Welcoming Strangers

"Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. "

“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. “

Last week, my wife and I, while on a late evening walk through downtown Houston, came upon an outdoor ice skating rink. We stopped, and we watched.

The scene mesmerized me—the rink was crowded, and the gentle coordination, the accommodation of the skaters to each other, amazed me. While most of the folks were young, there was a sprinkling of older couples. There were gangly teenagers and petite grade-schoolers. There were those who skated effortlessly, and those who had their skates at an angle that defied basic anatomy (how does an ankle put up with that?).

“Ah, grace in action,” I thought, as I watched the crowd go round and round the rink, laughter mixed with the “whoops” as every now and again someone crashed to the ice. The good skaters quietly looped around the ones that struggled; the really inexperienced lunged for the side rail, but, after a moment, they would creep back onto the ice. It took some courage to do that, but once they began to glide with the crowd, you could tell that it was well worth the effort.

Back in Brownsville, where is no outdoor ice skating, there were, nonetheless, crowds of people lined up and engaged in another evening activity—la posada. An old latin Christmas tradition, the ritual recalls the journey of the pregnant Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where they sought hospitality in a local inn (“posada” meaning “inn”). There was some urgency, as Mary was going into labor.

As is the custom, during the week leading up to Christmas, all across our region, neighbors gathered at a home, and, having dressed up two children as the Holy Pilgrims, knocked on a neighbor’s door, seeking refuge. Eventually, amid songs and pleadings, the hosts opened their door, the Holy Family was received amid applause, and tamales and hot chocolate were served.

This celebration of hospitality has its own overtones of grace. Even if the strangers at the door were the Mother of God, she is disguised as one amongst many other pilgrims. Opening a door to strangers in the middle of the night requires its own measure of courage—and wisdom.

The courage part is obvious, but the wisdom of this behavior is not always so clear. The letter to the Hebrews counsels, “love your own, always, but do the same with strangers, remembering how sometimes these turn out to be angels” (Hebrews 13:1-2). The text recalls the ancient experience of Abraham’s encounter with three strangers who turn, after receiving his generous and fearless hospitality, turns history on its head (Genesis 18: 2). A wise person–Abraham, in this case–recognizes moments of grace and possibility. Abraham’s act of hospitality is one of the foundational myths of Jews, Christians and Muslims,  underscores the sense that life-changing moments require courage and wisdom.

Along the southern border, the celebration of las posadas this year might be particularly poignant. This past June, tens of thousands of families, fleeing the horror of gang violence in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, crossed into the United States. The vast majority were women and their children. Most all of them were not “sneaking into the USA” but surrendered to the border patrol—a contemporary way of knocking on the nation’s door. They were seeking refuge and sanctuary. Many of them, even with the stringent guidelines for seeking asylum, could have made good cases for that relief. Those folks, it should be noted, were “legal” immigrants.

The reactions to these strangers ran the gamut from astonishing courage to depressing cowardice. The City of McAllen, upon hearing the sound of children knocking at the door, opened their arms in welcome. At Sacred Heart, the church in McAllen that offered warm meals, hot showers and a change of clothing, arriving refugees were greeted with applause, as if they were celebrities…or part of a Holy Family.

The U.S. government, the State of Texas, and a number of other elected officials, quite frankly, freaked out. Governor Perry called out the National Guard. Colonel Steven McCraw ordered a “surge” of state troopers to the border. President Obama contracted with privately run prisons to “shelter” the families—in out of the way places, far from services, from scrutiny, and from the public eye.

Quite surely there was many an angel amongst that group of travelers. Much more certain is that the men in command missed their chance to act nobly. Instead of a message about the hope that our strong nation can afford to have, the fellows in charge inspired needless fear across the country, with speculations that these children could carry ebola or be eight-year old jihadists.

On the border this Christmas week, the posadas continue on, the children continue to arrive, McAllen continues to welcome them, and the volunteers continue to smile and applaud as the refugees enter the shelter. The US government continues to imprison them, the state troopers and the National Guard continue to try and “hold the line”, and, somewhere, somehow, angels insist on paying us a visit.

On that cool Houston night last week, I watched a couple skating together. He was clearly the better skater; she was shaky at best. She suddenly fell down, right in front of her friend. He tripped over her, and ended up on the ice as well. But, smoothly, and quickly, as if a part of a dance routine, he gracefully leapt back to his feet, turned around, and lifted her up. They moved back into the flow of the other skaters. She smiled; he smiled; I smiled.

It is an image that I would like to carry into this new year—that particular pair of skaters circling the ice together. I cannot imagine that he would have left her on the ice after she fell. Indeed, even the idea of that skater circling the rink alone, unimpeded by his partner, is tedious. Equally, the applause that welcomes violence-hounded children warms my heart even as the thought that our country will then lock them up so as to more quickly send them back to near certain death chills my soul.

May we do better the next time around the rink.