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Spirit Story

Welcoming the stranger

By Alicia von Stamwitz

I have a tendency to make big mistakes. One of my biggest started out as an impetuous act of kindness.

A few years ago, I befriended a Bosnian family in my inner-city neighbourhood. I was teaching at the time, and so naturally I began helping the children with their schoolwork. Their mother, whom I’ll call Katja, reciprocated by inviting me over for meals and family celebrations.

As a first-generation immigrant, I knew some of the challenges this family was facing. But I didn’t know everything. One morning, Katja, her husband and their eight children were evicted from their home. I had not realized they were struggling, and apparently Katja had not understood the dire warnings on the eviction notices. Now it was too late.

Never before had I witnessed the chaotic aftermath of an eviction: Katja and her husband waist-deep in trash, salvaging cooking pots, clothes and schoolbooks from a giant dumpster; the children standing guard on either side, clutching plastic bags and crying; broken furniture and spoiled food littering the alley.

Without giving it too much thought, I invited Katja and her husband to stay in the spare bedroom of my duplex. The children, we sensibly agreed, could stay with school friends while they all looked for a new place to live. But when I returned home later that day, I found all 10 family members settling in. “Good Lord,” I thought to myself, “what have I gotten myself into?”

I phoned my pastor, who immediately offered to help. We raided the parish food pantry and brought back groceries, toiletries and clothing. Then we phoned a social worker. I felt better, glowing with Christian pride, till my elderly neighbour took me aside and said, “Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you’ve been had. Don’t you know those people are professional squatters? And the father is a car thief with a record as long as my arm. You’ll never get rid of them now.”

Stunned, I made a few phone calls. The rumours were true. I sped back to the church office and told my pastor what I’d just learned. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this,” I said, red-faced and angry. “They obviously don’t deserve our help!”

My pastor was silent for a moment, then he gently said, “I don’t think we help people because they deserve it. I think we help people, no matter what they’ve done, because of the dignity given to them by God. When we treat them with respect, we help them remember that. We remind ourselves of it, too.”

All at once, I got it. It’s not about the deserving versus the undeserving neighbour — it’s about human dignity. Chastened, I took a deep breath and headed back to my duplex.

This does not mean the next few days were easy. I gave my friends one week; then I insisted they leave. Curiously, just as they stepped outside with the last of their belongings, Katja’s older cousin pulled up in a fancy car. He’d had the means to help them all along.

I suppose I was foolish to open my duplex to this family. But the experience gave me an unforgettable glimpse into God’s heart. Who’s to say I wasn’t the one who made out like a bandit?

Alicia von Stamwitz is a writer in St. Louis.

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