The Red Couch: Welcoming the Stranger Discussion


Red Couch -Welcoming the Stranger- Discussion

It was a small bolt of red cloth that captured the world’s attention. A tiny fragile body. Someone else’s child.

In that moment of seeing, the stranger on the other side of the world became our neighbor. It shattered the illusion of distance and difference. We found common ground in our grief.

The tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis has pushed the issue of immigration center stage across the world. It’s sparked international debate about the tension between the need to care for our “own” and the extent of our responsibility toward others.

My homeland, Aotearoa, New Zealand is an isolated island nation. Large numbers of immigrants slipping across the border under the cover of shadow is not part of our daily experience. Nor has New Zealand experienced a mass arrival of asylum seekers by boat as our closest neighbours in Australia do regularly. Yet even here, debate about immigration has begun to reach fever pitch. The culture of fear around strangers is deeply embedded in the human psyche. We see this evidenced in phrases like “stranger danger” and  “Don’t talk to strangers” which are a part of our common language in the English-speaking world.

In Welcoming the Stranger, the lens is focused on the issue of undocumented migrants in the U.S. and how the church might shape its response in both public debate and private action toward migrants living among us. Whilst the specific issues that face each of us in our different contexts globally vary, the same core fears lurk under the surface of the waters. As Soerens and Hwang suggest:

The issue of immigration confronts our deepest fears of who we are and who we should be. As Christians, we can choose to respond in fear, or we can choose to embrace our identity in Christ and allow our citizenship in heaven (Eph 2:18-20, 22) to affect how we view and treat others.” (p.101)

A key question raised in framing our response to those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law with regard to their immigration status is: What is our role in relation to the law of the land which we call home? If we are called to both obedience and compassion, which should drive our response? Soerens and Hwang are careful to show that our desire to love our neighbors doesn’t neatly resolve the difficulties. But they are clear it should be the “guiding principle” of our response:

“The question for us if we are to seek God’s justice, then, is not only what the law is, and is it being followed? But is the law itself just? Ultimately the law must answer to God’s higher law, which requires us to treat all human life with sanctity … Valuing persons includes doing what we can to preserve them, to care for them, and to create fair systems that lead to healthy societies. We must ask if our human-made laws create a just and better existence for those created in God’s image. Ultimately ” … we must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).” (p. 109-110)

There are few things as compelling in convincing us of our value, as being given space to tell our stories. Especially in an environment where we know we will be heard. We need to know our stories, the stories of those who came before us, and those who live among us.

The West, enamored with the idea of progress has developed a tendency toward forgetfulness. In Te Ao Māori (the Māori World) all storytelling and speechmaking begins with the story of where we have come from: we row the waka (canoe). Not by looking forward to where we want to go, but with our eyes cast back on the way we have been. If we are to engage compassionately and constructively, then we must begin by understanding the path that we have come. This applies to both our personal and collective histories.

In the words of Soerens and Hwang: “When we begin to love our immigrant neighbors on a personal level, we will want to advocate for just, merciful and loving immigration policies a well. As we begin to converse and better understand the difficulties that these neighbors left in their home countries, we will also find our hearts stretching to other neighbors in need–the people still living in those places devastated by economic difficulties, war and environmental disaster–and we might, as the church, begin to do more to bring God’s love into those situations as well.”

Questions for Reflection:

  • Welcoming the Stranger is densely packed with stories and information about immigrants and immigration. What surprised or challenged you most as you read?
  • Consider your personal/local context: Who are the neighbors and strangers in your midst? How might you begin to engage with them and their stories more deeply?
Melissa Powell
Tēnā koutou e hoa ma, ngā mihi nui ki a koutou katoa. (Hello friends, warm greetings to everyone.) My name is Melissa and I live in Auckland, New Zealand. I live with my family - my husband Jacob (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Whātua) and our two daughters. We live in the shadow of Maungakiekie (aka One Tree Hill), the second largest of Auckland's many dormant volcanoes. Though its rumbling belly has long been quiet, the marks of its origins live on in the rich fertile soil on which we have made our home. We live in Onehunga, one of Auckland's most ethnically and socially diverse communities and have been engaged in community ministry here for the past 10 years. After 12 years in pastoral ministry I am currently taking a break to complete my Masters in Theology at Carey Graduate School. I am passionate about languages and stories and the way we tell them.
Melissa Powell
Melissa Powell


  1. I am thinking on how I used to be an “insider” and how my journey from that–being part of the centre of power–shifted then to becoming an outsider … First as a foreigner in Taiwan and then as an immigrant in Canada. Being an outsider has opened my eyes to the stories of other outsiders. I see how those who have experienced what it means to be an outsider can sit with those in pain or can open up the circle … because that circle isn’t only for insiders only any more, but becomes a much more generous space.

    Thank you so much for your reflection here, Melissa!

    • Yes – I think this is so true! My heart and eyes opened when I found myself in the position of outsider. I am consistently amazed and humbled by the way some of the most vulnerable people in our world have the largest hearts.

  2. I’ve been back in the US for just two months after living in North Africa, working with a refugee project for the last few years, and my husband just got his US permanent residency. And though I’ve lived and worked among vulnerable populations for the last several years, it is so easy to forget. Books like this are so important because I need to keep being challenged, I need to continually be reminded. It can be easy to take a break from speaking up or staying broken when it’s not crossing my path and the overwhelming theme of my life every day. I need this book and books like this because I need to remain appalled, I need to keep wrestling, and I need to keep asking myself what I can be doing here and now to amplify these stories, and truly love and welcome strangers.

    • This is such a good point Beth. It is hard not to allow what is everyday reality for so many to become swept away by what is immediately in front of us. It is so important to find ways to keep that reality right in front of us – and books are one way to keep us in that place of wrestling and reflecting.

  3. Both obedience and compassion…. There’s such a tension between following the law and subverting injustice. This book has definitely made me uncomfortable and stirred far more questions than answers. Thanks for leading us in this discussion, Melissa!

    • I think this is particularly hard for those of us who are drawn toward order/rules. It’s so easy for the rule to become a kind of ‘god’ and we forget the very point it was intended to serve, or we forget to evaluate whether the rule violates other values we also hold. I thought the way this was framed in the book was quite helpful.

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