St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church


St. Bart's Blog

Strangers and a Fearful World

Posted by The Rev. William Zettinger on

Most parents teach their children to watch out for strangers. That's a legitimate concern, given that the world seems to be a more dangerous place than it used to be. But is that true? The world has always been a dangerous place. We just know more about that danger more quickly because of the 24-hour news cycle.

It's kind of amazing that my mother let me roam the neighborhood of Ridgewood in Brooklyn with absolute freedom in an age when there were no cell phones and you went everywhere in New York on the subway or elevated rail system. Dad always made me carry a dollar and a dime, so I could make a call from one of those ancient telephone booths and buy a hot dog or get an egg cream soda for twelve cents if I was hungry. That’s right 12 cents for the dog, 7 cents for the soda.

Today, in the name of an abundance of caution, we may be inadvertently reaping what we're sowing. What is known as "stranger danger" in little children can quickly morph into middle school cliques, high school bullying and even a national policy on immigration?

We become so afraid of strangers that we will do anything to keep them at bay, sticking only with those we know and are like us. But we forget one thing that’s a big deal. We are inevitably a stranger to someone else. We have to consider the fact that someone else might look at us with fear and suspicion, not knowing that we aren't all that scary.

In my previous professional life as an Aerospace guy, I visited Washington D.C. and Virginia quite often. Sometimes I would be there for the weekend if we were in the middle of a big negotiation. I would wander around the D.C. streets especially swanky Georgetown in jeans and a t-shirt, sometimes looking a bit ratty and out of place. Some of my friends would join me and one said that I looked worse than a homeless person (of which there were none that I could see).

While walking up M street and looking for Clyde’s of Georgetown (great crabcakes founded in 1963), I walked straight into a concrete light pole. Now, I’m dazed and bleeding from my head. Not serious, but you know how your head can bleed. People literally crossed to the other side of the street to avoid me. No one stopped to ask, "Can I help?" It took another 20 minutes of wandering and staggering before the bleeding stopped and I got to Clyde's holding a handkerchief on my head.

That was a lesson to me: that we are often the stranger to someone else. We are easily misunderstood, categorized and refused hospitality because we aren't like the people around us. The more we understand that we, too, are strangers to someone, the more likely we are to extend hospitality to those who are strangers to us. We prefer our strangers to be vetted, cleaned up, cleared by the authorities and with the proper credentials.

Certainly, we need to be mindful, but fear of the stranger narrows our definition of neighbor to the point at which only a lawyer like the one who questions Jesus in Luke 10 could embrace (vv. 25-37).

We pass by like priests (from the Old Testament, not we Episcopal clergy - I hope) and Levites on the other side of the road in fear of our own safety.

We'll let that be someone else's problem. We fear being part of someone's suffering; we fear rejection; we fear the possibility of death.

But remember that Jesus showed his disciples that welcoming the stranger is part of the job description of cross-bearing disciples. Following Jesus means that we love, and love is risky.

In a fearful world, those of us who follow Jesus, and especially those of us who are clergy in congregations, need to demonstrate what loving your neighbors is.

This week we all are likely to encounter many strangers - some who are like you, some who are not. How will you approach them? Will you lead with fear or with compassion? Will you see them as a threat or an inconvenience, or will you linger long enough to hear their story? Who is your neighbor?

None of us makes it through life without relying on the kindness of strangers. May our churches set a new tone in our culture by revising our concept of the stranger as someone who represents danger, to a new understanding in which the stranger is our neighbor - a friend not yet met!

By the way. I still follow dad’s advice of carrying a little backup money around. Only today it’s a hundred dollar bill. Just enough for a hot dog, egg cream and Uber/Lyft ride home.