"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13:2).
That was the verse swirling through my head one week in late August as I struggled to write a sermon on it. By Friday morning, having given up, I drove over to Forest to visit my mother, and that's where the sermon almost wrote itself as the verse came alive before my very eyes.
An amazing event unfolded when I stopped at a local grocery store to pick up some things Mom requested. It happened on the aisle next to mine where I noticed an older woman, petite with dark skin, buying some staples she needed—bread and juice and milk and such.
I didn't know it then, but when I described her later, my mother told me she had seen her around. She said she was an immigrant from South America. There was nothing extraordinary about this because many immigrants live in my hometown now, and she was doing something ordinary—buying groceries.
The extraordinary thing occurred when she tried to pay for them. Reaching up to the card reader, she swiped her card not once but three times, each without success. With no money to pay for her food, she stood there, helpless. The cashier was speechless. But before the South American woman had to leave her groceries behind and walk away empty-handed, the person waiting behind her—a woman whom I assume has lived in Forest most of her life—said, "I've got it."
Before the little woman could protest, the local woman handed the cashier the money for the groceries.
"I'm going to pay you back when I see you around town again," I heard the South American woman say.
"I've been blessed," the other woman replied. "Now I can be a blessing to you."
The South American woman smiled. "You have blessed me today," she said.
Perhaps things like this happen all the time, and I need to go to the grocery store more often. Or maybe it's something much deeper. You see, I suspect the woman native to Forest, recognized the sacred worth of the South American woman, a stranger to her. For all she knew, she might just have been an angel.
All I know is that as I watched the exchange take place, I couldn't help but feel that I was standing on holy ground.
As a Christian, hospitality, or love of strangers, is a hallmark of our faith. And that's not just the case for followers of Jesus. One Old Testament verse commands, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." In no fewer than 36 places in the Old Testament, the Bible commands that one must "love the stranger."
I couldn't help but consider this and recall the story that took place in Forest when I read about the proposed Mississippi legislation mirroring Arizona's recent anti-immigration laws. It seems that some Mississippi lawmakers would prefer us to fear the stranger.
While I recognize that we are a country of laws, and we have need for immigration reform, it is racial profiling to demand that law enforcement officers check the residential status of anyone they suspect may be in the United States illegally on the basis of English-speaking skills or any other reason. It is purely political pandering intended to prey on existing fears and promote mistrust among people.
I find it ironic that the very people proposing these measures are often the ones who refer to their Christian faith on any number of other issues.
Inciting hysteria is never faithful, nor is it hospitable. It is sinful.
I only wish some of those lawmakers could have witnessed what I saw in Forest that day. It wasn't merely a handout to someone "less fortunate"; it was a powerful sign that we can, indeed, coexist. It gave testament that not everyone falls for the rhetoric intended to create an "us versus them" mentality. It provided evidence that generosity and hospitality do not require a background check. It was a realization that community is not limited to a homogenous group of people but incorporates all people. And diversity should never be scary but exciting, filled with possibilities.
Leaving the grocery store that day, I saw the woman who had paid for the groceries in the parking lot. As I walked up behind her, I casually said: "I saw what you did in there, and that was really sweet."
What I was really thinking is that she not only blessed the stranger to our land. She also blessed me and gave me something that will last a lot longer than the groceries for which she paid.
She gave me hope.
Rob Hill is the pastor of Broadmeadow United Methodist Church in Jackson where he has served since June 2005. A native of Forest, he earned his bachelor's degree from Mississippi State University in 1997 and a master's degree in divinity from Duke University in 2002.
This is a great story and I'm happy to say I would have done the same thing for the lady. I'm furthermore happy to see a pastor take the only position I believe a true Christian can take. I don't see how anyone can disagree, but I know many will. Thanks Pastor Hill.
Damnit, Rob. Ben and I should have let you baptize Parks! :)
Beautiful. Just beautiful. Things like this I hear through Blane and Joy every week are the reason you're the first pastor to actually get me in a church in the past ten years. Well, the fellowship hall. I made it to the fellowship hall. Believe me, that's a HUGE improvement. That and Joy threatened me...just a little. :)
- Lori G
Walt, thanks for the affirming comments. Help spread the word and keep Mississippi from taking steps backward!
Lori, thanks for the affirming comments, as well. Can't re-baptize Parks, but I would love to see you, Ben, and Parks at Broadmeadow more often. Don't make me sick Joy on you!