Welcoming the Roma Stranger
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. Deuteronomy 10:17-20
There it was, at the entrance of a big supermarket, a bump on the sidewalk, noticeable enough, almost to be stepped on. At first I thought it was a garbage bag, but coming out of the bump were hands holding a paper cup! Looking more closely, I barely recognized the shape of a woman, kneeling, curled, face on the ground, with a pair of extended hands holding a paper cup as the only sign of humanity. This image haunted me for several days.
Yesterday I saw it again, the same bump on the ground, faceless, anonymous but still with extended hands, holding a paper cup, waiting for some money. I remember the sound of coins falling into it.
She is one of the many Roma women who, in Geneva, as in many cities in the world, are used as beggars, spending hours and hours on the ground, waiting for some coins—a product of the briefly alleviated conscience of a passer-by. But who is she? What is her name? Because she has a name! How old is she? How does she look? What is her story? What would she want to say? If she could leave that dehumanizing position, how would she stand, move, walk? Would she dance? How did she come to this situation? What were her dreams? Does she dream now? Why are so many women and girls still trafficked today into different kinds of modern slavery? I have many questions—where are the answers?
Like many of the unnamed, abused women in the Bible, this woman also brings a message. And it is that God is not partial, favoring some and cursing others.
We are migrants
The story of the people of God is the story of wandering people, pilgrims, migrants; people without a home, seeking a home, relying on the promise of God for refuge. Throughout the Scriptures, we are constantly reminded how important it is in God’s eyes to have compassion for strangers and to practice hospitality with them, and to never forget that we, too, were aliens at a point in our lives.
Migration has become a significant issue throughout the world. Whether they are internally displaced in their country or moving from one country to another because of armed conflict, natural disasters or a poor economy, a vast number of people today are on the move, many of whom are women and children. Authorities often see these people as a threat, and either deter the migrants through very tough immigration laws or close their eyes to the clandestine, exploited but very needed labor force in their countries. The “established,” or the citizens, are often made to think that many of the socio economic problems in their once-safe countries are caused by the presence of foreigners. Thus, the tendency to stereotype persists, and the gap between migrants and citizens continues to grow, causing more fear, mistrust and dehumanization.
We all came from somewhere else to the land on which we now reside. We or our ancestors looked at the road ahead and decided to move on, to the promise ahead. Was it a dream? Was it the need for better living conditions? Was it love? Was it persecution? Was it desperation? Whatever it was, the decision to move took us into the unknown, leaving the familiar behind. We were once strangers to somebody, somewhere. We are all pilgrims in one way or another, in this life, on this earth, so what gives us the impression that we have the right to be on a particular land while those who have migrated more recently do not?
Love our neighbor
Jesus called us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and God challenges us to expand our notion of who our neighbors are, and also asks us to love those who may be strangers to us but are not strangers to God. Many noncitizens, foreigners or migrants are feared, perceived as a danger, as troublemakers. People often ignore them, pass by them or, even worse, condemn them. The way we treat others is a theological issue. Our response to God’s presence in our lives calls for active engagement in God’s work in this world. And this engagement should transform our lives to reflect God’s inclusive love for everyone.
How will my engagement with the world in response to God’s call for loving the stranger among us be exemplified? How would you seek to respond to this call within your own reality? How will our fear and worship of the God of life, mercy and love make a difference for the orphan, the widow, the stranger in our land? What will I do today and from now on to be God’s instrument in restoring his given humanity to the woman on the sidewalk?
Portion of the old The Mountain Pilgrim’s Prayer, taken from a hospice shelter high in the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass, where for centuries a community of faithful people has practiced hospitality with travelers and provided rescue assistance to them on the mountain heights:
O Lord Jesus, You who have journeyed so far, on behalf of Our Father,
To come and set up your home in our midst.
You, who were born by chance on a journey;
You, who have travelled on every path;
The path of Exile, the path of Pilgrimage, the path of Prophecy.
Draw me from my easy, self-centered life, and make of me a Pilgrim.
Ana Villanueva is executive coordinator for the World YWCA, an international Christian women's organization working for a fully inclusive world where justice, peace, health, human dignity, freedom and care for the environment are promoted and sustained by women's leadership.