I turned on the television to catch the news while I was preparing supper. Pictures of desperate refugees streamed across the screen.
In the face of so much global and local need, an abyss looms in my heart. “What can I do?” I do not have medical training. I cannot translate. But this I know, in the words of Oswald Chambers, “Obey God in the thing He shows you, and instantly the next thing is opened up.”
I signed up as a volunteer at a medical clinic in town that cares for the underserved. Every Monday morning, newly-placed refugees and immigrants arrive for medical examinations and documentation. Eyesight is checked, blood pressure is taken, and health assessed.
As I crossed the threshold of the clinic that morning, small groups of people had already arrived, conversing around folding tables, their languages blending together like so many voices in a beautiful chorus. And a grace prevailed in the large crowded room, so palpable I could feel it.
Quite suddenly as I scanned the room, the scene became profoundly familiar, like a series of black and white photographs that I had seen many times before. I chuckled.
Is this what he saw every day? Not strangers, but people coming to a new home?
For a minute or two, I saw this room through the eyes of my great grandfather Harvey Snider. From 1900 until he retired 34 years later, Harvey worked as the night superintendent at Ellis Island, the incredible portal for 12 million people who entered America until it closed in 1954.
I remembered his old photographs of newly-arriving immigrants in the Great Hall. From the stories that my father told about him, Harvey knew operable words in 41 different languages. He knew the power of familiar words in one’s native language to inform, guide and comfort.
God reminded me that from cover to cover His Word is a book about displaced people. “Love the sojourner” even before he becomes your neighbor (Leviticus 19.34). Remember you were a stranger too, the LORD says.
At the Monday clinic, nametags were already prepared, handed to each one as they came through the door. Each person was known not by an impersonal government code, or a numbered place in queue like at the bakery, but by one’s own name. These people were not refugees being processed and documented, but individuals who were warmly welcomed and greeted and cared for.
A different kind of party was going on.
The world sees hospitality as the entertaining of friends. But the Bible defines it as the love of strangers. God enables us to respond in a way that is unexpected by the world, not from a sense of obligation or necessity, but out of a gut-wrenching compassion for those around us. These people before us were not strangers at all, but simply those whom we do not yet know.
I passed out white paper bags that morning, containing items like shampoo, toothpaste, soap and granola bars. “I have some gifts for you,” I told one beautiful young Iraqi woman, not realizing how to explain with hand motions the function of dental floss and stumbling over how to describe a Clif Bar to someone whose previous address was a refugee camp.
I was not even able to engage in conversation with our new friends. “Welcome,” I wanted to say. “I’m glad you are here.”
I do not have even the limited proficiency of my great grandfather in 41 different languages, but ironically enough, that morning we served exactly 41 individuals, and I learned that a smile translates perfectly into every language around me.
How do I know? Because they smiled back.