I Was a Stranger, Extravagantly Loved




Ma li, a student from my freshman ESL class, nervously invited me to her home in the countryside of northwest China for the weekend during winter break.

“Our village is poor. And we are Hui people, so we don’t eat pork,” she cautioned me.

“I love Hui people,” I said, smiling, “and I can’t wait to meet your family.”

It was a bumpy, three-hour bus ride. We crossed dusty desert roads lined with trees piercing the ground like arrows and brown, dimpled balloon mountains in the distance. In the spring, fields of sunflowers would worship heaven until the sun overwhelmed them and they would bow their heads as summer waned. But for now, the crusty brown fields stretched out and rested under a light dusting of snow.

Ma li and one of her friends from my class chewed sunflower seeds, expertly de-shelling them and spitting them into a plastic bag in one motion. They chattered away in the local dialect and occasionally asked me shaky questions, ashamed of their English, but wanting to practice at the same time.

“We’re here!” Ma li announced. As we walked the cracked dirt road into the village, I spied a tiny mosque with turquoise pagodas, an artistic touch next to the smooth mud homes. Colorful quilted cloths flapped over doors to keep out the icy desert wind and occasional dust storm.

But I soon discovered the houses were nearly as frigid inside as out. Their brick floors were cold, and dusty. One coal stove heated the entire house. A manure-lit fire outside warmed a concrete bed inside, called a kang. The houses didn’t have indoor plumbing, which meant holes in the ground outside with newspaper for toilet paper. This was going to be interesting.

The visit started with Ma li’s family assessing my long underwear situation. They felt inside my sleeves and pant legs: was I wearing enough? Yes, they decided. Still, I should sit by the fire while everyone else prepared the food.

“Did I need to rest?” they asked. “There’s a bed over there. “

“No thanks,” I said, “I’ll just watch. Can I help?”

“Oh, no, no. Just relax.”

I warmed my already frozen hands by the stove, watching the bustle and trying to be a good guest.

After our home-cooked lamb and cilantro dumplings, my hosts brought out fruit, nuts and sunflower seeds for munching. Family members trickled in to shyly sneak a peek at me, the foreigner; I was the first white face to visit their village. I soon learned my below-average student was the town hero, the first from her village to ever attend college.

Evening was spent playing cards under blankets on the kang until late into the night. Finally, my two students, her mother and I holed up under the heavy blanket to sleep, the heated bed warming us from below.

* * *

The people I met during my five years living in China were the most generous I’ve ever known. Though they may have only made $200 a month or less, they’d still ask me to their table. They invited me in, gave me their best food and even clothed me with their long underwear when what I was wearing didn’t meet their standards for warmth.

Strangers and friends alike always seemed to err on the side of generosity. Once, a janitor sweeping the floor at a bank offered to loan me the equivalent of one day’s wages so I could catch a bus home when my wallet was stolen. Another time, an elderly woman cooked me a meal when I happened to wander into her courtyard. People would always say with confidence,

“I know you’d do the same for me if I were in your country.”

But would I?

Would you?

This haunting statement is the reason I now give my phone number to random women who can barely speak English at the Thai restaurant. It’s the reason we had a Saudi Arabian international student live with us for a year. And it’s the reason I chat with taxi drivers from Nigeria and restaurant workers from Afghanistan. Because someone did the same for me.

But they went further than I have gone. They treated me like royalty. They treated me with dignity, respect and even with awe.

They treated me like Jesus.

“For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me water; I was a stranger and you invited me into your homes; naked and you clothed me…” (Mat. 25:35-36a TLB).

I was that stranger, extravagantly loved. They treated me the way they hoped they would be treated, were they a guest in my country.

And they, my Muslim friends, lavished hospitality on me as if I were a queen, leaving me to ponder, would we do the same for them? Would we love strangers in our country as if they were Jesus Himself?