In our part of the United States, the world has come to work here at various tech companies and startups. Whether their transition is across the country, across the pond, or across the globe, each newcomer wonders, ‘Will there be a home for me here? Will I belong?’
Seattle does not have a good track record of welcoming newcomers, strangers and foreigners. In the nineteenth century, waves of Filipinos, Japanese and Chinese laborers came as cheap labor to work the fisheries, mines, farms and railroads. Some came and worked as doctors, editors and students. They built the infrastructure of the city and contributed to its wealth. And yet, they were not given the right to marry whites, own land or vote. In the 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed preventing further immigration from China. And when jobs became scarce during the economic depression of the 1880’s, white settlers turned on their Asian neighbors. An organized labor union attacked Chinese laborers in Tacoma and forced them to leave the city. Seattle and Issaquah had similar riots ending in the forced expulsion and deportation of its Chinese residents.
American society at large is historically good at telling people they are unwelcome. Our immigration history tells of how we have systematically and consistently excluded the newcomer, the stranger, and the foreigner from sharing space with us. “Exclusion” can sound benign, when, we, in reality, have separated families, destroyed property, deported and forcibly removed groups of people. Unwelcome is our normative act.
Today, our places of work are more multiethnic and multicultural than most churches in America. At my former company, I worked in a very global division, where I had co-workers that came recently from Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. As was typical, people kept to themselves. People came to work, ate lunch at their desks, and left promptly afterwards. Not many milestones were celebrated as a group.
I had one co-worker from Brazil who decided to go against the norm. He and his wife just spent their first year living in the United States. He chose to celebrate this anniversary the way Brazilians celebrated – that is, with friends. He sent an email telling people in the department about his anniversary and invited us all to his office to have some home-baked Brazilian cheese bread and Brazilian soda.
My Brazilian co-worker experienced a shallow welcome and yet he chose to celebrate. He treated strangers as friends. He shared with us what was deeply meaningful to him.
I believe followers of Jesus need to be the first in line to welcome the newcomer, stranger and foreigner. We need to embody deep welcome – individually and as a community.
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:33-34 (New Revised Standard Version)
As newcomers, strangers and foreigners join our communities, what type of welcome will they receive from the body of Christ? Will they belong?
How to Embody Deep Welcome
I believe we can choose to go against the norm and extend our deepest welcome to the foreigner, the stranger, the newcomer. For some of us this already comes naturally because it’s already ingrained in our cultural tradition and value-system. For others, it takes concerted effort. I’d like to share a few ideas on ways we can deeply welcome each other. This is by no means an exhaustive list!
1) Celebrations – Many cultures celebrate in community. It doesn’t have to be big or extravagant. But there’s something about choosing to celebrate that speaks to an otherworldly joy, a joy despite circumstances. This past week, we had a company-wide celebration to end Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month where about 10 different cultures brought ethnic food and drink to share. A couple of co-workers and I worked in the Filipino booth, serving pork adobo, lumpia and ube (taro) donuts. Hundreds of co-workers came to this event. People had to be turned away because the room was at maximum capacity. It was amazing to be part of this shared experience.
2) Giving Gifts – Last November, my husband and son went to a Native student conference in Anchorage, Alaska. Before going, they were advised gift-giving was integral to showing love and hospitality in Native cultures. In his book, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision1, Randy S. Woodley writes, “Gift-giving among Native Americans is an act of the heart, regardless of monetary value… The one thing that all Give-aways have in common is that they are given by, and not to, the person who is being honored. This makes it opposite the cultural norm of the dominant society. The idea is that it is the privilege of the person being honored to give things away. The honored person shows generosity by sharing his or her honor with others in this way, thereby spreading the honor around.”
3) Curiosity – At the AAPI event, three older Filipino “aunties” came from the Filipino-American Historical Institute. They came with books and old pictures of Pinoys and Pinays in the Pacific Northwest. After putting their stuff down, they jumped right in and immediately helped serve food. They also asked those of us working in the booth questions about who we were and what we did. They were very curious. They made comments about how young everyone looked, to which I said, “I’m not young. I’m 45.” And one of the aunties laughed and said, “I’m 72! So you’re young compared to me.”
I didn’t realize how much I missed this deep welcome from people who have been here longer, this sense of “you belong here” from these guests who were the best hosts. We need more Filipino aunties in this world.
As we see the newcomer, stranger and foreigner, may we make room in our hearts for relationships. Regardless of whether it comes naturally or not, embodying deep welcome points to the God who welcomes everybody, makes a home for them and everyday tells them, “You belong here.”
1 Woodley, R. (2012), Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans