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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Welcome the Stranger

“I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.” Harriet Tubman


This quote haunts me. It reminds me of a time that I cannot know or understand but can only imagine.


When the most recent movie about Harriet Tubman came out, I went with friends to see it at the theater. Probably the last movie I saw at the theater. Tubman’s journey across unknown territory didn’t seem to dampen her resolve to run toward freedom. She kept going until she “crossed the line.” When I close my eyes, I can picture what that feels like, to cross the line, because I’ve hiked across state lines high up in the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina/Tennessee. In my case, though, I wasn’t hunting down freedom, I was trying to reconcile my connection with this land; a land I’d never occupied in my lifetime, but which had been occupied by my ancestors.


There is a scene at the end of the movie that still causes me to weep when I think about it. After years of leading people from the South to the North along the Underground railroad, Harriet Tubman takes a group of men in boats to the South Carolina shore. They sit quietly on the water, and she starts singing, “Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God gone trouble the water.” Chills go up my spine as I sit with anticipation, and without warning, hordes of people come rushing out from the tree line running as fast as they can toward the water and the boats that are going to carry them to freedom.


Most of us will never know what it is like to need to flee one set of circumstances in favor of another because we long to be free. This longing is why so many are willing to risk everything. This was true for slaves hoping against all hope to be free from slavery, and this was true for people living in the ancient world who longed for better circumstances for themselves and their families.


The Hebrew Bible is filled with passages that command the people of Israel to welcome the stranger. God tells them to remember when they were strangers in a strange land, and to use that memory as the impetus for treating others with kindness and compassion.

It is so easy for us to forget that other people around the world live in extremely different circumstances than we do. We rarely think about the impact of famines, but instead complain that the price of tomatoes has gone up once again. Even the states that have been hit the hardest by natural disasters, don’t go without assistance from a multiplicity of agencies. We have resources in the United States that other countries just don’t have.


Our Southern border has become a political hot-potato, but we are talking about human lives here. Instead of seeing the border as a siphon that strips Americans of their property and wealth, we need to see it as an opportunity to embrace those who have fled their own countries in search of safety. These individuals have left everything behind – loved ones, jobs, homes – searching for a place where violence and gangs won’t destroy them. They also search for economic opportunities and provide our country with much needed skilled labor.


“Welcome the Stranger” is not just a cute saying that makes us look good, it reflects on our understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. Mankind has erected borders where the Divine did not. We have divided and subdivided humanity to the point that all we see is division. We rank different ethnicities by the color of their skin and the erroneous belief that some ethnic groups are inherently better than others.


This is never what the Divine intended. We are one human race with many self-expressions. The diversity with which the Divine created the trees, flowers, rocks, and mountains, is the same diversity with which the Divine created all of humanity. When we blindly refuse to recognize the whole of creation as part of the Divine, then we fail to see the complexity of the Divine, which is the same complexity with which we acknowledge is present in all of creation.


Tubman, in recognizing that she was a stranger in a strange land, wanted to make sure that no one else had to experience that journey without being properly welcomed into freedom. Offering a hospitable welcome to people we do not know, whether in our congregations, our schools, or our wider community, offers something of ourselves which creates space for one more. Love doesn’t understand borders and boundaries. The human spirit is wilder and freer than we give it credit.


It is my hope and prayer that as you think about the life you have, the comfort you experience on a daily basis, that you will remember that not everyone around the world lives with this kind of abundance. When people are looking for a safe place, a place to plant their feet, put down roots, and grow, we need to be the ones welcoming them. We are all strangers in a strange land, even if we’ve forgotten where it is we came from. Let us be bold in welcoming the stranger to tarry with us, in so doing, we erase another boundary that seeks to keep us divided.






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