How Strangers Become Messengers From GodPublished September 30, 2021
There are many important things being said to organizational leaders about the need to welcome the stranger, whether framed as diversity, inclusivity or in some other way. These important things include commonly understood truths like actualizing diversity is the right, or the moral thing to do, and smart, because studies show if you do it well you dramatically increase innovation and productivity. But I rarely hear anyone talk about how rewarding and just plain fun it is to lead in environments that are hospitable to an ever-expanding diversity of people.
I rarely hear anyone talk about how rewarding and just plain fun it is to lead in environments that are hospitable to an ever-expanding diversity of people.
What it Means to Welcome Strangers
I was raised in a wonderful family in suburban Indiana where most everyone was like me in most every way. Then 30 years ago I was given the opportunity to lead a very small church in a suburb of New York City. That small church has grown to a large congregation that is a beautiful mosaic of all kinds of people. We do not have a dominant racial group, for instance. We are black, brown, white and every imaginable variation thereof, and this of course is reflected at every level of leadership in our organization. But to me diversity is much more than this. We are rich and all levels of not so rich. We are PhD’s and some GED’s. We are police officers and those who are openly suspicious of law enforcement. We are born and bred and proud New Jerseyans/New Yorkers and first-generation immigrants from all over the world. We are young and not so young. We are Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists and Jews and lots of previously unchurched people. We are Republicans and Democrats and I suspect a whole lot of Independents. And. It’s. So. Much. Fun. I didn’t say that it’s easy… just that it is so much fun.
Before I treat this further let me offer a quick word to those of you who may be leading in geographical and other contexts that are not as diverse as the New York City metro area.
“Jesus endured the pain of the cross” Hebrews 12:2
I am sorry that those of us who get to lead in diverse environments, and who feel called to talk and write about the subject, too often do it in guilt-inducing ways. Each of us are called to lead where God places us, and this will and should look different according to our unique setting. Leadership is tough enough in today’s world without always having someone like me breathing down your neck about what you are not doing that you should do be doing. I’ve got plenty of stuff I should be doing that I’m not doing. At the same time, I am so enthusiastic about what I have and am experiencing that I want to share it, and hopefully in a way that encourages you to seize any possibility of doing life and leadership with more and more people who are not like you. And by the way, though I live and lead in a diverse place there are still not very many truly diverse churches here.
Welcoming The Stranger Is Rewarding
The complexity of leading a congregation of people who are not like me continues to challenge me at the very core of my being. I think most of us would agree that it is usually easier to lead a homogeneous group of people. For instance, navigating through the racial pain and political polarization of these past few years has been particularly and desperately difficult for those of us who lead in diverse organizations.
Remember to welcome strangers, because some who have done this have welcomed angels without knowing it.
I am always encouraged by the wise words written to followers of Jesus in the first century–and to us–which teach “remember to welcome strangers, because some who have done this have welcomed angels without knowing it.”
A stranger, for the purpose of this discussion, is anyone who seems strange to you, or to whom you may seem strange. This could be someone you do not know or who does not know you and whose background, experiences and worldview seem strange to you. Or it might be someone you do know but who is from a different nation of origin, race, ethnicity, gender, political party, theological perspective, socioeconomic or educational status. Sometimes your spouse may seem like a stranger. You know them intimately but go through seasons where you feel like you don’t know them at all.
But here’s what I have learned. When we go to the effort to welcome a stranger into our lives, we are often entertaining an angel unaware.
Angel means messenger. I’ve had my world rocked an astonishing number of times by people who at some point moved from “strange to me” to “messenger from God to me”. They taught me things about the human experience and new ways to understand the world, about myself, about leadership and so much more that I would never have known if I had not welcomed them and been welcomed by them.
I’ve had my world rocked an astonishing number of times by people who at some point moved from “strange to me” to “messenger from God to me”.
God has spoken to me time and time again through people who are not like me in a number of ways.
- The woman who contracted AIDS through a dirty needle she used to sustain her heroin addiction. I would visit her in the hospital as she was dying. She would whisper words of encouragement to me. She taught me how to suffer graciously.
- The wife of the multimillionaire Wall Street analyst who practiced a rare servant leadership and taught me how to leverage privilege to serve others.
- The Jewish community leader who taught me how to shake things up to care for the poor.
- The former Black Panther—who sat through three of my welcome to the church teaching rotations because he couldn’t believe that a white guy like me would really love and accept him. He taught me how to risk trusting people who I might have reason to be suspicious of because he risked trusting me.
- The first-generation immigrant who taught me how to prepare for my children’s future. I watched him start with nothing and go on to earn a doctorate while raising his two children to be a medical doctor and a lawyer.
- The sanitation worker who was orphaned and grew up on the mean streets of Paterson, New Jersey. He taught me how to love my kids with the passion of someone who had never known a dad or mom.
- The Roman Catholic man whose world was rocked by Jesus late in his life and who loved our church so much he would sit in his car on our undeveloped church property and pray at 5 o’clock every morning. He taught me how to approach God with simple faith and expectation and to love our church enough to sacrifice for it every day.
In some way each of these people was strange to me and I to them. But when we love loving strangers, it opens new worlds of possibility. Strangers become messengers from God.
Welcoming The Stranger Is Fun
Living and leading in a diverse context has expanded me personally and helped me develop as a man and leader in ways that have enabled me to move the mission of our organization forward beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined. This, and the indescribable pleasure of being in deep and long-term relationships with so many people who are not like me, brings me unmitigated joy. I’m reminded of the passage in scripture that tells us that Jesus endured the pain of the cross because of the joy He knew would come to Him and others on the other side.
“Remember to welcome strangers” Hebrews 13:2 NCV
My experience is that the extra effort to work through the complexity and even pain, of being the stranger and welcoming the stranger, is overwhelmed by the fun of it all. Fun is probably too shallow of a word for this topic, but I like it anyway. I simply think we should not just think about how it’s right and smart to be inclusive, but also how rewarding and fun it is to do life and leadership with people who are not like you.
Consider the “strangers” in your life. What messages might you be missing?
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About the Author
The New York City Leadership Center; The Life Christian Church
Terry A. Smith is co-founder of The New York City Leadership Center and has served as Lead Pastor of The Life Christian Church for twenty-seven years. TLCC is known for its vibrant diversity and robust leadership culture, with people from more than 132 distinct communities in the New York City Metro area participating in the life of the church. A gifted communicator, Terry speaks in a variety of venues nationally and internationally. His books include Live Ten: Jump-Start the Best Version of Your Life and The Hospitable Leader: Create Environments Where People and Dreams Flourish.