Thursday, November 8, 2012

Welcoming the Stranger

We call upon all people of good will, but Catholics especially, to welcome the newcomers in their neighborhoods and schools, in their places of work and worship, with heartfelt hospitality, openness, and eagerness both to help and to learn from our brothers and sisters, of whatever race, religion, ethnicity, or background. - Welcoming The Stranger Among Us: Unity In Diversity; USCCB 
Welcoming the stranger is an expectation the Catholic Church has for her children. No matter who the person is, no matter where they have come from, no matter what they look like, no matter where they are going in life, we are called as her children to recognize both good and God in them by welcoming them into our lives and into our communities.

For modern parents, the notion of teaching our children to welcome the stranger may seem like a really terrible idea. After all, aren’t we busy teaching them about stranger danger and to protect themselves from being potentially kidnapped by avoiding strangers? Why would we teach them to welcome the stranger?

Life is full of strangers. We meet them at school, in the work place, in sports and other clubs, on the street, and at our churches. If we do not teach our children how to welcome the stranger, we are not teaching them how to make friends. The world can be a very sad and lonely place if you don’t have any friends, and that’s not the kind of world we want our children living in if we truly love them. So let’s teach them to welcome the stranger.


“I've got something in my pocket, it belongs across my face.
I keep it very close at hand, in a most convienient place.
I'm sure you couldn't guess it if you guessed a long, long while.
So I'll take it out and put it on, it's a Great Big Brownie Smile!” – Girl Scout Song

Welcoming the stranger begins with smiling. A sincere smile shows that you have seen a person, that you acknowledge that person’s existence, and that you are glad to see them. It can brighten someone’s day without a single word having been exchanged. It is a simple but incredibly powerful gesture of recognition of the humanity of another person, and the very beginning of creating an atmosphere of welcome.

My 17 year old son is currently fascinated with a young lady he met in his classes. She sat apart from everyone and seemed to have no one close to her at the beginning of the year. What he noticed about her was both her loneliness and her smile. He said that it was a fascinating paradox to him and drew him to her right away. That smile was all the invitation he needed to reach out and get to know her.

When my son was very little, I was shopping at a store in the town where I grew up. A woman stopped me and said, “You! You’re that little girl”. Not recognizing her and not having any idea what she meant by this I was too stunned to reply. She then hastily explained. She told me that she had been a cafeteria worker in the elementary school I attended as a child. Out of all of the children that passed through her line each day, I was the only one who smiled at her every day. She said she always looked forward to those smiles, and that they had meant so much to her. What an incredible thing – to think that 16 years ago I made a difference in someone’s life simply by smiling at them.

The best part about smiling is that it benefits the person who smiles just as much as the person who receives the smile! The physical act of smiling releases endorphins (the brains natural happy pills) in the brain and actually cause you to feel better. These natural chemicals have the same power as the drug morphine. (

Remembering Names

But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.” – Isaiah 43:1

Welcoming the stranger also includes taking the time to learn and remember their names. There are special endorphins that are released every time a person hears the sound of their own name. Remembering a name tells that person they are important to you and that you care about them as an individual.

The Catholic Church teaches us the importance of a name by telling us that God calls us by name. He who is in command of the entire universe and all that is in it, who created all things, knows us by our name. That’s a powerful and profound statement of the importance of a name. In fact, in the Bible we see that every time God picks someone out for a special assignment or gives them an important mission to accomplish He begins this by changing their name to represent their new reality. God knows names matter, and so should we.

Teaching our children to learn and remember names means that we have to work on this ourselves, which can be a challenge, but it’s something that will be of real benefit to our children in every situation in life. It is a crucial element in building rapport with others. It is such an important business skill that there are plenty of articles written all about it (like this one: Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People stresses the importance of remembering names.

"A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language." -Dale Carnegie

In my catechism classes, I make an effort to remember the names of each child so that I can greet them by name as they enter the classroom for the rest of the year. I spend most of my first class playing games that help them remember each other’s names as well, and require them to use the names of their classmates when referring to one another. I don’t just learn their names, of course, I pay attention to pronunciation of their names. I have heard many children tell me how much they appreciate those two simple things.

Welcoming the Stranger in the Home

Not every stranger that you meet is outside your door. Teaching our children to welcome the stranger also means teaching them how to welcome every new addition to your family. They do not have to like their new brother or sister, but they should welcome them. The liking will come over time as the relationship develops. Again, this welcoming the stranger inside the home will only happen to the degree that you model such welcoming behavior.

In our own home, when new people arrive, we make room for them by clearing off some space for them to sit and making sure they are comfortable. Guests are invited to eat or drink when hungry or thirsty. They are shown the bathroom and any other facilities they might need. If they are going to be staying with us overnight or for longer than a day, we make sure to let them know the house rules so that they know what is acceptable and what isn't. In other words, we incorporate them into our family life and make them a part of our household.


Welcoming the stranger is about putting yourself in another person's shoes, about doing for them what you would want done for yourself, and extending to them the love that you have received from Christ. It is a vital skill for creating a space where relationships can flourish and friendships can grow, and a benefit to children of all ages.

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just starting to follow this series, you can find the introduction and earlier chapters by following the link above. I hope you will join us again tomorrow for chapter 27: Creating Community.  If you have something to add about how you teach your children to welcome the stranger, or just want to add your thoughts, please leave a comment below. I'm always listening :).

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