June 1st, 2017

Welcoming the stranger

In recent weeks, small signs have been springing up on the lawns of our little town, refreshingly different from the usual appeals to vote for political candidates or issues facing the community.

The message in Spanish, English, and Arabic says simply, “No matter where you are from, you’re welcome in our neighborhood.” Anyone can say you are welcome, but making you actually feel welcome is something else again. Yet it’s heartening to see that the effort is underway even as decisions made at higher levels of government are restricting access to our country to millions of refugees and others who happen to come from the wrong parts of the world.

In this post 9-11 era, the spread of terrorism brings issues of safety and security to the forefront and the challenge is always one of balancing hospitality with caution, welcome with wariness.

For those of us who think we have gone too far in the direction of exclusion, the new community welcome signs are striking just the right note, the opening chord of an ancient tune.

Kevin O’Gorman, in a chapter in “Hospitality: A Social Lens,” edited by Lashley, Lynch, and Morrison (2007), traces the issue of welcoming the stranger to references in the Ancient Near East Texts, dating back to about 3500 B.C.. The references are as old as the history of writing itself and are generally thought to be contemporaneous with the Old Testament. These texts emphasize the duty of welcoming the stranger as well as the benefits to the household and to the immortal soul of the host who pleases the gods through his acts of hospitality.

More than a millennium later, the commercial center of Ugarit on the northern coast of Syria, produced the Stories of Aquat between 1500 and 1250 B.C.. One of these texts describes how Aquat’s parents thank the gods for the birth of their son by bestowing generous hospitality on the midwives who delivered him.

From earliest times, hospitality was considered important to both strangers and to the people within the household. Its role in gaining favor with the gods is also well-documented with references found in Egyptian funerary inscriptions and throughout the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian Bible.

Hospitality was also a central concept in Greek and Roman mythology with Zeus, the chief deity of Olympus, honored as its patron. Like us, the ancient Greeks had to be careful to discern whether the stranger at the door was an innocent supplicant or a potentially dangerous enemy. Sometimes, the gods themselves came in disguise and were never recognized.

Fast forward about 2,000 years to present day New England and the upstairs room where I sit at my desk writing these words. In a coincidence that seems too uncanny to be true, someone knocks at the kitchen door at the exact moment I am writing about hospitality in the Greek and Roman world.

I’m pretty sure it’s not Zeus. When he calls my wife’s name, I recognize the voice of my next-door neighbor coming to drop off a painting that we agreed to keep safe while contractors remodel his house. He is a long-time neighbor and friend and this is the kind of thing we do for one another.

When the snows come, two other neighbors, one across the street and one two doors down, help us clear our driveway with their snow blowers. The new guy on the block asks if I know someone who can install a fence and gives me the name of a roofer in return. These kinds of transactions are the common currency of neighborliness, an easy, trusting hospitality among people who feel welcome in one another’s presence.

Yet that kind of trust is not so easily gained when obvious differences in race, culture and customs set the newcomer apart as different from the majority. This week, our hometown newspaper published two letters from readers supporting an eighth-grade Muslim girl who, in an earlier letter, had challenged certain misconceptions of Islam.

That first letter drew a patronizing response from a citizen attempting to teach the young writer that she was misinformed about her own religion and implying that the negative stereotypes had some basis in fact. “No matter where you are from, you’re welcome in our neighborhood.” Obviously not everyone agrees with the message on those lawn signs.

The first time I saw one of those placards, I was walking with my wife on our usual circuit, under a line of budding trees to a pond where we used to wheel our children in their carriages. We came back the long way through a field where spring brings the kids out for soccer, their bright colored T-shirts moving in waves back and forth across the lawn.

The next time we took that walk, just yards past the sign, on a path cutting from the sidewalk to the soccer field, we saw a man, hunched over and shuffling. He was neither old nor young. He wore a surgical mask over his nose and mouth, a courtesy perhaps to prevent the spread of a cold. As if to protect himself or maybe us from danger, he held his arms together in front of his face as we approached. We smiled, said hello, and made room as people do when they pass one another on a narrow path. He did not respond, but when I glanced back, I noticed he had lowered his arms. Danger past, he could relax. Perhaps he is the stranger afraid of not finding welcome but, then again, so are we. So are we all.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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