Thirty-eight years ago, a pulpit committee from Pittsburgh interviewed me as part of their search for a new pastor. They were all transplanted people, every one of them, relocated from all over the world to work with the great corporations of the Steel City: Westinghouse, Alcoa, and Gulf Oil, to name a few. But they were, as I recall, unhappy about something.
“Can you help us reach local people?” they asked, explaining that the congregation was far too dependent upon people from somewhere else. And I, trying to land my first job after seminary, was eager to please and said, “Yes, of course!” even though I knew so little about reaching anybody.
My conversion took about one year—conversion, that is, to the substance and significance of ministry to transplanted people, to people on the road to somewhere other than home.
Think about all the people away from home: soldiers, merchants, students, diplomats, refugees, pilgrims, tourists, athletes, scholars, migrants, even missionaries. Millions of people on the road: leaving, learning, buying, selling, fighting, saving, looking, praying—doing everything there is to do, including getting married, having babies, raising children, and yes, getting baptized.
Like the Ethiopian described in the eighth chapter of The Acts of the Apostles. He was returning home after what we might call a spiritual retreat in Jerusalem. On his journey, he met Philip, a follower of Jesus and a member of that first Christian community. This is the way the narrative describes what happened after a lengthy conversation: “The Ethiopian commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them—Philip and the Ethiopian, went down into the water; and Philip baptized him.”
Thinking about these itinerant people opened up the Bible to me in a new and refreshing way: Adam and Eve leaving Eden, Abraham leaving Ur of the Chaldees, Joseph leaving Canaan for Egypt and, generations later, his descendants leaving Egypt for the Promised Land.
In the middle of all that, Jacob swindled his brother and fled home. He laid down to sleep, taking a rock for a pillow. While he slept, he dreamed of a ladder with angels climb up to heaven and back down to earth. He awoke and said, “Surely, God is here, and I did not know it.”
Surely, God is here, and there, and everywhere people are going: in the most unlikely of places, in unanticipated encounters, with unknown people: God is here, on the road, away from home.
Check this out: every single significant encounter with God recorded in the Bible happened to somebody away from home.
The boy Samuel was in the temple; the man David was in a vale; the queen Esther was in somebody else’s court; the entire nation of Israel was in exile in Babylon; Saul was on his way to Damascus; and John was on the island of Patmos when he saw the visions recorded in the book we call The Revelation of Jesus Christ.
This awakening to the work of God among people on the road changed my engagement with the Bible and transformed my understanding of gospel work.
Which is why I receive every tourist, soldier, student, merchant, and refugee as an opportunity to participate in what God is doing in the world today. I receive them as a person finally in a place and position to encounter the true and living God in a life-changing way.
This is perhaps why the gospel commands us “to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I grew up in a university town, and my parents welcomed into our home what we then called international students. Over the years, I have “shown hospitality” to students from Chile and Ethiopia, refugees from Ukraine and Cambodia, scholars from England and Israel, and business people from Holland and Brazil (to name just a few).
I hear Jesus saying of all of them as he once said of the little children, “Let these travelers come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.”
But today, I read of the closing of the World Relief refugee ministry in Jacksonville. Refugees coming into that nearby county once numbered almost 1,500 a year, now down to 161 in 2017, to 84 in 2018, and only three so far in 2019.
Then I saw the video montage of American people around the country rudely confronting people they assumed were of foreign origin with these ugly words, “Go back to your country!”
And day by day, I hear the drumbeat of determined demagogues demanding that we “Build the Wall.”
I am sad. I am so very sad.
Copyright 2019 Dwight A Moody