Thursday, November 29, 2018

Unexpected Christian hospitality

Origionally published in The Mennonite, July 2013. 

“We don’t have any money to give you,” the pastor said to the strange man who approached him in a busy bus station in the northern part of Mexico City. “But we can provide you with lodging at our church and invite you to present your case to the members to see how they respond.”

Pastor Victor who welcomed
 Abram to his congregation
My wife and I were meeting Victor, the pastor of a small Mennonite congregation dwarfed among some 22 million people inhabiting Mexico City. We were with a group of 18 students from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Harrisonburg, Va. Victor’s church was hosting us for a week of working, worshiping and playing together.
The stranger spotted a Christian fish symbol on Victor’s T-shirt and figured he would be more approachable than others in the crowded bus station. Slowly his story unfolded. His name was Abram, and he was on the way back to his family in Guatemala from the United States. He was completely broke when he arrived in Mexico City and was asking for money to buy a ticket home and for a meal to eat on the way.
Abram had been working in Charlottesville, Va., as a painter. He had entered the United States without papers and had numerous jobs in various cities until he finally settled in Charlottesville. He was doing well at his job but got into a bad crowd and spent most of his money partying and in general misbehavior. In desperation, he returned to the faith of his childhood, began attending a Latino church and recommitted his life to Jesus.
Just as he was beginning to turn his life around and make some economic strides, he received a call from his family in Guatemala. He was urgently needed back home to help resolve some family issues. He was really torn between family obligations and his newfound hope with steady employment and a changed lifestyle.
Going back to Guatemala would probably mean never being able to return to the United States again; the risks of crossing the border without papers were too high. To ignore the pleas of his family went completely against his cultural sensibilities, so he decided to return to Guatemala, throwing away all his dreams of a better life.
He returned over land, mostly by bus. Somewhere along the way, all his money was stolen, and he ended up in a church-run refugee shelter in a U.S.-Mexico border town. By helping out around the shelter and with some donations from good people along the way, he was able to scrape together enough to buy a bus ticket to Mexico City. This is where his story coincided with ours.
To a person, our group had a great deal of trouble believing Abram’s story. We figured he was pulling a major con job and was using the benevolence of a Christian brother with a fish symbol on his T-shirt to beg for money. Victor, on the other hand, did not bat an eyelash. He extended his invitation and promised to take up an offering for him with no guarantees on how much it would be. So Abram climbed on board the back of a pickup with a half-dozen students from our group to ride with us to the church of our destination.
It was remarkable enough that Victor offered this stranger hospitality at all. But his church was in the process of hosting 18 students and their two leaders for a week and was struggling financially to make their church budget reach. Didn’t they have enough to do? Wouldn’t the money raised to give to Abram be better used for the needs of the church? Weren’t there other churches that could see to Abram’s needs? These seem to be questions that were going through our American minds. I doubt any of them occurred to Victor, who lovingly invited Abram to accompany us on our adventure.
“Share with the Lord’s people who are in need,” says Romans 12:13, then continues, “Practice hospitality.” In 1 Peter 4:9 we are admonished to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” Victor embodied the essence of both these verses. Our troop of American sojourners was the ones doing the grumbling. What is it about our culture that makes us so suspicious? Why is it so difficult for most of us to extend the biblically mandated hospitality to strangers?
