Last week I enjoyed walking a portion of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. It is an ancient Christian pilgrimage to the traditional resting place of St. James, an apostle of Jesus. Every couple of years I make an effort to travel to a foreign country. I love to encounter different sights and sounds, tastes and smells than what I am accustomed to. It has also become a personal spiritual discipline for me to practice being the stranger.
I call it a discipline because I am not really wired for adventure. I like routine, and predictability is my happy place. International travel is a good stretch for me, reliably challenging any sense of normal and pushing me out of my comfort zone. I intentionally seek out the experience of being an outsider because it helps me become a more gracious host to those new to my country.
I was keenly aware of my foreigner status as I struggled to communicate. I am not fluent in a second language. My high school Spanish is twenty years old, so the best I can do with Romance languages is hunt for our common Latin roots. Having to rely on others who are bilingual, and fumbling with the most basic phrases is a humbling exercise. I so admire immigrants who learn English, and was reminded to be as patient and gracious with those who are learning as people were to me. More than anything, I will remember how much a smile and gracious hospitality are universally understood.
Travel renews my appreciation for the different expressions of our shared humanity. We may eat different foods, but each culture values its local meal traditions. We may have different expressions of family, but we are all wired to love and be loved. We may have different routines and customs for how we go about our day, but we all take pride in the work we are given to do. Encountering these difference helps me sort out what is culturally and what is fundamentally human.
If you haven’t traveled abroad recently, or ever, I invite you to consider the opportunity. But you don’t need a passport to experience the gift of being the stranger. Simply look for opportunities to step outside your familiar comfort zone. Visit a faith community different than your own. Reach out and inquire as to how you could practice being a gracious guest. With the approaching holidays, there are many opportunities to experience different cultural traditions. Embrace a childlike curiosity and delight in encountering something new.
Every major world religion values welcoming the stranger. Even our Thanksgiving holiday recalls Native Americans and European immigrants sharing in a harvest feast. What gifts might we experience by extending a hand to a foreigner among us?