By LeDayne McLeese Polaski
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about strangers. I suppose we all have.
Strangers — immigrants from Central America, refugees from Syria, Muslims crossing international borders, even people on the other side of town — are a hot topic. The question of whether and how to welcome them echoes throughout political campaigns, Facebook posts and weekly sermons.
For me, the question brings to mind a story. Not, perhaps, a story many would expect.
On December 22, 1997, a paramilitary group massacred 45 men, women and children at prayer in the small Mexican village of Acteal. The paramilitary group was Protestant — the shooters and their guns were blessed by Protestant pastors in Protestant churches. The murders were celebrated in many Protestant homes. The victims were pacifist Catholics.
I visited Acteal as part of a Baptist Peace Fellowship Friendship Tour a few years ago. You can stand in the middle of the little village and see almost everything there is to see. Everywhere, every single place you look, there are reminders of their aching losses. From the crosses with the names of the dead, to the mural of the weeping Virgin Mary on the side of the reconstructed church building, to the survivors whose physical and emotional scars are clearly visible — the pain is palpable.
It is a hard place to stand.
But there is this.
On the day we visited Acteal, on the day when we wealthy people from the North visited that poor southern village, on the day we Protestants visited the very spot on which our evangelical brethren murdered Catholic men, women and children at prayer, we were invited in for coffee.
And then alongside the coffee suddenly appeared handmade tortillas cooked over the fire — and then beans and rice. People sat with us and we shared a meal. We never had to ask for seconds — they simply came.
If I have ever had communion in my life, it was then and there, served by Catholic sisters and brothers across borders of language, class, country and faith.
One of our group members reflected later, “They did not give us what they had. They gave us what they did not have.” And in their hospitality, in that meal which I did not and cannot deserve, I found a fuel for living in this world.
Long ago, I attended a morning of Vacation Bible School with my cousin Michelle and her two young neighbors, twin girls of 4 or 5. Afterwards, we were spending the long, hot South Carolina afternoon sitting in the shade of a large tree in Michelle’s front yard. We got into one of those petty childhood arguments which ended with Michelle screaming, “Get out from under my tree.” One of the little neighbors, fresh from our morning of righteousness, replied haughtily, “It is God’s tree.” All snark aside, she was right.
God’s tree. God’s table. God who loves and welcomes and seeks us out, in bread and wine, coffee and tortillas — and in the gift of each other in all our broken glory.
Whatever we think about welcoming strangers, the stranger is us.