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Loving the Stranger in the Classroom

At this point in the school year, everything feels new: new books, new lesson plans, perhaps new grade levels, and new students. Sometimes those fresh faces are the ones we are related to; even our own children can present unfamiliar challenges and seem to have become new people over the summer months. And then there are the newcomers you’ve never met before. Some of them may be destined to become lifelong friends, the ones who make that indelible impression on our hearts.

And then there are the others. The ones who are in your classroom for maybe a year, maybe even just a semester. Maybe their parents want to try on a classical education like they try on the latest parenting fad or technique. Maybe their family is about to make a major move or job change. There may be other forces at work behind the scenes that we aren’t privy to—a divorce, a hospitalization, or a mental health crisis. Maybe there is no crisis at all; this child, for whatever reason, will just be in your care for a short while and only the Lord knows why.

My apprentices and I read The Odyssey this past semester. Homer’s epic is full of references to hospitality and love for the stranger in our midst. There are those who did an exceptionally beautiful job of welcoming Odysseus into their home—the Phaikains—and those who did not. Polyphemos the Cyclops provides a particularly gruesome example of anti-hospitality. One outstanding characteristic of the ancient Greek practice was the idea that the welcome came first. Before learning the stranger’s circumstances, his story, his background, or even his very name, the hosts made him comfortable, fed him, and blessed him with gifts. This is a far cry from our usual “I’ll befriend you if I like you or if you can do something for me in return” manner of transactional relationships. How can we learn from our forefathers?

Psalm 39:12 offers us yet another example, this time from the view of the stranger himself. He pleads with God for mercy on the basis of his status as a stranger: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears! For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers.” God’s chosen people themselves spent years as strangers and sojourners in a land not their own. Even now, we who are followers of Christ, sing “This world is not my home. I’m only passing through.” This should give us a special understanding of what it feels like to be the “new kid.”

One more example, this time from Deuteronomy chapter 10:12-18. There is a beautiful interplay in these verses between law and gospel. The gospel: God loves you! The law: now do this in response! Gospel: this is what God is like and how much he loves you. Law: this is how we want to live our lives. It’s a beautiful call and response. The passage ends with God who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” God loves the sojourner. So what? Read the next verse. “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” We love the sojourner too! Why? Because we know what it is like to be a stranger. Of course this is not just seen in the Old Testament; Christ also reminds us to love God and then love our neighbor.

Looking at these two specific ways to love the stranger, I want to apply them to our classrooms.

First, our love is not dependent on who the student is or what she is like or where she came from. We love fully because, remember, we know what it is like to have been on the outside. We were once strangers to God and now we have been brought near. Whether we learn their particular story or not, we treat them like one of the group.

Second, we feed the stranger. I see this as meeting specific, immediate needs. How can I help this student feel at home? What does he need to know right now in order to understand our routines, do the lesson, and finish the homework? More importantly, do I believe that what I am offering in the way of ideas, discussions, skills, literature, and content is valuable? If it’s nourishing, then how can I make sure this student has a front row seat at the table and a very large fork? This is not the time to let the stranger blend into the woodwork, assuming he will be on his way before long. No, this is the time to make sure no one leaves our classroom hungry or thirsty.

Third, what can I give this student to help him on his way? In a very real sense, none of us knows our own or our students’ futures. This should make us more aware of the possibility that our time is limited with each student. With an unpredictable future, not knowing how long we have with each of them, how can we serve them best by equipping them to leave us? What kind of character qualities, virtues, capabilities can we share with them? I would encourage each of you here to always be reminding your students of the value of what they are learning. Share the reason behind what you are doing. Learning to think carefully and wisely, learning to exercise good judgment and make important decisions, knowing what is worth spending one’s time on, and choosing whom to spend time with are all gifts that we can bestow upon our students. There is an old saying that goes “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” Our current culture is a maelstrom of horrific weather. How are our students dressed?

Perhaps this idea of being a stranger in a strange place has been at the forefront of my mind because of a change in my own circumstances over the past two years. Here is a tale of two different sojourners. Even before my husband Steve and I moved to rural Louisiana, one of the first things on our list was to find a local church body to belong to. (All this happened in 2020, which we all know was not the best of times to be joining anything and meeting anybody.) But still we found ourselves with the saints of Grace Church. We determined from day 1 to make a concerted effort to make ourselves at home. We know the frustration of being on the other end, of having church members say they are leaving because no one reached out, yet the disgruntled ones never seemed to make any kind of effort. We would not be those people! So, we signed up and we showed up. We volunteered. We committed. When the doors were open we were there. We made an effort to invite people over for dinner in an effort to get to know them and let them get to know us. Guess what? It worked. God’s mercies are rich and abundant and we have found ourselves at home here. We are grateful beyond measure.

At the same time we moved to central Louisiana, my daughter and son-in-law moved to south Louisiana. They also found a church right away. But here’s the difference. K. and P. are in a very different phase of life than we are. They have one vehicle and non-traditional work hours. This means that they could not show up every time the doors opened. They had some horrible housing circumstances that put them in the “we need mercy ministry” category almost immediately. They were in no position to serve yet needed to be served. It would have been very easy for their church to put them in the “well they won’t be around long” category and ignore them. Guess what? They were not ignored. They were fed, clothed, and loved. One older woman sought out my daughter and mentored her through teaching her music and singing. The church brought food when (that virus) sidelined them for two weeks. When P. and K. lived in a hotel for over two months, people invited them over, reached out to them, and checked in on them, never expecting a return invitation. As a mom of older children, one of the things that warms my heart the most is seeing my child cared for and loved, because I know the reality of not being able to do that anymore.

As long as our children are with us, there will be challenges. That easy-going, no-surprises child might now be full of surprises! When I learn to see my own child as a stranger in need of blessing, my eyes open to the different ways I can serve him. I welcome that stranger because he still needs my love, whether he realizes it or not. That new face in my classroom is also asking for my hospitality, wondering if he has a place. I lovingly welcome that stranger, too. It is not a stretch to see my loved one as a stranger and the stranger as a loved one. There is plenty of hospitality for all.

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