The Red Couch: Once We Were Strangers Introduction


Those of us who want to serve others like programs and events. They have defined timelines and expected outcomes. We get to show up and give money or time to a cause. And then we get to walk away.

Reading Shawn Smucker’s memoir Once We Were Strangers, I was reminded of the time my “program” of helping a refugee family from Afghanistan as they resettled in their new home in America. My family felt accomplished when we helped set up their apartment. We felt less accomplished when we spent hours sitting with a family of 10 just talking and letting the kids play. But we found something we didn’t expect, that this family needed less help and more friendship. “Help” wasn’t definable or simple. It required more than we imagined we could give and gave us more than we ever imagined in return.

In an increasingly divisive world, we can see people different than or in need as “other” and hold them at arm’s length out of ignorance and fear. My own life has been changed by friendship with people outside my own faith tradition and I wholeheartedly advocate for cross-cultural and interfaith friendship. And yet, even for those of us who believe this, it can still be easy to turn people into a project, forgetting all they have to offer us simply as people made in the image of God. 

Smucker unfolds the story of his growing relationship with Mohammad, a refugee from Syria, with the same ease and grace of a leisurely afternoon having coffee with a friend. In this beautiful true story, we get to be the witnesses of a life slowing down, a perspective changing, and a conviction to love deepening.

“What would my life look like if I made friendship a priority?” asks Smucker who met Mohammad with the intention of helping him write the story of his flight from Syria. But the two found something much more than they expected in a friendship that unites their families.

I believe there couldn’t be more appropriate or necessary story for this time in history as there are more refugees in the world than ever before and my own country is turning it’s back on them (the U.S. administration just reduced the refugee ceiling again, limiting the number of refugees able to enter America in 2020 to 18,000 when 95,000 is the historic average, says World Relief). 

My heart rallies around the message of welcome Smucker unfolds when he says,

“we have to pull out all the stops in welcoming the refugee and the immigrant, in getting to know those who live around us, in showing love to our neighbors. We can’t afford to isolate people anymore. We can’t afford to push people to the fringes of our society. This world we’ve created is a product of isolationism and fear, distrust and anger.”

I first read Once We Were Strangers while living in a country housing the second-largest refugee population and the largest refugee camp in the world. As I sat in the camps and listened to heartbreaking stories of the Rohingya people watching their families murdered, of being the lucky ones who had enough to pay the boatman to take them across the treacherous river path, I was desperate for others to be able to bear witness to those atrocities.

We can spout statistics and rallying cries all day and those who live in fear of the stranger will not change their minds. It is why story matters so much. We need to be willing to set aside our strongly held opinions long enough to listen. There is no denying the humanity of someone when you truly hear his tale and enter her life. I hoped this book would humanize the refugees so many have come to fear or simply forget in our world today. Smucker delivered on every hope I had for Once We Were Strangers.

It is a vivid and inspiring story of embracing the diversity that challenges our biases. It is a gentle battle cry for people living with privilege to wake up to the needs of others (from an author who admits this very friendship was both diagnosis and beginning of the cure of his own prejudices). And it was a surprising challenge to me to open myself up beyond programs and my ideas of what “help” looks like. It is a call to slow down and be willing to truly listen to stories and open our lives enough to love.

I hope you’ll join us in reading and discussing Once We Were Strangers this month. And I hope you’ll look with me into the corners of our hearts that still harbor misconceptions and the parts of our lives we might need to alter to make space for welcoming in others.

Nightstand Recommendations:

Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis by Issam Smeir, Matthew Soerens, and Stephan Bauman

Threading My Prayer Rug by Sabeeha Rehman

Check out our Threading My Prayer Rug Red Couch Discussion here!

Invited by (our own!) Leslie Verner

You Welcomed Me by Kent Annan

Get Close to Refugees, and Let Love Grow by Kelley Nikondeha for Christianity Today