When I Was a Stranger

Leviticus 19

It was Monday and I was headed for Alexandria, three hours away, for our annual Louisiana Baptist Convention due to get underway at 5:30 that evening. I’ve made the drive from our New Orleans home so many times–Interstate 10 through Baton Rouge to LaFayette, north on Interstate 49 to Alexandria–that I needed a change of scenery. That’s why I took highway 190 out of Baton Rouge, through the sugar cane country toward Opelousas, then north on 71 to Alexandria.

In the little town of Bunkie, I came upon a gasoline war of sorts, with service stations selling their stuff for $1.75 a gallon. I stopped to fill up and noticing the time, asked the attendant, “Where’s a good place to eat around here? A plate lunch.” He said, “The Bailey Hotel. One block past the light, then left one block.”

The sign in front says the Bailey was built in 1907, although the building has that fresh, springlike appearance like someone has just sunk some money into this place. Inside, I was the only diner in the restaurant, unless you counted the happy chattering of the Lions’ Club on the other side of the partition. As I sat there eating the special of the day, a little white-haired lady entered the room and began rearranging flowers. She greeted me and said something, and in a minute she was standing at my table telling me about the Bailey Hotel.

“I told my son not to buy this place three years ago. But he bought it anyway. And we’re glad. We love it. Although we need to get the word out on the rooms. These 30 rooms could use some customers.”

I invited her to pull up a chair and she did. When she found out I was a Baptist minister, she said, “I’m a Baptist. Lifelong member of First Baptist here in Bunkie. You probably know Calvin, our former pastor.” I said, “Everyone knows Brother Calvin.”

After a bit, she said with a conspiratorial air, like maybe she’s not supposed to be doing this, “Would you like some cornbread dressing with gravy? It’s what the Lions Club is eating, and it will melt in your mouth.” I said, “I love cornbread dressing.”

She came out of the kitchen carrying two saucers. One with the dressing which lived up to her hype, and the other a slice of yellow pound cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

When I left the city of Bunkie for Alexandria, I felt better than I have for weeks.

The next evening, the convention program ended at 5 o’clock, and I followed my usual routine. Rather than rush back home and arrive tired and go into the office still exhausted the next day, I’ve given myself permission the last few years to stay over Tuesday night. Every year, I seek out a used bookstore and spend an hour, then look for a good steakhouse and supper.

“All About Books” is located on Jackson Street in a strip mall, just a couple of blocks from our state Baptist building. They sell books and all kinds of coffee and pastries. Inside, I nodded to the three ladies working there–Karen, the owner, whose business card identifies her as a CPA and tax accountant, Linda, her mother-in-law, and Loretta, a white-haired retired teacher. We exchanged a little banter as I browsed the stacks, when Loretta called out, “Sir, would you like a slice of gingerbread?”

“I would love a slice of gingerbread,” I smiled.

She brought out a pan of freshly baked gingerbread and proceeded to cut four big slices, which she placed on saucers and then covered with whipped cream. I bought a cup of coffee and sat at the little table with my three new friends.

I ended up drawing cartoons of their store for them and a sketch of Karen. I stayed a half hour–they were about ready to close up shop–and drove away a contented man. It wasn’t just the gingerbread. It was the friendliness, the hospitality. Nice people.

I called Margaret at home and told her of my two experiences with hospitality. She laughed and said, “I’m going to quit worrying about you and 25-year-old girls, and start worrying about you and 75-year-old retired women!”

In the days of the first Christians, when no hotels existed and you would not want to spend the night in the available inns, the Lord’s people opened their homes to each other as they made their way throughout the Roman Empire. A wonderful little verse in Hebrews 13 reminds Christians to “be not forgetful to show hospitality, for in so doing, some have entertained angels unawares.”

One of the strongest blisterings found in the Bible occurs in the tiny epistle of III John. A church boss by the name of Diotrephes is refusing to allow fellow believers to open their homes to traveling Christians. John writes, “He not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but he even stops those who want to do so and expels them from the church.” John does not take this lightly. When I get there, he writes, I will deal with him personally.

Recently, I was preaching to a chautauqua of senior citizens at the Baptist conference center in Pass Christian, Mississippi, on the responsibilities of Christians in this world. I referred them to Jeremiah 29:7, where the prophet instructs God’s people who have been exiled to Babylon on how they are to behave as strangers in a foreign land. “Work for the welfare of the city where I have sent you,” God says, “and pray on its behalf. For as it prospers, you will prosper.”

I’m confident that is God’s word for believers in this land or any other country today. Then, a new thought occurred to me.

Sometimes God’s people are not the strangers or foreigners. Sometimes we are the hosts, the residents, the natives, so to speak, and others are the strangers among us. And I remembered Leviticus 19.

Throughout this chapter we find scattered references to the duties of God’s people toward foreigners and refugees who have come to their country. Farmers reaping their harvest should leave a little something around the edges of the field, and should not go back over the field twice, out of consideration of the poor and the foreigners.

Israel was not to have two standards, one for their own kind and another for the foreigner. In fact, God said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18 is the origin of this verse which Jesus cited as the second greatest of all the commandments and which James calls a “royal law”.

Finally, this injunction: “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must regard the foreigner who lives with you as the native-born among you. You are to love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”

I spoke last Sunday at the Viet Namese Baptist Church in New Orleans. Many of the 150 or so in attendance speak no English, although their teenagers and younger children are as American as the kids in my home church in Alabama. In metro New Orleans, we have Baptist churches for a dozen or more different language groups. And the Spanish–we must have fifteen or twenty Spanish Baptist churches.

Occasionally I will hear some unthinking person rave about the foreigners entering our land, how they are changing the character of this country, and how we need stricter immigration laws. I mentally give thanks for Cornelius “Neal” McKeever who brought his family over from Ireland in 1803, settling down in Pennsylvania, and changing forever the future of his descendants. And I’m thankful for the hospitality they found here.

It’s a beautiful thing to welcome a stranger and a fine thing when you are the welcomed one. Hospitality is, in fact, one of the signs of the righteous which Jesus promised would be rewarded at the Judgment. “I was a stranger and you took me in.” (Matthew 25:35)
Joe McKeever
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