“I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” Few experiences in my life have embodied these words from the Gospel of Matthew more vividly than my current experience as a stranger in a foreign land. Last December I arrived in Santiago, Chile to begin my two years of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). Six months later, I still cannot help but be absolutely astounded by the welcome that received me and the welcoming of others that I have witnessed during my time here. When I first arrived, I could barely communicate with the folks I encountered. My Spanish was extremely rusty and Chilean Spanish is notoriously (though in many ways beautifully as well) uniquely its own, delivered in a rapid-fire accent and overflowing with slang that I have seen even native Spanish speakers struggle to understand at times. And yet, though I struggled to carry out even the most basic conversations, I could still sense the love that surrounded me here. A love that transcended language. And this love has endured and grown even stronger as my Spanish reached the level where I could finally communicate with others. This love shines through again and again. I see it in the army of parish “dads” (the JVC volunteers live in an apartment above a parish) always checking in and worrying about us, literally in every way possible. They have even asked to make sure that I fit in my bed comfortably (I am rather tall so here I am something of a giant). I see it in my Chilean host family who welcomed me with smiles and open arms and presented me with keys to their home the moment I walked into their apartment. I see it in the countless times I have heard “If you ever need anything please don’t hesitate to ask” again and again from the various staff members of the school I work at. I see it in the various Chilean friends offering to show me around the city and checking in with me from time to time.
I have witnessed this love pouring out towards other “strangers” as well. In recent years, our neighborhood of Los Nogales has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of migrants settling here from the Dominican Republic and Haiti, looking for better lives for themselves and their families. While I certainly have seen my fair share of tensions between Chileans and their new neighbors, especially because many of the Haitians arrive not knowing any Spanish, this love still is very much alive and present. Our parish welcomed in two Haitian men who arrived with no place to stay and offered them rooms to sleep in. I am working with the psychosocial team at our school with the specific goal of trying to improve the experiences of our students who are migrants. I can see the deep desire of our team members to foster a welcoming environment as they go above and beyond time and time again for our migrant students. In the Spanish classes that I work at as well, volunteers sacrifice their Saturday evenings every week to teach Spanish classes for the Haitian population of our neighborhood. And the most beautiful thing is that for them, it is not a sacrifice. The joy that shines through as they begin to form friendships with their students, teaching Spanish while also trying to learn some Creole from their class, fully recognizing that there is much that their students can teach them, is palpable. The list of welcomes such as these stretches on and on.
Reflecting back on the welcome I received, as well as the welcoming of others I have seen, I cannot help but feel as if it was Christ and God themselves welcoming me into Chile. That this is what a truly Christian welcome looks like. Full of love. Whether or not we can understand each other does not matter. If you look like me or not does not matter. Rich or poor, it does not matter. What does matter is that you are a child of God, just like me, created in God’s image, and with an inherent dignity and value that cannot be stripped away. And for this alone, I will love and welcome you. This is how Jesus calls us to welcome strangers in the passage noted at the beginning. And given the currently heightened discourse around immigration in United States, I cannot help but feel it necessary to remind myself of this. That the loving welcome that has received me and others here is how I am called to welcome others into my life. That Christ calls us to welcome strangers with open arms and open hearts. Because when we are welcoming these strangers into our lives, we are inviting Christ into our lives as well.