Welcoming the Stranger

My grandmother Edith was one of the most hospitable people I have ever known. Married to a country school teacher, she arranged musical evenings and invited the whole township. She also included the desperate young men, who, during the Depression in the 1920s, walked thousands of miles across Australia seeking work, food, care, and love. One of these young men decades later married Grandma’s youngest daughter.

Despite the Middle East having long traditions of hospitality, the writer of the book of Hebrews saw fit to remind readers to “Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:1–2 KJV). The story of Abraham in Genesis 18 also comes to mind: three strangers turn up unexpectedly at the tent of Abraham and his wife Sarah. After offering water for foot washing, Abraham orders Sarah to make cakes, and he selects from his herd a calf to be slaughtered and dressed. Later in the story, the strangers forecast that Sarah, middle-aged and barren, would bear a son and that Abraham would thereby become the father of a mighty nation.

I also have found that hospitality can bring about unexpected blessings. In early 2006, a family of eight Burundians arrived at my meeting: the family of Abel Sibonio had come from ten years in a Tanzanian refugee camp. They soon brought along another Burundi family—a three-generational one—and so our meeting expanded. We then discovered other Burundi Quaker families who had settled in Australia. At our yearly meeting in 2007, the Burundians were delighted to gather and hear Abel’s stories of his journey from being a pastor whose life was under threat, to establishing Friends worship and service in the refugee camps in Tanzania. They were stories of personal danger, of eradicating violence and human rights abuses, and of reinforcing culture through music, dance, and song—all told and heard with a sense of great purpose and joy.

Abandoned as a baby by his mother, Abel had been brought up by Friends missionaries who taught him English in exchange for his teaching them French, Kiswahili, and Kirundi. He had deepened his understanding and witness to the Truth at gatherings of Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) and Friends United Meeting (FUM) in Kenya, Guatemala, and the United States.

My journey was not as amazing as Abel’s; rather, it was a steady progress through Quaker life, always recognizing the importance of hospitality and of learning about Friends life and witness throughout the world. As my tasks in local meetings led to insights and a desire to reach out further into spiritual understandings, I knew I had to attend 1991’s Friends World Conference. I also began to engage with Friends at Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva; Friends at Woodbrooke; and finally that year, the School of the Spirit, where I experienced great openings.

How fortunate we Friends have been that FWCC was established in 1937 to enable Friends throughout the world to learn trust for one another; to communicate in a variety of ways, including prayer; and, when necessary and possible, to assist each other. FWCC has indeed been a great blessing to me. Through it, I have enjoyed great hospitality and chances to learn other cultures’ expressions of God.

In 2004, I was appointed the associate secretary of Asia West Pacific Section (AWPS) of FWCC, and several years later, executive secretary. As I traveled throughout the region, I began to see the work and to understand the issues that confronted Friends in different countries. In India, for example, we discovered Friends had longed for visits, and were laboring with old material, little Quaker knowledge, and increasing poverty. On a trip to the Singapore worship group, I felt gladdened by their faithfulness in studying Quaker texts, and a similar yearning for real Quaker learning was evident at Indonesia Yearly Meeting. A visit to the Philippines brought increased understanding of the issues of poverty; at Japan Yearly Meeting, I came to know of their steady work for peace; in Kenya, I learned more about the ways Quakerism had taken root. In each place, I enjoyed hospitality—Friends sharing their homes and lives—and I felt greatly blessed.

In 2009, a section gathering brought me to the United States, where I visited several meetings in California and also sought out Quaker material suitable for the mainly programmed meetings in our Section. Two years later, Abel Sibonio and I returned to conduct Salt and Light workshops in ten states. These workshops were conceived by FWCC Section of the Americas, in part as a preparation for Friends who would be attending the World Conference.

During this time, Abel also wanted to meet up with former Burundian refugees and help them clarify their roles in their new meetings, as he had done in Australia. We met many Burundian Friends who had arrived in 2006, been welcomed, and given great hospitality in their meetings. It was time to assess how these Evangelical Friends could make a strong contribution to their meetings’ lives. I heard this discussed in many places and think Abel’s strong presence encouraged these Friends to take up this issue for themselves. I pray that this strong undergirding of confidence will bring Burundian Friends more deeply into the life of local meetings, to the benefit of all.

One moving experience during our travels was a “baby blessing” in Louisville, Kentucky, where Abel blessed four babies, one from a family that he had married in the refugee camp. This is how hospitality works: by bringing together traditions, we all become stronger.

And so with FWCC’s ongoing witness to the virtues gained through hospitality, Quakers worldwide are seeking to discover where we are being led, and what contributions we can make to the broken world by using our Salt and Light to bring about the Kingdom of God, the Realm of Love. May our hearts become open to any opportunity to offer hospitality, showing our witness of love and our action to bring about peace that is so greatly needed today. Entertaining angels is a lovely thought.

Valerie Joy

Valerie Joy has worked with the Asia West Pacific section of Friends World Committee for Consultation since 2004 and is the editor of its quarterly newsletter. She also edits the Directory for Travelling Friends, which lists hosts and meetinghouses, primarily for travel in Australia.

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