The Red Couch: Once We Were Strangers Discussion


I once had a friend from Brazil who became my unexpected house guest. We first met as student missionary teachers in Puerto Rico when I was 19 years old. Once the school year ended, she moved with me to my house in California where we also planned to work as camp counselors together.

Because she had no place to call home, I made a conscious decision to make her feel completely welcomed in my home. The summer was phenomenal and many years later, I was the maid of honor in her wedding, and she was a bridesmaid in mine. The conscious decision to be a friend despite cultural differences yielded such beautiful results.

The research is clear: the quality of our relationships is one of the most important factors that lead to wellbeing. This is why Once we were Strangers by Shawn Smucker was such a powerful read. It cuts to the core of what makes us feel true happiness in this life. In the book, Smucker describes his friendship journey with a Syrian refugee named Mohammad.

Friendship, home, and togetherness were themes that resonated with me. Here’s a snapshot of these themes with some key takeaways along with a few reflection questions.


“My belief that they [refugees] need my help more than they need my friendship was brought low… (pg.182)

This is significant because when Smucker first decided to reach out to Mohammad, he planned to “help” in the typical way that many of us usually help others: give food, donate clothing, and connect with resources.

The help I was prepared to offer was help given at arm’s length, aid that would cost me perhaps a tiny bit of time and maybe a few dollars but not much more than that.” (P.182)

What will it take for us to follow suit and push against the tendency of giving help “at an arm’s length” and actually put emotional investment in building friendships with those in need?

Smucker pursued this friendship despite his doubts of how good of a friend he’d be. They found time to spend together amidst their busy schedules. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he was the friendship had mutual benefits.

“But I, not Mohammad, needed more than that. Actually, it turns out we both needed the same thing. We both needed a friend.” P. 182


Smucker often asked Mohammad what his home was like in Syria. Mohammad shared that he lived in a peaceful town in Syria all his life until war broke out. He was forced to move from one place to another, none of which felt safe or like it was “home.” That was until he settled into Lancaster, Pennsylvania, through a refugee displacement program.

Mohammad shares his perspective on home: “You know, Shawn, I like it here. You know why? I live here in peace. I don’t see any problems. I live with my wife and children and I am here for my children…But my kids are small. They are young. Maybe they can learn here, in this peace…” (pg.114)

It appears that “peace” is what makes a place feel like “home” for Mohammad. I believe that when we connect with what “home” might mean for us, then we may be more likely to experience it in our own lives.

I also love how Smucker felt this sense of peace each time he is with Mohammad and his family. I wonder what it takes for us to have people feel like they are at home simply by being in our presence?

Togetherness…Friendship Revisited

My heart jumped as soon as I read more of Smucker’s reflections on friendship and togetherness. This time, he addresses it from a different perspective than his earlier thoughts on the topic:

“…Again I consider the nature of friendship. Again I reflect on how busy I have become, how rare it is that I see the people I call friends. I think about where we’ve gone wrong, how we’ve ended up in this place where we make such little time for the people who mean the most to us, where we have almost no time for the people in our communities who need a place to sit and talk. A place to reflect on what it is they’re missing.” (Pg. 115)

It reminds me of how it is easy to get caught up in the busyness of life and forget, that aside from our connection to God, our relationships with others matter a great deal in the end. Being together with others is just as important of a need as food and shelter. We mustn’t allow modern life to disconnect us from each other, especially from those who need connection the most.

This scripture sums up the key themes for me: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Romans 15:7 (NIV)

My prayer is that we take advantage of this season and that this scripture can truly become a reality for each of us.

Here are some questions to consider, I look forward to dialoguing about it here or in our Facebook group!

Discussion Questions:

What other themes resonated with you while reading Once we were Strangers?

Why does it seem easier for us to give “help” at an arms length? How can we push ourselves to move past this tendency and make a greater investment to befriend “strangers”?

What are some key factors that make a place feel like home to you? Are there things you can do to make others feel like they are at “home” when they are simply in your presence?

How easy or difficult is it for you to develop new friendships or maintain old ones in light of the busyness of life?


We hope you’ll join the discussion over in our Facebook group! We’ll also have some announcements about upcoming Red Couch books and a new format for our book club going into the new year.

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