“Scripture is replete with references to … the stranger,” writes W. David Buschart in his book Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality (IVP Academic, 2006). These references include a clear call to offer hospitality to the stranger. “Hospitality extends the embrace of welcome,” he writes. “Christian hospitality extends the embrace of Christ’s welcome.” We are called to offer hospitality to the stranger because of what God has done for us. In turn, the hospitality we offer is from God.
“When faced by a stranger, those who extend the embrace of hospitality have a keen awareness of God’s hospitality toward them,” writes Buschart. “Furthermore, this hospitality includes not only a sense of who they are (namely strangers) and what God has done (embraced them) but also an awareness that what they have to offer in hospitality is ultimately from God.” Hospitality reaffirms our relationship to others and to God.
In spite of our initial skepticism, Abram soon endeared himself to our group. He ate meals with us at the church, worshiped with the congregation during several services and helped with the church’s painting project. The coincidences were many. We had just been in Guatemala, the country to which he wanted to return. He had lived in Charlottesville, just over the mountains from where our students studied at EMU. He was a painter whose skills were needed at that particular time in the church. The better we got to know him, the more our skeptical attitudes faded away. When the special offering for Abram was received during the Wednesday evening service, most of our group walked forward to add their pesos to the love gift.
Although there was much less distrust among the Mexican Mennonites at the church than in our group as a whole, they, too, raised some questions when the special offering for Abram was announced. Victor, whose only motivation was Christian love, had a ready answer for the skeptics: “What he does with the money is on his conscience,” he said. “We were asked to extend Christian hospitality to a stranger, so we did what Jesus would have done.” Human motives are seldom completely pure. Extending hospitality in Jesus’ name is.
A small offering basket for Abram was placed at the front of the church along with the normal offering basket during the Wednesday evening ser­vice. The money received for him was placed in an envelope and given to him after the service, no questions asked, no conditions imposed. According to the pastor who saw that he got to the bus station the next morning, the money Abram received was just enough to cover his bus trip and a meal along the way—exactly what he had asked for, no more, no less. He disappeared on to the bus in the early hours of the day, never to be heard from again.
Our group learned a valuable lesson in Christian hospitality during our time with pastor Victor’s church in Prensa Nacional, a working-class neighborhood in northwestern Mexico City. The church almost unquestioningly took Abram in and offered him what they had in spite of few resources of their own. Through the church’s acceptance of Abram, and through exposing us to Christian hospitality at its best, our group learned to love a suspicious stranger and learned to respond to that love without expecting anything in return. We also experienced God’s love in action. Abram responded to our hospitality, and new friendships were forged through this encounter that will be forever etched in the minds of those of us who were there to experience it.
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,” states Hebrews 13:2, “for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” For all we know, Abram was an angel.
Don Clymer teaches Spanish and humanities at Eastern Mennonite University, 
Harrisonburg, Va., and leads cross-cultural seminars to Guatemala and Mexico. He also serves on the Pastoral Care Team at Lindale Mennonite Church where he is a member.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A New Creation

