God told the Israelites, “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). In the same spirit, Jesus tells us, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39).
Speaking for Western Christians, I don’t think most of us fully grasp the implications of these commands. We think of “neighbors” as the (white) people who live next door (never mind how Jesus defined “neighbor”). And when we see the biblical commands about “foreigners” or “sojourners”, we write it off as Old Testament Law that no longer applies. We commit such interpretive gymnastics to our detriment.
In the last eight months since our arrival in Thailand, I have felt, perhaps for the first time ever, what it feels like to be “the foreigner.” Robert Cooper sums up the first-termer’s experience well in his book, Culture Shock! Thailand:
The newcomer finds himself suddenly unsure of when and how to go about the basic and ‘natural’ actions of daily life…He doesn’t know when it is appropriate to shake hands, make a wai [bow], give tips, talk to strangers, make invitations, refuse invitations, arrive on time or arrive late. He has very little idea of what to say when he meets people, even if they speak his language, doesn’t know when Thais are joking, and has no idea what people are thinking. Nothing seems to have a pattern and he finds it almost impossible to predict what will be happening next and how he will be feeling from one hour to the next…Grown responsible adults suddenly find themselves back in infancy. Like children, they must rely on others.
All this, and yet such disorientation and discomfort are significantly mitigated by the fact that we chose to come to Thailand and are free to go home if we want. We have churches and individuals supporting and praying for us. We have excellent teachers helping us learn the language and the culture. We have a support network of fellow learners with similar motivation to be (and stay) here. Moreover, the Thai people are generally kind and helpful to the foreigner, helping us find our way in this often-murky cultural malaise.
Not so for our refugee neighbors in the West. Usually none of these mitigating factors we first-termers enjoy are true of them. Imagine going thru the disorientation I have described, all-the-while knowing you don’t want to be there, don’t “belong”, and cannot go home because your country is dangerous… knowing that your family and friends are dead or scattered…knowing that nobody is praying for you and certainly nobody is supporting you (aside from an impersonal Western government)…experiencing little to no help from your host community—quite the opposite, they whisper hateful things behind your back and avoid you at all costs.
This post is a threefold call. First, though somewhat self-serving, this is a call to encourage and pray for missionaries in their first term. Second, this is a call to honor and celebrate all we can learn from other cultures (such as Thailand’s hospitality). No, the West does not have it all figured out! Third, this is a call to love our neighbors, even when—especially when—it requires us to walk them through simple things and “hold their hand” for the duration. Let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes. And even if you haven’t lived overseas, make no mistake—you are still a stranger in a strange land (1 Pet. 2:11). So let us commit to love the “strangers” in our midst with new vigor; for we have far more in common with them than may initially appear, and perhaps through our kindness, the God of the sojourner will draw them to himself just as he did us (Eph. 2:12-22).
Jeff & Irene Mellema