Challenges afford opportunities
When we started planning this issue's theme, "Welcoming the Exile," the world was a very different place.
Although the economy was leaning toward recession, the stock market hadn't taken the plunge of early October. The U.S. Presidential race was still very much underway - and the major candidates were tied in most national polls.
Same-gender families in Connecticut had not yet been given the full privilege of marriage. In California, same-gender couples still enjoyed the legal advantages of civic matrimony.
News production cycles and story deadlines aside, we had to ask ourselves whether or not this was an appropriate time to focus on the exile, the stranger, when so much had changed in our world since mid-September.
The answer to that question was a simple yes. No matter what our current economic, political or social outlook - we are called as people of faith to constantly push against the rough edges of discomfort that grate at us when we are forced to encounter those who differ from us.
The Rev. John Fife, co-founder of the migrant rights group, No More Deaths, introduces people to the ministry of border justice by reminding us that the Hebrew scriptures speak of welcoming your neighbor as yourself only once (Leviticus 19:18). Yet the people of Israel are instructed to welcome the foreigner, exile or stranger no less than 17 times.
Fife concludes his comments by asking, "Can you guess which one is harder? Which one was more important to Yahweh?"
The truth is, really understanding someone who differs from you is one of the most challenging things we can do. We encounter variances of language, culture, ideology and even morality that make understanding one another difficult, or may cause us to reconsider our long-entrenched positions.
From my own experiences in the UCC, I know our congregations receive exiles in many ways. We may not even name it as such, but this work happens when we make space for an immigrant community to hold a native-language service, sponsor the resettlement of a refugee, engage in sacred conversations on race, offer help to those hit by economic hard times, or hold an open-and-affirming workshop.
Each of these activities, and countless others, helps us to express God's extravagant welcome to those who were once considered "outside." Along the way we recognize a double blessing: because the one welcomed, and the one offering welcome, go away with their lives changed.
A Christmas journey
December marks the beginning of the Christian year and the season of Christmas, the Advent - the arrival - of the Christ. In our churches, the season is full of symbolism and significance.
A Christmas custom found primarily in Mexico is the remembrance of Mary and Joseph's travels to Bethlehem. The celebration is known as Las Posadas, Spanish for "the inns," which commemorates the hospitality Jesus' family received as strangers, making their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
At first glance, Las Posadas resembles door-to-door caroling. But the tradition culminates with an invitation into the home of an "innkeeper" who has offered to host dinner and a party - an outpouring of hospitality and joy that recognizes how difficult it is to be a stranger, foreigner or exile.
The ministry of welcome is engaged throughout this issue, including four "Centerstage" articles that explore the theology and practice of hospitality. In considering the character of Jesus and his arrival, these thoughts may inform your perception of what it means to be welcoming.
And so the theme of "Welcoming the Exile" seems as important today as it was two months ago. Yes, the world has changed. But with those changes comes a continued challenge to be a welcoming and faithful people. It is an invitation to enter into the margins of society and culture, and to encounter those the still speaking God is calling us to embrace.