“I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me”
A Speech from Women’s World Day of Prayer, 2013
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew presents this Gospel story as Jesus’ final teaching before his Passion. There, he is rejected as a stranger, a stranger to people’s expectations as he overturned traditional notions of God and scandalously reached out to those society shunned. But in his death he is to totally identify himself with them, he is the poor and the stranger and our salvation comes from them.
Who are the ‘strangers’ in our society?
In 2011 non-Irish nationals made up 12 percent of the resident population, coming from 199 different nations and a multitude of different situations. There are the “success stories,” but sadly this is far from everyone’s experience.
Consider the problems faced by asylum seekers and the negative effects of the current system on them and their children. “You welcomed me?”
Consider the victims of human trafficking, something known to be widespread throughout this country, the exploitation of domestic workers, the sadness of migrant women who, while working as caregivers here, have had to leave their own children back home in the care of someone else. “You welcomed me?”
Consider, too, the long hours and low pay, the many subtle forms of discrimination. “You welcomed me?”
Yet these are the people with whom Jesus identifies, to welcome them is to welcome him.
We all are the image of God
Scripture tells us that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. As I look into the face of someone other than me, I see, as if in a mirror, both my own reflection and that of God. I do not become the other any more than the other becomes me, but in this two-way mirror the other and I both perceive our true identity: people called to relationship.
This is the challenge of hospitality, an active first step toward “the other” that allows for, in the words of John O’Donohue, the “transfiguration of anonymity into intimacy and presence.” It offers community, wherein the sharing of the simplest everyday events and concerns, something deeper happens: the “host” becomes the “guest” and the “guest” the “host.”
Learning to live with the dignity of difference
Being part of a community means learning to live with the dignity of difference in mutual love and respect, and a way of participation that develops everyone’s sense of belonging.
In her recent memoir, Everybody Matters, former president of the Republic of Ireland Mary Robinson refers to an African ideal of human connectedness and solidarity, Ubuntu, described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “I am because you are.”
The strangers among us in the community of this country, its towns and townlands, are a constant reminder of this reality: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine – it is in the shadow of each other that people live, and I would add, where God dwells.
Moira McDowall, Sister of la Retraite, is a member of the Council for Immigrants, Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.