The new young family occupied the back row for several months, I suppose, though I hardly noticed them except when they would hurry a crying child out of the chapel. Then I saw them no more and wondered. Did they move? Did anyone ever speak to them? Why were they here? Who were they?
There are such strangers in every ward: new members, investigators, college students, military families. Many have moved in pursuit of better employment. Others are seeking a new home after a drastic change in their personal life: they have been widowed, divorced, or retired. Some will be there one week or one year; some plan to stay permanently. Their needs and problems vary greatly, yet they all need the fellowship of the Saints.
To include them in the household of God, we need to comprehend their needs, to recognize the gospel principles that describe how we should treat them, and to examine the obstacles that sometimes keep us from befriending the strangers in our midst.
What are the needs of these strangers? It is most instructive to listen to their own stories. Consider these four:
1. “After thirty years in the same house, we moved 2,000 miles away from our friends. George was happy with the challenge of his new job, but I lived in a state of shock for months. I missed my friends, familiar roads and stores, even the fresh seafood we had always eaten until we moved here, far from the sea. Most of all I missed my reputation. Back home everyone knew me for my pies and my roadshows; here in our new ward, people seemed to look past me while shaking hands. They already had their friends and were busy with their own affairs. I wonder how long I would have continued feeling like an outsider if George hadn’t had his emergency surgery. As soon as that crisis came, there were ward members on all sides to bolster me. I have felt at home here ever since.”
2. “At the beginning of my husband’s military career we lived in five wards within eight months’ time. We felt like second-class Mormons: we still had our testimonies, but we had no official call to serve. Finally we volunteered to one bishop, who was kind enough to let us serve as substitutes for vacationing home teachers and visiting teachers. But our need to serve was so great that we gave ourselves the task of welcoming newcomers in each ward we lived in. Hardly a Sunday went by without our bringing someone home to dinner. Each one turned out to be uniquely interesting. We discovered that it takes just one family to make a friendly ward.”
3. “I am a salesman. My wife and I have resided in at least twelve different wards since our temple marriage three years ago. We’re tired of having to prove ourselves everywhere we go. We go out of our way to be friendly, but people seem to feel it’s not worth their time to be our friends for just a few months. People look down on us because we move so often. Goodness knows, we’d like to settle in one place, but we’re stuck with this job, the economy being what it is. I don’t know if we’ll even bother to attend church in this town. It’s hard to feel the spirit of worship when you’re not among friends.”
4. “I wanted to make a fresh start after a painful divorce, so I took my young son and moved south to finish a college degree. Supposing that the climate would be hot, we left our sweaters and blankets in storage. Oh, we were cold in our drafty summer cottage that winter, but were too afraid to light the space heaters or ask to borrow blankets. I didn’t know anyone. I felt I didn’t fit in with the people at church because I was divorced, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to think I was a parasite.
“I was so glad when home teachers came! They really wanted to make us welcome and they came regularly, even though we didn’t have a telephone and weren’t always home. They often included us in their families’ activities. Eventually I didn’t mind asking to borrow blankets from them.”
When we hear these stories, it is easy to empathize with the strangers. Nearly every one of us has at some time stood in the shoes of the stranger, but we kick those shoes off as soon as possible and in a moment forget how uncomfortable they were.
Being a stranger is uncomfortable because it causes a temporary loss of identity. Most people depend greatly on feedback from friends to tell them who they are, to judge their own particular talents and abilities, and to construct an appropriate social role within a group of friends. When they are cut off from friends, familiar places, and routines, they may feel worthless and useless.
Those who strive for a living relationship with their Heavenly Father are more immune to this sort of identity crisis. But most humans, still spiritually immature, feel great emotional stress whenever they are strangers. The stranger needs to be accepted as an equal, recognized and loved, in order to grow in spirit. According to his circumstances, he may be in need of the physical necessities of life—perhaps for the first time in his life. His physical and spiritual needs are thus precisely the same as those of nonstrangers, with just one difference: the stranger has no social framework within which to fulfill these social needs until someone becomes his friend.
Once we are aware of the stranger’s needs and of the great variety of strangers within our gates, how can we learn to befriend them? The scriptures are explicit in describing both why and how we should extend our concern to the stranger.
Why should we aid the stranger? First, because we know how it feels to be strangers: “for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9.) Second, because we are required to imitate the righteous concern of God, who “doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger.” (Deut. 10:18–19.) In this same passage Moses reminds the children of Israel that they owe obedience as a debt to the God who has chosen them and preserved them in their flight from Egypt. Loving the stranger is simply one of the commandments we must obey.
How should we aid the stranger? Christ commended physical assistance to the stranger when he described the judgment that will occur at his second coming:
“And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
“For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
“Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” (Matt. 25:32, 34–36.)
