WELCOMING THE STRANGER – LENT 2019
We propose that the following words of Scripture be our guide as we begin our Lenten Season. These words of Scripture are read in the context of the harrowing living conditions of many migrants and refugees who have become the surplus people, the homeless people, the unwanted people, the “scum of the earth. We must also include in that context people who live in the informal settlements. They too are virtually homeless. Their living conditions are unpleasant and brutish. People have been painfully deprived of their sense of decency and God-given dignity.
Oh city of Johannesburg, what kind of a mother are you? Are you not supposed to be like a mother who gathers all her children? “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Mt. 24.37). Oh Johannesburg, a city of gold! Some say you are the most beautiful city on the African continent. No! You used to be beautiful and attractive. But now you are broken and full of squalor. The founding fathers and mothers of the city have abandoned you. You are so cruel. You are so cold. You are unwelcoming. You lack human warmth. You are indifferent to the suffering of strangers. You are indifferent to the pain of your own homeless, hungry and diseased children!
And the King will say: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me; in prison and you came to see me (Mt. 25. 35-37).
These words of Scripture describe the conditions of many migrants and refugees. Many are unemployed because they do not have proper documents or even the requisite qualification and skills. They have unavoidably been reduced to being beggars. This has also exposed some to the temptation of criminal activities. Many migrants and refugees do not have a proper home. They live in overcrowded conditions. Some sleep in the open like animals. Where do they go for a shower? Where do they wash their clothes? What
toilet facilities do they use? Look no further than the Ponte bridge at the corner of Saratoga Avenue and Joe Slovo. Hundreds of motorists pass there daily. The bridge has become home to many young migrants. Young men in their prime have become hobos, vagrants wandering aimlessly around the city, at times harassing motorists.
We have become numb to their harsh living conditions. We are insensitive to their plight. We see them as an inconvenience, and embarrassment, a nuisance. We prefer to forget that they too are human beings. They too are made in the image of God. They too are members of the Body of Christ. We accuse them of burdening our health system. We openly limit their access to our public health services. Stateless children of migrants have extreme difficulties in getting access to our educational facilities. We have hardened our hearts like our Fathers at Meribah and Massah (Ex. 17.7). We have turned a blind eye to the suffering of migrants and refugees, even to our very own people who are trapped in chilling poverty in the squatter camps.
We have just begun our Lenten Season. Scripture encourages us to do away with our demeaning attitude and disparaging, wicked words towards migrants and refugees in our midst. We are enjoined to give bread to the hungry and to relieve the oppressed (Is. 58.9). We should do fasting in order to share with those in need, especially the migrants and refugees. We should do penance for the gross negligence, indifference and at times even our open dislike for the people we consider as strangers, as Foreign Nationals. Scripture reminds us that if we fail to take care of the needs of the migrants and refugees who are the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ, we would have failed to do a service to Christ Himself (Mt. 25.45). Service to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters is the condition for entering the Kingdom of God. We are strongly urged to treat others as we would like them to treat us. If we South Africans only treated each other as follow human beings and ignored people from other African Nations, then what claim do we have to any credit? What good can we claim to have done? (Mt. 5.45).
The Season of Lent strongly encourages us to be compassionate as our Heavenly Father who is rich in mercy.
Jesus says: “Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back” (Lk. 6.38).
Perhaps this should be a Lent of awakening. A Lent that frees us from the fear of the unknown, from the fear of the stranger. This Lent should be a time that frees us from our nightmares, bad dreams and superstitions about migrants and refugees that they have come to take our jobs and marry our daughters. Any why not? induku enhle igawulwa ezizweni!
This should be a Season of consciously building a welcoming community, of forging new friendships, new communities and new solidarities. A time to become truly human again by embracing the stranger in our midst.
I appeal to our charitable organisations: Catholic Women’s League, Knights of Da Gama, St. Vincent de Paul, the Sodalities, to every Catholic – to turn their attention to the urgent needs of migrants and refugees. They are to us the angel in disguise. They are here to give us an opportunity to become human again, to become kind, gentle, compassionate and loving human beings.
To the candidates who will be received at Easter, choose migrants and refugees as your favourable charity. Lessen the pain and anxiety in their lives.
Let us mount a Lenten campaign to appeal to the City of Johannesburg to build a shelter for destitute migrants and refugees so that they should sleep under a roof and not in the open.
Let us turn Johannesburg into a welcoming city. Let this Lent inspire us to new heights of human solidarity.
+Buti Tlhagale O.M.I.
Christ the King Cathedral Rite of Election. 2019