Where am I from? It’s a not a straightforward answer. I’m Sri Lankan, born in Bahrain, and have lived in New Zealand since I was two – I’m quite a mix of different cultures. This gets interesting when I meet new people here. I often get called Indian or Fijian Indian. When I explain to people that I was born in Bahrain, I receive confused looks – it’s in the Middle East folks. My cultural heritage and ethnicity is important to me, but I’m also very much Kiwi. Is it therefore fair that I’m often treated as different just because I look different?
Last year I decided that once a month I’d go out from my home church to experience different churches and how they do ministry. On one such visit, the vicar introduced themselves and then went on to introduce me to the gentlemen that physically resembled me the most – the only Indian guy in the congregation, a man as old as my dad. I guess this probably felt like a welcoming thing to do, but I just felt treated like someone different. It struck me that, even though there were other young adults present, I was introduced to this guy because he looked like me. This is just one example of how it can be so hard to feel like I belong or am welcomed as a Kiwi – my exterior appearance seems to always outweigh who I actually am.
The verse from Leviticus 19, “Treat the stranger among you as if they were one of you, loving them as you love yourself,” means it doesn’t matter what we look like or where we come from. That’s not our primary source of identity. In fact, these days our identity is not found so much in our looks as in our place of belonging. Just ‘cos someone looks a certain way doesn’t mean we are ‘from somewhere else’ anymore. I belong here. New Zealand is home.
What does this mean for churches and communities? What does it look like for anyone to walk through our doors and feel as welcomed as we do? What will it look like when we have people of different cultures or social status coming in? Our gatherings are an opportunity to express welcome and love to one another, united under one God. Or shall we just divide our churches into groups based on demographic or ethnicity? Please, no!
It’s hard to look past physical differences and think of ‘strangers’ as one of us. It asks a lot from us as the people of God. But it is precisely because we are people of God – a God who loves all people, created all races and knows and welcomes us all – that we need to strive to be loving and inclusive. We’re all learning together and growing together but we have to understand that the look of our ‘backyard’ has changed. Let’s learn afresh how to respond to God’s call to love everyone as we love ourselves.
Is there anything in your attitude to ‘strangers’ that needs changing? How will this affect how you treat people that
look different to you?
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