We have been setting up house pretty much from scratch as we brought very little with us from Australia. Buying household items is not just a matter of going to the nearest Westfield shopping centre where everything can be found in one location. These things seem to be spread around various markets or specialty shops and can be quite hard to find. Despite the inherent power that comes with our financial resources, education, help from other members of our team here and the advantage of being native English speakers we have at times felt the frustration and powerlessness of being foreign.
Tasks that are simple in my home situation become significantly more difficult. I've wanted to send some post card for weeks but so far have been prevented by unexpected hurdles. The postal system is not like in Australia. My investigations have revealed that there are no newsagents selling stamps, no red post boxes, no mailmen on motor scooters, no letterboxes in front of people's homes and no guarantee that the mail will get to the intended receiver. Apparently buying stamps, posting the card and receiving your mail all has to be done at the one central post office. But where exactly is the post office? What is the word for post office and how would I make the motorbike taxi or tuk tuk driver understand where it is I want to go?
Praise the Lord for email.
With days full of language study, trying to buy essential items that I often don't know where to find, heat, the demands of cultural adjustment and moving a family to a totally new home and environment, the challenge of a trip across town to locate the post office has been something I haven't had energy for as yet.
The inability to achieve some 'simple things' can be quite disempowering. I have felt out of control and very dependent on others. It's like being a child again.
This small taste of the vulnerability of being a stranger has reminded me again of what first motivated us to get involved with supporting refugees who came to settle in Adelaide. Twenty years ago we had our first significant experience of being foreign. We spent a month in Thailand doing a student placement in a leprosy hospital. We couldn't speak the language, often didn't know what was going on around us and felt incompetent and out of our depth. We started reflecting on how much more traumatic it must be for people who have been through unspeakable horrors and had to flee their homeland to come to a strange country where they know no one, can't communicate and are not even sure they are welcome. They need a local friend who can be an entry point into the new country so they are no longer strangers.
The scriptures have a lot to say about strangers and aliens. 'Do not oppress an alien. You yourselves know how it feels to be aliens because you were aliens in Egypt' (Ex 23:9); '....the alien mist be treated as one of your native born, love his as yourself.....for you were aliens in Egypt' (Lev 19:33.34); ' Do not deprive the aliens or fatherless of justice' (Deut 24:17). The prophets pronounced judgement on those who oppressed the aliens. They were often placed in the same category as widows and orphans, indicating they were seen as vulnerable. The Israelites had already tasted the powerlessness of being foreigners and so compassion for strangers in their land was expected.
I think empowering the vulnerable, turning strangers into friends and offering transforming hospitality is very close to God's heart. Isn't that what He does with all of us? God holds out His hands to us and invites us into His community transforming us from uncertain and insecure strangers into family.
May this current discomfort of being a stranger reignite in us God's welcoming compassion to all find themselves far from home.