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February 2017 Feature Article

A Land of Strangers

In this cosmopolitan world of growing homogeneity, we are daily faced with stories and issues surrounding migration—in our local press, coffee shops, crowded trains and political circles. Churches have even started to engage on the subject, albeit occasionally.

Yet while we try to keep up with our understanding and response to the controversies, real and pressing global issues of migration continue to escalate, from the distant refugee crisis in Europe to the low-wage migrant workers right here in our midst.

Singapore currently houses about 1 million low-wage migrant workers, including domestic helpers and those working in construction, marine and manufacturing industries. The stranger is present in our homes, hospitals, streets, trains and malls. India, China, Philippines, Bangladesh and people from all across the globe share our private and public space.

The question for the local church now is: how should we respond to this phenomenon of strangers in our land? With an increasing xenophobia both overt and subtle in our values, policies and community life in Singapore, our Christian faith is the antidote. We must respond with ‘Philoxenia’ instead.

The Greek word ‘philoxenia’ means a love of strangers.

Healthserve was initiated nine years ago to serve the migrants and marginalised through the provision of simple medical services. It soon became apparent that the mere provision of medicine and expertise would not suffice. If we were to meet the deepest needs of these migrants, a fresh understanding of who the stranger was and a rediscovery of our Christian tradition of hospitality would be crucial.

Soon, counselling had become a part of the medical consultation, social assistance was given out in the form of EZLink and phone cards, and outings and meals were regularly organized for those who came to see us. A safe space for community and hospitality had been gently birthed. The stranger had been noticed and invited into our community.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

In Jesus’ Luke 16 parable, Lazarus sits outside the rich man’s home separated by a gate and probably a wall. The rich man must have gone in and out through the gate several times daily never noticing or ignoring Lazarus. This gate and wall, while protecting the rich man’s luxurious lifestyle, also became the barrier between him and his fellowman.

What about the poor migrant and stranger who sits at our gates? Perhaps Jesus in this parable is not chastising the rich man for his wealth but for the fact that he never notices Lazarus despite frequently passing him by. By keeping himself separate in his own ‘safe’ world, the rich man had become inattentive. When we separate ourselves from those different to us, indifference and cynicism take root and we develop walls of cataracts that blind us to their needs.

What we need is an attentive presence.

Hospitality expresses godly obedience (Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:2). The Healthserve community lives out this word as we engage the strangers in our lands with active philoxenia.

After all, the concept of strangers is not strange to Christians. Abraham met God near the trees of Mamre, Lot met God in the angels, Mary and her friends met Jesus thinking He was the gardener, and the two disciples met Jesus while walking to Emmaus. Yet passing through Little India, Lucky Plaza or Peninsular Plaza on a Sunday heightens a sense of strangeness in us—Christian or otherwise.

As Christians, we first encountered God as strangers. When meeting new people, we connect on commonalities like mutual friendships, similar interests or shared affiliations. When we encounter a stranger different to us, however, strangeness seems the only commonality. But there is a choice. When we choose to be attentively present with those unlike us, we are choosing to celebrate the common humanity which unites us all.

Christian hospitality is much about strangers serving strangers.

It helps to remember that we are pilgrims and were once all aliens. A modern Acts 2 community is experienced though the shared journey of discovering our identity in Christ.

While the world rejects migrants at the margins, we can practice Christian hospitality by leading them to the centre. When we remember our own acute alienation before God encountered us, we can generously extend this gift of hospitality to those at the margins.

Generosity, love and security in Christ is enjoyed as a community in Healthserve when we treat a patient, offer or receive life advice, share a meal or story with each other. Taking this posture, the expectation that a migrant simply cleans our streets or builds our homes deepens into a gospel understanding of reciprocal mutuality. Such love is essential for humanity to flourish and experience God intimately.

Every community has a story.

When Healthserve welcomes a new migrant, he discovers a community rich in its own journey, history, meaning and identity. This richness is possible only because the love of God comes alive in community—where volunteers young and old alike, dancing Pentecostals and Bible Presbyterians, Bangladeshi and Chinese migrants come together to share their meals and stories.

Healthserve is constantly being transformed by the people we serve, and they are in turn transformed by encountering Christ. The gospel in this milieu is powerfully proclaimed in a subversive way, and it is in this context too that advocacy and speaking against unjust systems comes naturally. We seek to protect the vulnerable while feeding and clothing them because true hospitality cannot ignore structural injustices.

Rediscovering Christian hospitality

This is how true Christian hospitality can lead a Christian community towards an integral and missional philoxenia. Hospitality is no longer a programmed means to evangelical proclamation but innate in our mission as people of God.

In a multicultural context like ours, we embody hospitality by developing an attentive presence to those unlike us. By imitating God Himself, who saves us as strangers and whose character is expressed in hospitality (Ephesians 2:19, Colossians 1:21-22), we practice and live out a transforming philoxenia which brings Shalom and Hope to our hurting and desperate world.

Dr Goh Wei-Leong a General Practitioner, is the founder and director of Linking Hands, a medical networking agency. 

He chairs the Christian Medical & Dental Fellowship (CMDF) of Singapore. He is the S.E. Asian regional general secretary of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association (ICMDA).

In 2006, he helped found and chairs HealthServe, a NGO and charity that reaches out to the under-served communities of foreign workers in Singapore.

Dr Goh serves with Operation Mobilisation (Singapore) as an OM Associate (Local Ministries) and in OM East Asia Pacific (Relief and Development). He is currently the chairman of the board of OM MTI (Mercy Teams International).