Do Not Neglect to Show Hospitality to Strangers

Daniel Romero
May 10, 2006

This article was originally submitted to Pacific School of Religion as part of Progressive Christian Witness, a 2006 initiative of PSR designed to bring voices of progressive Christianity to churches nationwide. 

Throughout the history of our nation, refugees and immigrants arriving in the United States have been received with varying degrees of hesitation and suspicion, as well as outright violence. Over time, however, many immigrants have been welcomed into the nation’s life, both because of Americans’ compassion and because of the conviction that the vitality and diversity that immigrants bring are a blessing. Today, once again, immigration has become a hotly debated topic, provoking a range of responses from Americans, including Christian leaders across the spectrum of the Church. Some advocate for the rights of immigrants, while others react to newcomers with outright hostility.

To think responsibly about immigration, we should first realize that it is a world-wide phenomenon. According to some estimates, more than thirty million people are on the move around the globe at any given time. As Christians we ask, What is God’s agenda in the midst of this global migration? What is God seeking to accomplish in the midst of massive relocation because of war, oppression, and poverty? Is it possible that God is seeking to bring out of the change all around us a new way of living in the world, perhaps even a new world order? Is it possible that, in and through the global migration we witness today, God is challenging us to live out more fully the words we say often and much too easily, "humankind is one"?

The Bible speaks volumes about the movement of people, sometimes of entire societies, and it is quite realistic about the disruption and conflict that often accompany migration. Yet, despite the problems caused by migration, there is in the Bible an unwavering theme of hospitality to strangers. And this hospitality is called for without any distinction made between legal and illegal strangers: “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress that alien. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as you love yourself, for you were once aliens in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

The theme of hospitality is consistent throughout the Old Testament and made even more emphatic in the New Testament. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). To make the point in its most conclusive way for Christians, the New Testament recounts the experience of the disciples on the way to Emmaus. Though bewildered and distraught because of the crucifixion of Jesus, they took time to offer hospitality to a stranger whom they met along the way, and gradually they came to realize that the stranger was the Risen Christ.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” Ever, for any reason?

The biblical theme of hospitality is accompanied by a full awareness that migration is not without problems. Indeed, just as migration usually originates in problems, such as intense poverty, it sometimes results in problems for the communities that are called to be hospitable. Today, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, one of the chief concerns highlighted in debates about immigration policy is national security: could the strangers in our midst be threats to our safety? The U.S. government has a legitimate responsibility to protect its citizenry. But when national security and immigration policies come to be based upon fear of strangers, Scripture reminds us that we must not permit fear to overcome hospitality (see I John 4:18).

Christians should join in debates about immigration issues, and when we do we will almost certainly come to a variety of different conclusions about matters of policy. In these debates, however, some things are surely required of all Christians if we are to be faithful to the biblical tradition:

The first is careful attention to the facts. Our views must be informed by reading widely and thinking carefully about the claims we hear regarding immigration, and the difference that immigrants, documented and undocumented, make in our communities.
The second requirement is careful attention to the personal dimensions of immigration policies and practices. Discussions about the economics and politics of immigration are really discussions about people. We are obligated to put human faces on these issues, to understand the individuals who are deeply affected by our actions. In addition, we must be personal agents of hospitality to the strangers who have come into our midst, and insist on the importance of personal concern in our otherwise abstract national debate about immigration.
Finally, we should test every policy proposal in relation to the biblical obligation that is placed upon us. We must ask, does this policy “neglect to show hospitality to strangers”?


About the Author

At the time of this article, Daniel Romero was conference minister for the United Church of Christ Southern California Nevada Conference and an attorney with particular interests in immigration and international law. He is former general secretary for mission for the United Church Board for World Ministries and has served in a variety of roles in the UCC, the National Council of Churches, and the UCC/Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ecumenical partnership. He is the author of Our Futures Inextricably Linked: A Vision of Pluralism, published by the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries. He received his Master of Divinity from Pacific School of Religion in 1970.