; in fact, it gives them license to limit their friendliness to one another. I have never understood their “if-then” nurturing, their insider trading, their 1% lavish bonuses and gifts, in the spirit of Cinderella’s step sisters.

    Now, after 5 decades, I still do not understand this attitude that renders beauty, joy, sharing a private commodity to be shared with ONLY those who “are the same as” … it is the antithesis of Christ’s message.

    The crushingly confusing part is that I’m supposed to love all…because THESE–the elitists–are “the least of,” the strangers, the dark that I want to avoid. And I’ve lived my life with that kind of distrust, avoidance, suspicion, and resentment of the selfish “me-ness” of people. It is a poison in my heart.

    I have a sibling who is profoundly disabled, constantly short changed, frequently abused. Even a JUDGE decided that her chronic sexual abuse by an employee (or employees) in a state institution was not worth RESTITUTION, and dismissed the case.

    That sibling has been “there for me” throughout my rocky journey in “proper society”…the society of “higher learning” of “family” of dating and friendships and career goals and office politics and cliques. What she has shown me is she’s OBLIVIOUS to the competitive, blow-your-own-horn self and wicked step-sister intrigue and ulterior motives that permeate too many social situations and life experiences. It is through HER generosity of spirit, that I can unfold the tight layers of distrust and hurt. She gives me joy.

    I don’t want to win anything; I just want those selfish people who think they’re entitled to HURT anything that is different….or “beneath them”…I want them to know my sister the way I know her.

    • Caroline McGraw December 17, 2012 at 6:45 PM - Reply

      Wow, Yenelli, that is powerful. Your love for your sister is palpable, and I hope that your relationship will continue to grow and bring joy into each of your lives. Thank you so much for sharing your story – and hers – here.

  2. Harry Brash December 17, 2012 at 7:40 PM - Reply

    Your article touched me because it describes a love that is compassionate and yet pragmatic but not so to the point of excluding people. I see in it Jesus injunction to be gentle as doves but wise as serpents. Many come to us in guile wanting to take advantage of us and some succeed. I have been approached by strangers on the street with stories of needing just so much money for a car repair. At those times I am extremely vulnerable and confused; wanting to help and yet not wanting to be a fool.There was a time when I would give them a few bucks to be rid of them but that is not what God wants. It is at these times the Holy Spirit comes to me. If the request is genuine, I have a good feeling about it and a peace that this is justified. I then donate what I can to help. With others, there is no guidance and I know that it is a scam. I have learned when people are distant or perhaps rude there is generally something going on in their life and the last thing they need is for someone to return rudeness for rudeness. Thanks again for your article…you must be a wonderful and compassionate person.

    • Caroline McGraw December 17, 2012 at 10:19 PM - Reply

      Thank you so much, Harry! And I appreciate your insightful sharing on when and how to give to strangers; I, too, have had similar reflections. (As you say, I’m learning to trust my intuition about an individual’s intentions, and to respond with compassion and kindess even if it isn’t possible/wise to give monetarily.) Thank you again for sharing!

  3. Deb Wade December 17, 2012 at 8:17 PM - Reply

    In the midst of unspeakable tragedy, there are no words to really take away a parent’s pain of losing a young child. I know this from experience. However, it IS COMFORTING to know that God understands. He knows EXACTLY how it feels to have a child die. The difference is, He freely allowed His child to die….to die for me….to die for you. This is the poem I wrote and then updated after the accidental death of MY 6 year old. It is being used by a local psychiatrist to this day to help his patients deal with grief. I post it now, in the hopes it might help everyone realize that no matter what darkness might come our way, God understands and cares for us!

    THAT’S MY SON
    By, Deb Wade
    (Written in 1992 and Updated August 21, 1997)

    When each was born I thought with pride,
    “That’s my son.”
    As I watched each one learn to walk and talk,
    I thought with pride, “That’s my son.”
    On the glorious days when each was baptized
    I said with pride, “That’s my son.”
    I hope someday to see each one graduate from school
    I know I will then say with pride, “That’s my son.”
    As each grows and learns of God
    I with pride and thanksgiving say, “That’s my son.”
    When one followed his dog into a creek
    And slipped forever from my earthly sight,
    I with a heart truly broken cried, “No God that’s my son!”
    It was then that I thought of Jesus dying on the cross
    And I thought I heard God whisper and pointing to the cross say,
    “I know. I understand. You see that’s my Son!”

    • Caroline McGraw December 17, 2012 at 10:24 PM - Reply

      Deb, what courage it takes to create out of our deepest grief. Thank you for sharing your heart, and your poem, here!

  4. Brooke (Books Distilled) December 18, 2012 at 2:23 PM - Reply

    What a beautiful post during such a sorrowful time to our country. Thanks for always offering us not more chaos, but the cosmos that can be found within it…can you tell I’ve begun my seventh annual Advent reading of Walking on Water? Thanks for giving it to me in 2005…and so glad we’re still friends today.

    • Caroline McGraw December 18, 2012 at 5:29 PM - Reply

      What a wonderful comment – thank you, my dear friend. You are one of those people that brings light wherever you go! <3

  5. R December 19, 2012 at 2:37 AM - Reply

    <3

  6. Metod December 19, 2012 at 9:54 PM - Reply

    Dear Caroline,

    You are truly amazing…your stories always touch one’s heart with such emotions. To open up to a stranger is such powerful experience, despite that initial fear. We always realize how close one to another we are…with the same fears, happiness and that universal desire to be loved.

    You know, right after I finished reading your post…one poem came to my mind. If you don’t mind, I’d love to add it to your beautiful post and share it with you and the readers.

    There is a knock at the door
    At the place that structures everything that is familiar and safe
    It is only the sound of one hand knocking
    You can choose not to answer
    For reasons unclear even to yourself
    You open the door slightly…and see the eyes
    And then the blur of a face as it looks down and then up again
    It is the face of a stranger
    The face of a woman

    You do not know who she is
    You do not know who you are
    You could close the door
    Perhaps she senses this
    The face of a woman with a voice says:
    “Please help me”
    You could say no…I am too busy, I am too tired, it is too late,
    There are other places to go
    I do not know what to do
    You used to know, before you learnt how the system can file people away forever

    You know you are here and now
    The one, the one who must respond
    This you must do, there is no other
    You have been faced, the stranger moves forward
    And fills the frame of your mind and slowly comes into focus
    And you become focused
    You life becomes weighty, consequential, significant.

    By Mary Jo Leddy
    From: “The other face of God. When a stranger calls us home”

    • Caroline McGraw December 19, 2012 at 9:59 PM - Reply

      Wow, Metod, that poem is such a beautiful companion for this post! Thank you so much for sharing it with us. 🙂

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