It shouldn’t have surprised us, but it did. Situated as our sanctuary is on one of Los Angeles’ main boulevards, we receive our share of Sunday morning visitors. But last Thanksgiving Day morning, when everything else was closed for the holiday, an unusual number of strangers appeared in the rear of our small sanctuary. They were welcomed by our ushers, given bulletins and helped to find a seat; but one young visitor, I could sense, was unusually restless, rising from his rear pew repeatedly and going out through the narthex onto the street outside. Perhaps, I wondered, he needed a smoke?
At the end of our worship, having heard Jesus’ words from his sermon on the mount assuring us of how God providentially cares for us like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and how therefore we have no need to worry over what we will eat or drink or wear, I announced that everyone was welcome to join us for the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings that would be served in our fellowship hall across the parking lot. This is an annual potluck affair chiefly attended by members of our small congregation, many of whom are single or don’t have family in the area and enjoy being with one another from their church “family” for a holiday dinner.
Except this year our invited strangers chose to join us, some of them evidently familiar with one another if not with us. They chose to gather around one of our round tables, but I noticed that a couple of women I hadn’t seen at worship were sitting with them. Who were they, I wondered, and how had they even heard about our turkey dinner if they hadn’t been with us at worship? Word finally reached me that these were the mother and sister of the restless young man next to whom they were now sitting and eating.
Preoccupied with out-of-town friends who were eating with us at our table, it wasn’t until pumpkin pie time that I managed to break away and introduce myself to the two women; the restless young man had again stepped outside. Out poured the story of how they had driven several hundred miles earlier that morning in order to locate their son and brother who they had learned was living on the streets of L.A. He was a twentyone- year-old Iraq war veteran, they explained, who had suffered severe posttraumatic stress symptoms since his return from war and had left the V.A. treatment center in the Bay Area hoping to find better treatment in the Los Angeles V.A. hospital near our church. But here too he quickly became frustrated and instead turned to medicating himself with alcohol and drugs, joining the ranks of L.A. County’s 90,000 homeless persons.
Their hope in driving to Los Angeles from their home was to find their son and brother and convince him to come home. They were overjoyed to notice him pacing outside our church, and he promptly invited them to join the Thanksgiving meal to which he said the church folks had invited him. They expressed their gratitude for the welcome and meal they were enjoying but also their frustration at the level of care their psychologically wounded son and brother was receiving. The mother told how she had become active in an advocacy group for returned vets, and testified to the dire state so many physically and especially brain-injured Iraq War veterans were suffering, as well as those emotionally damaged like her son. We exchanged phone numbers and our interest in keeping in touch. But we haven’t. I’ve not seen or heard from them or the restless young man since last Thanksgiving.
We’ve welcomed many strangers to our church since then, including referrals to the emergency shelter agencies we support. We offer food and transportation for those who express the need for assistance, advocate for more just and effective public policies, and hold them up in our public prayers. We know it’s not enough. More needs to be done, including by us. But what we do know, and what we’re especially grateful for, is the gift of strangers toward whom the Gospel moves us to practice its virtue of hospitality–a rich Greek word (philoxenia) that means literally “love for the stranger,” the very opposite of the xenophobia that endangers our life together as a people. We know because we’ve experienced its truth that in welcoming strangers God has sent us “angels unawares.” This Thanksgiving we’ll be particularly grateful for the strangers God sends us and will pray that we will hear the message they bear us.