(Appeared first in Mennonite Mission Network’s Beyond Ourselves, June 2011. Shared with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
Have you ever looked for motel accommodations only to discover there was no room available? Some motels flash a “No Vacancy” sign out front to spare motorists the trouble of inquiry. Have you ever seen a “No Vacancy” sign in front of a church building, or on the door of a Sunday school class? Probably not!
Nevertheless, churches often communicate “No Vacancy” to strangers in their community, perhaps without saying a word. Even churches with empty pews sometimes give clear signals to strangers that they have no space in their hearts and lives—especially for strangers who look different from them.
Throughout Scripture, God urges kindness to the stranger and the “alien.” Moses told the Israelites that God cares for the stranger. “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. Fear the Lord your God and serve him” (Deuteronomy 10:18-20).
To remind the Jewish people that God did not exclude people on the basis of national origin, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him— these will I bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
Later, in Jesus’ time, the Jewish people dedicated a special area on the temple grounds as a place of worship for foreigners. It was called the Court of the Gentiles. But it was there that the merchants and money changers set up shop, leaving no place for Gentiles to worship. No wonder Jesus made a whip and drove out the animals and the merchants. The area designated for prayer and worship for outsiders had become an open market for profiteering!
At a time when many states in our nation are passing anti-immigration laws designed to drive off immigrants in our midst, we as a church must be willing to “overturn the tables” that keep strangers from attending our houses of worship. May God grant us courage to welcome the strangers in our midst.