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Don’t Avoid Welcoming Strangers on Life’s Path

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I stayed home from church this past Sunday, not feeling well, and listened to a worship service from First Baptist Church in Athens, Ga. The sermon was about Abraham’s response to strangers: He ran to greet them, offering the best that he and his wife (whose name I share) had. They ended up welcoming the presence of God.

In these days of political wrangling about how to deal with the immigration problems in our country, the sermon was a pointed reminder of our Christian response to strangers – although the pastor, Paul Baxley, made only a passing reference to immigration, focusing more on other applications.

Gwynn, my daughter who had suggested I listen to the service on my laptop, has just returned from eight weeks in Russia. A professor, she takes a study-abroad program to Russia each summer, where her students volunteer in summer camps in a region of Russia that was once closed to visitors. The children’s camp adjoins a sanatorium with nearby dachas (a type of “country cottage”) whose owners use a path through the forest to get to the sanatorium. My daughter also uses the path to and from camp to visit friends in one of the dachas.

In the six summers Gwynn has been going to this area, she has made a point of saying hello to anyone she meets on the path. Making eye contact with a passing stranger is not something that comes naturally to most folks in that area, and Gwynn’s habit identifies her immediately as an American.

On the last day of Gwynn’s most recent trip abroad, she was hurrying between a friend’s dacha and camp to greet some people who had come to say their farewells. She passed and spoke quickly to a woman on the path. As Gwynn returned to the dacha a little later down the same path, she again met the woman and spoke. This time, the woman paused and asked, in English, if Gwynn were an American. Gwynn introduced herself and asked where the woman had learned such good English.

An amazing story followed.

The woman had studied English in school as a child, as all Russian schoolchildren do now as well. (Teaching English is one of the reasons Gwynn’s students go to the camps.)

The woman on the path told Gwynn that she had studied hard and learned well, but had had no opportunity to use her English. She has one of the dachas near the sanatorium and had heard that there was an American at the camp, but thought perhaps it was a “fairy tale” (a play on words with the name of the camp). But, just in case, she had been walking the path for four days, hoping to encounter “the woman who says hello.”

The woman on the path was disappointed that Gwynn was leaving a few hours later, but as Gwynn hopes to return again next summer, they made plans to meet then.

It’s not quite Abraham, but it’s close enough: This woman in Russia had been walking a path for four days hoping to meet a stranger she had only heard about. To that woman on the path, Gwynn may well have been “an angel unaware,” and the woman’s four days of persistence were rewarded.

Baxley, in his sermon, admonished those of us listening to reach out and minister to strangers. Perhaps we need both to walk the path looking for the stranger and to be the woman who says hello.

Sara Powell is on the board of directors for the Baptist Center for Ethics. She lives in Hartwell, Ga., with her husband, Bill, who is frequently a photographer at BCE events.