A lesson on not judging someone based on outward appearances

(This article originally appeared in The Mennonite April 1, 2014)
“I love Americans,” Pedro announced to the small group gathered for the Wednesday evening Bible study. “I love your music, your language, your people.”
Pedro2My wife, Esther, and I were leading a group of 18 students from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Harrisonburg, Va., and were visiting a small Mennonite congregation on the north side of sprawling Mexico City. They were hosting us during Holy Week for a time of working, worshiping and playing together.
I was immediately put off by Pedro’s announcement. His speech was slurred, his eyes glazed over, and he wore beads around his neck and on his wrists while stuffing white ear buds in his ears. Often I had been accosted by similar statements and people in my years of learning and serving in Latin America. What was his agenda? He had to have one, I assumed, because he was too effusive, and I was pretty sure he was inebriated.
The following day the church had planned a day for the group of us to enjoy the many activities available in Chapultepec Park in central Mexico City. There were museums, a zoo, a castle, rowboats and an amusement park, to name a few. We were to divide into groups and chose our activity. At the end of the Bible study, the pastor asked for a show of hands of those who were willing and able to accompany us for the excursion. Pedro was the first one to raise his hand.
After a wonderfully harrowing ride navigating Mexico City’s public transportation system with a walk, two bus transfers and the metro, we emerged out of the bowels of the subway system into the bright, crisp air of the park. Five students along with Esther and me, chose the zoo. So did Pedro. Probably with the same misgivings about Pedro that I had, the five students hurriedly dashed off to the entrance of the zoo, disappearing among the multitudes. Esther and I were stuck with Pedro. Three hours until we were to reunite with the rest of the group for the next activity. Three hours with Pedro. I dreaded every minute.
The human tendency is to prejudge someone by their outward appearance. This is where the word “prejudice” comes from. We decide what someone is like by their race, their age, their sex or any of a number of other factors without bothering to get to know them. My prejudgment of Pedro was that he was a drunk and would be a difficult person to relate to because he “had an agenda” and probably wanted something from me. I didn’t want to be bothered by him. By prejudging him before getting to know him, I denied his God-image and likeness. By so doing, I reduced him to something less than human.
I was not the only one to prejudge Pedro. “I made a quick judgment about him as being someone I did not want to relate to, and I did not want anything to do with him,” wrote one of my students in her journal. “I was judging him for what I saw and the little I knew of him.” Because of the scene at the Bible study, I’m sure many of our students felt the same way.
God knows our tendency to judge a person by how they look on the outside, so when Samuel was looking for a king to replace Saul, God warned him: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7 NIV).
Israel had already been fooled by a tall and handsome Saul, the man who had the stereotypical physique of a king but the heart of a pagan. Even in spite of this disaster, Samuel looked for these same qualities in the sons of Jesse. He had to be straightened out by God. What is in one’s heart is more important than the way one looks.
Paul, in acknowledging his own prejudices before he had an encounter with the Risen Christ, writes in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 (CEV), “We are careful not to judge people by what they seem to be,” or, as The Message puts it, “by what they have or how they look.” I certainly judged Pedro by the way he seemed to be and the way he looked, I didn’t look at his heart.
As Esther, Pedro and I proceeded through the zoo, Pedro wanted to know the English name of every animal we came across. We became friendlier as the day wore on, enjoying his unbounded, childlike enthusiasm for all the animals and their English equivalents.
We decided to leave the zoo and have lunch together. As we ate, he told us his long, torturous story. He was studying biology at the university when he got into a bad crowd and started doing drugs. Up to that point he was doing well enough that he had several offers to continue his academic career in graduate studies or to work with some government agencies; offers that would have set him financially for life.
The deeper he got into the drug scene, however, the more distracted he became from his studies. It wasn’t long until he had to live on the streets full-time to support his habit. He dropped out of school and had never returned. What had been a promising career was left shattered on the rubbish heap beside a pile of syringes. He tried to earn a living selling candy and chewing gum from a portable stand he carried through his neighborhood.
After many failed rehabilitation programs, he wandered into an evangelical church and accepted Christ. He had been clean for over a year when we met him. “The only thing that saved me was Christ,” he testified. Because of his abuse of all sorts of drugs, his brain was fried. This explained his slurred speech and his halting behavior—making us jump to the conclusion that he was drunk.
The passage from 2 Corinthians 5 continues, “Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten, and everything is new.” Other versions call this a “new creation.” In spite of his outward appearance, Pedro was a new creation. He had a new heart. Before I got to know his story, I could only see his outward appearance.
Pedro accompanied our entourage from EMU everywhere we went. As the week wore on, he endeared himself not only to Esther and me but to all the students. When we went to see the reenactment of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion in his gang-infested neighborhood on Good Friday, Pedro led the way. Everywhere people greeted him.
Since we were with him, in spite of sticking out like sore gringo thumbs, we felt safe and in good hands. He was the first to give out specially prepared invitations to attend his church in his neighborhood. His own transformed life was an even more powerful testimony to his old friends.
“As I started to hear his story, I started to understand him more and not have a total fear of him,” wrote the same student. “His story is a powerful [one] and shows what Jesus can do in people’s lives. I wish I hadn’t judged Pedro so quickly.” Another student gave Pedro his English-Spanish Bible. Pedro’s face radiated his gratitude. We were slowly beginning to see his heart, to see his God-image, to see his new creation.
When we left Mexico some three weeks after our time with this fascinating and hospitable Mennonite church, Pedro was among the people to show up at the airport to bid us farewell. Many of the church members brought parting gifts. Pedro brought his candy stand and passed out candies to the group with his huge, toothless smile.
Our final church service together was Easter Sunday. During that service, we circulated around all the members of the church greeting them with the phrase, “Christ is risen,” to which the other responded, “He is risen indeed.” When I came to Pedro and looked him directly in his eyes, an emotion came over me, and I said to him, “Christ is risen, and I see him in your face.” This was the same face that I had rejected just a few days earlier. Without hesitation, he replied, “Yes, I was dead and now I am alive. I have risen from the dead like Christ.” I could not hold back the tears as I hugged him. Pedro was a new creation. So was I.