I admit it — strangers scare me. After all, we are taught from the time we are little not to talk to strangers. When confronted with a ragged looking beggar on the side of the road or near a store I am entering, the Christian in me and the practical in me wage an inner battle. The Christian in me encourages me to reach out and donate a dollar or two. After all, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. That could be Him in disguise sitting by the side of the road. On the other hand, the practical in me tells me to avert my eyes or cross to the side of the road. After all, there are shelters and resources for people who are down on their luck. Giving out money only encourages them to keep begging and might put my personal safety in jeopardy. At various times, one or the other aspect of my personality will win out, often depending on the circumstances: Is it day or night? Am I alone? Whether I give or not is often in direct relation to whether I feel safe or not. If I give, I feel good for the rest of the day, but know that if my husband knew what I did he wouldn’t be happy. If I don’t, I feel guilty, but often rationalize the behavior. I still haven’t found a satisfactory solution to these encounters. Instead, I often find myself trying to avoid the places I know beggars will be. I feel much more comfortable doing my Christian service from a distance — donating food or money to a food pantry or shelter, for example.
If you are like me, This Flowing Toward Me: A Story of God Arriving in Strangers by Sr. Marilyn Lacey will make you feel incredibly guilty, but it will also make you reflect on what it truly means to love one’s neighbor and to minister to the stranger among us. Sr. Marilyn shares her experience of having worked with refugees over the course of twenty-five years. The title, This Flowing Toward Me is a line from a poem by Rumi. It refers to the attentiveness of God which reaches out to each of us. As Sr. Marilyn states, “Not for a second has God forgotten me. . . I am in fact the guest whom God constantly welcomes.” That attentiveness invites us also to be attentive to the people we come in contact with, to be aware of the miracle that the present moment provides.
Sr. Marilyn’s journey began with a notice on a bulletin board in 1980. She was assigned to do administrative work for her religious order at their mother house. She was bored as could be. Therefore, the notice asking for volunteers to assist refugees at the airport found her in a receptive mood. She enlisted two of her friends and went to the airport to answer the call. Her job was to help refugees who had just arrived from Asia make their way to their connecting flights. She recalls the challenge of memorizing identifying numbers, finding the correct family, and then trying to help them reach their appropriate destination, navigating moving sidewalks, x-ray scanners, and indoor bathrooms, without being able to communicate in their language. This was her invitation to “step into the world of refugees.”
In This Flowing Toward Me, Sr. Marilyn tells of her work with both Asian and African refugees. She shares how this work initially caused her to question God’s methods. How could God care and yet leave some of his children in such a condition? The refugees she had met kept reaching out to her for assistance and she felt powerless to help. And then, in a mystical moment, the answer came from God. God had not done this. Other people had done this. Injustice had done this. “God never promises to take away our pain, but rather pledges to remain close to us in the midst of it.” She tells of her own struggles with learning new languages and experiencing new foods and new customs. She is able to laugh at her own ignorance, but nothing about the refugee’s experience is funny. There is one particularly heart wrenching story from Gabriel, one of the lost boys of Sudan. He is one of the lucky ones in that he made it to America. So many others didn’t. And yet, despite all his pain and suffering, he has never given up hope, never lost his faith in God. He ends his narrative with the powerful statement, “Am I not proof that the dead do rise? Remember, I am Gabriel and I want everyone to know that my news is good.”
Sr. Marilyn wrote This Flowing Toward Me not only to share her story, but also to help people realize the need for justice. “Works of mercy without the works of justice can never bring lasting peace. We see that millions of people become impoverished because of global imbalances and structural sins, not because of quirks of their personality or individual failings.” We need to reach out to all who cross our path, all with whom our lives intersect. Sr. Marilyn invites us to allow “our fear of strangers” to “give way to the risk of welcoming them. Each step in that direction moves our bruised and broken world closer to the day when mercy and justice shall kiss.” No one who reads This Flowing Toward Me will be able to look at strangers the same way ever again.