The Irish poet WB Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t met yet.”
We might have come along way from the appalling signs of guest-houses that once read, “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” but the question of immigration still remains a lively topic and continues to potentially derail any carefully planned dinner party. So how keen are we to welcome strangers to our shore? It’s a debate that will only heat up more as the country prepares for a referendum over Europe.
With the large exodus of displaced people fleeing from Islamic extremism only expected to grow, if not double in size, it feels like we are a nation struggling to come to terms with our conscience as much as our identity.
I heard one well-known Church of England clergyman suggest that the most Christian thing to do is to let every single immigrant in. I have heard another say we must preserve our Christian/British heritage and keep them out.
Then I hear of Iranian Muslims pretending to be Christian converts because they hear that is how to get asylum in the UK. That might a have a few of us up in arms, but then I wonder if it is any different to families pretending to be church-goers to get their children into local Church schools.
Jesus tells the lawyers around him that if they want to inherit ‘eternal life’ they are going to have to love God with everything and, just as importantly, love their neighbours as themselves. That includes loving strangers. Jesus then goes on to tell ‘the Parable of the Good Samaritan’. First century Jews treated the Samaritans with suspicion, not least because they did not share the same religious and cultural values as themselves. Yet, it was the kindness of the Samaritan, which left Jesus’ listeners most challenged. Their own countryman, who is left for dead, is found and cared for by the stranger, using his own money to make the man well.
Recently I heard how the Church in Kenya paid tribute to a Muslim man, Salah Sabdow Farah, who died helping save the lives of Christians. Mr Farah was on a bus in Mandera, north-eastern Kenya, when Islamist militants belonging to al-Shabaab stopped the vehicle and demanded that the Christians be separated from the Muslims.
Mr Farah, a teacher and father of five, was shot as he stood alongside other Muslims who had refused to be separated from the Christians. Two died in the immediate attack and Mr Farah was wounded, but he died later during emergency surgery.
The stories of ‘The Good Samaritan’ and ‘The Good Muslim’ challenge me to the core to see all strangers as ‘friends I haven’t met yet’.
We have a saying at our church: “Come as you are!” In other words, be yourself and we’ll do our best not to judge you. We are not saying don’t change, but the first step of friendship surely is accepting each other, even when our differences make us feel uncomfortable.