“Ye took me in!” Certainly the overwhelming, universal need of the stranger is to be included in our circle of fellowship, to spend time in our homes. There he can receive whatever physical necessities he may lack, as well as the love and attention to feed his emotional needs. Like the good Samaritan, we must give freely of our time and means to preserve the physical and spiritual life of the stranger.
In modern revelation we are commanded “never to cast any one out from your public meetings, which are held before the world. Ye are also commanded not to cast any one who belongeth to the church out of your sacrament meetings.” (D&C 46:3–4.)
Certainly we would never shut the door on a stranger at church, but do we not emotionally cast him out of our midst if we fail to ask his name, shake his hand, or take him home for dinner? In other words, we are commanded, “And let every man esteem his brother as himself.” (D&C 38:24.)
We tend to esteem our family and friends above everyone else in the world. We value a stranger of great reputation—a visiting General Authority, for example—above an “ordinary” military transient. But this is not as it should be, for Christ said: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.) We should count it a privilege to welcome the least among strangers.
Unfortunately it is often so much more convenient to ignore the stranger than to love him. We can easily imagine a ward where every member has a reasonable excuse for not fellowshipping strangers. Let’s read some minds in this imaginary ward as the members leave their meetinghouse after Sunday School. Can you help these ward members find a way around their excuses?
Bishopric: We usually meet them, but seldom have an opportunity for follow-through. Church business is scheduled after each Sunday meeting. We must depend on the members to fellowship.
Relief Society presidency: We’re so busy taking the roll of all the sisters, we can’t stop to chat or our records will be incomplete.
Priesthood leaders: There are many people we need to see after meetings. If we stopped to speak to strangers, we’d lose our primary targets.
Youth: If a young stranger is cute or entertaining, we’ll take him along to fireside. But we probably won’t notice a shy or unattractive youth.
Middle-aged homemaker: I have to get right home to get the roast out of the oven before it burns. Anyway, it’s the leaders’ job to welcome people.
Young marrieds: We’re too poor to invite anyone home to dinner.
Young family: Children are so restless—we can hardly wait to get them home, far from the scene of our little humiliations.
Young adults: We’re so busy with all our activities. Besides, it’s not our job to fellowship people older than we.
Widow: I’m afraid to meet people. Anyway, I’m so new in the ward I wouldn’t know the strangers from the old-timers.
Retired couple: We have to be home right away in case our children call long distance. We don’t believe in speaking to strangers unless we’ve been introduced. The younger folks should do the fellowshipping.
Part-member family: I can’t have anyone over. It would offend my spouse.
Certainly, if we feel the stranger’s needs and comprehend the commandments of the gospel, we can do better than make excuses. There are ways everyone can fellowship the stranger:
1. Ask the Lord daily to make you more sensitive to the stranger’s needs.
2. As you enter the chapel, seek out a stranger to sit next to.
3. Smile at the investigator.
4. Shake the hand of the newly baptized member.
5. Introduce yourself after class to that new fellow who stood up in Sunday School.
6. Give him 2 1/2 minutes of your time.
7. Let him know he is a person of worth by looking him in the eye, remembering his name, and listening to the feelings behind his words.
8. Expect that the stranger will become your treasured friend.
9. Invite him to your home, and introduce him to your friends.
10. Let him help you, and let him give service to the ward.
If there are so many strangers that they get lost in the ward, then priesthood leaders may invent ways to organize the fellowshipping effort. One determined ward assigns home teachers to a stranger the first Sunday he arrives. In another ward, populated largely by military transients, all newcomers are invited to leave the chapel first on Fast Sunday and line up in the cultural hall. Then each long-term ward member is introduced by the bishop to a newcomer in the line. Ward custom encourages him to take the stranger home to dinner and fellowship him throughout his stay.
In one ward bulletin, strangers are advised to inform the bishop if they will be in the ward even three months, for their service is needed to staff the ward. When they are serving, they fellowship themselves. Everyone benefits when strangers are put to work soon after their arrival.
Strangers can be successfully fellowshipped when each member chooses to accept his responsibility to welcome them. It is not a chore, but a privilege, to become acquainted with an ever-widening circle of Saints in the household of God. How great will be the joy of those in the celestial kingdom who meet again the strangers for whom they went a little out of their way. A small kindness at a critical moment may mean eternal salvation for the stranger and great satisfaction for the fellowshipper, as in this final story:
The stranger beside us was uneasy. He looked straight ahead and scarcely breathed. He didn’t even smile at our two young children, who always made friends for us. After church, my husband asked the solemn fellow home with us for dessert. A smile relaxed his long face. “I was just baptized last week, and then moved into your ward,” he explained. He dropped in on us several times a week thereafter, excited about his blossoming comprehension of the gospel, eager to discuss the scriptures, anxious over his personal affairs. Ours was the great joy of watching our brother grow. He was no longer a stranger.