Hospitality and welcome are part of our African heritage. As we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate the visit of the Magi. They come from the East seeking something they do not really understand. They come looking for the fulfilment of a prophecy. They come seeking hope. They are looking for something more. Their coming provides the impetus for the Holy Family to become refugees – to go into exile in Egypt – fleeing to protect their baby’s life.
These themes of travel and movement are not unique to our ‘global village era’. As the scripture text tells us, people 2000 years ago were on the move too. Then, as now, people flee from brutalisation, war or for economic reasons. They travel to new places in search of new ideas and new discoveries. They travel to survive.
The question for us – as it was for people migrating in biblical times – is: How do we live with people who are different from us? How do we engage with those who don’t speak the same language, who don’t wear the same clothes, have the same culture, or look like we do?
Scripture consistently tells us that we have a duty to welcome the stranger in our midst, to draw them into our communities and to make them feel at home. Our current legislation in South Africa reflects our Ubuntu value of welcome and hospitality. This may change as new more restrictive legislation could be put in place. This, motivated by politicians’ awareness of growing xenophobia in the electorate, is already in the pipe line.
Last year the Brexit vote and the election of Trump (whose campaign at times hinted at xenophobia) has shown that there is a growing intolerance towards strangers across the globe. Watching the international news one might mistakenly think that the majority of the world’s migrants were arriving on European or American shores. In reality it is the developing world who still have the greatest number of refugees – Southern Africa and the Middle East particularly.
In South Africa we have people who have fled for their lives from many different places. They have arrived here to attempt to make a new life for themselves. We are offered a choice. We can turn our faces away from those who are different. We can object to them, or fear that they may threaten our way of life. Or, like Mary and Joseph in the scriptures, we can welcome the stranger in our midst. We can be open to accepting the gifts they bring us. We can ourselves be vulnerable to them.
Fundamentally we are offered a spiritual choice. Do I look at ‘the other’ with openness and expect to see Jesus looking at me? Or do I surround myself with walls (physical, emotional and intellectual) that keep all those ‘others’ out? This Epiphany, let us pray for the grace to open our hearts and minds to the strangers in our midst.
By Frances Correia