Welcoming the Stranger and Holy Discomfort

A refugee’s resettlement journey is not for the faint of heart. Besides the trauma of life-threatening situations and pointed persecution in their home countries, refugees suffer the grief of losing friends, family, and community.  Once in the United States, they must rebuild their lives from the ground up equipped merely with a suitcase of belongings and the assistance of a local resettlement agency. They often face language barriers, culture shock, food insecurity, and the stress of navigating unfamiliar environments. They endure painful situations in the hopes of not only surviving, but also flourishing. Refugees are survivors, and they are no strangers to discomfort.

When at all possible, however, humans tend to avoid pain. We refrain from touching a hot stove. We nurse an open wound. We cling to the people we know love us and who make us feel good. It makes sense—there is no inherent good in suffering. Unfortunately, sometimes our avoidance of discomfort shifts towards something less healthy. If placed in an unfamiliar social environment, for example, we might reach for our phone, drop our gaze, and avoid eye contact instead of offering a warm smile.

Yet, every now and then people choose to resist inertia, that law that constantly draws us towards the easiest, most comfortable path. Volunteers with Church World Service have found themselves more and more willing to experience discomfort for the sake of something good: welcoming refugees. Last year, Lorrie Nyland and Kathleen Johnson, a mother and daughter from Greensboro, volunteered as CWS Match Team members in order to come alongside newly-resettled refugees during the initial transition to life in the United States. Match Teams are Greensboro locals, usually in groups of 5-6 people, who agree to assist refugees in the first six months after arrival.  These teams help refugees navigate the bus systems, locate grocery stores, book medical appointments, practice English, and more broadly, understand their new city and all its particularities.

During her first Match Team experience, Kathleen had hoped to really connect with the refugee woman with whom her group was partnered. She imagined life-long friendship. Yet, the relationship proved difficult. The woman had been separated from her family and had lost the independence and stability she formerly enjoyed in her home country before war forced her to flee. She suffered from health problems, spoke little English, and struggled to secure employment that could pay the bills while still accommodating her physical disability and low-level English skills. Without a common language, verbal communication was nearly impossible between the three women. They used Google translate, but more times than not, emojis and images proved the most successful means of relating. Often Lorrie and Kathleen found themselves sitting in silence in the woman’s living room as she expressed herself in the only way she could—through tears. Welcoming this woman meant inviting a portion of her painful history and stressful reality into their lives. The relationship required emotional and physical exertion from everyone.

Despite the difficulties of their initial experience with Match Team last year, Lorrie and Kathleen have remained committed to journeying with refugees. Since then, the mother-daughter team often have found themselves as the ones being welcomed into a new world. They have been at the birth of babies, met and befriended through Skype extended family members who remain in other countries, and made the lasting friendships for which Kathleen had hoped in the beginning.

Welcoming strangers is not easy—whether the stranger is a refugee from the Congo or an American-born woman in Greensboro. These friendships across difference require hope, courage, and trust as well as a fair amount of awkwardness from all people involved. Yet, the Qur’an says that God created the nations so they would know one another, and Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. Although striving to understand and love a stranger can be uncomfortable, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of redemptive suffering, the idea that a love that endures for the sake of justice mysteriously and miraculously transforms all of us into a Beloved Community.

I have been blessed by refugees who respond to the injustice of persecution, oppression, and suffering by demonstrating resilience, maintaining hope, and extending friendship. Their own courage inspires me to follow the examples of people like Lorrie and Kathleen and to step into that holy discomfort by which we may all strive together towards the Beloved Community.