One evening late last year, I found myself at an airport on the outskirts of the city. The night air was cold and dark and the airport as a whole was fairly quiet—except for the bustling commotion of an excited group gathered at the arrival gate waving a brightly colored welcome sign.
That group was made up of several members of my church family, people who had spent the past four years involved in fundraising, seemingly endless paperwork, beseeching prayer, and a faith that God would bring all these efforts to fruition.
We were waiting at that gate for three young men, brothers who had faced incredible hardship throughout their lives, including the despair of losing both parents, multiple experiences of fleeing for their lives, and the desperation of refugee camps.
With us was a man, the brothers’ uncle, who for many years—and in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds—had held onto hope that one day his nephews would join him in Canada.
And then, suddenly, there they were, three young men the age of my own kids, coming through that gate. They ran into the tearful embrace of their uncle’s loving arms and into new lives of safety and promise.
It took all my strength not to burst out crying.
That experience deeply moved me and even months later my eyes still well with tears at the memory.
My heart will never be quite the same: at a very profound level, watching the welcoming of these brothers caused me to reconsider what it means to wholeheartedly embrace and welcome others into my life.
And also to consider what it means to not welcome another, to be closed of heart. It happens much more frequently in our society and lives, even in our churches and families, than we might ever expect, and the roots of this can be so insidious as to be almost imperceptible.
Simply put, I believe it begins when we react to or categorize another human being as “other,” however unintentionally. And this is wrong.
I see this “otherness” in how when we encounter someone who is different than us in some way, our hearts tend to automatically build walls. We’re not as open. We don’t smile as big at them as at someone we identify as “like me.” We don’t invite that person into our lives or allow them the opportunity to earn a place in our hearts like we do another. If we are truly honest, we all do this—you and me both.
This “otherness” is a categorization that many people of color have experienced and continue to regularly experience. As highlighted recently through the Black and Indigenous Lives Matters movements, this “otherness” is based on an inequity and injustice that results in vastly different treatment and significantly different opportunities for people of color, even to the point of life and death.
Recognizing people as “other” always divides and excludes instead of bringing us together.
Another categorization that excludes—one that hits close to home for my family—is the “otherness” that often exists in a world that can be very inaccessible to people who live with disabilities and diversities.
I see this in the incredible struggle it has been to find employment opportunities and build relationships for my young adult kids who live with developmental diversities.
I also see this in my own life, on practical physical accessibility levels, such as the numerous times I have not been able to enter certain shops, restaurants, or other buildings simply because they have a small step at the door that my power wheelchair cannot go up.
Even more, I sometimes sense it in how people first act around me when they meet me. I can very much tell when people see me as Disabled instead of as Jenna.
Sometimes, strangers (on the street, while riding the bus, at a funeral, etc.) demand, “What’s wrong with you?!” before they even ask my name (if they ever ask it). Other times, people will ask the typically abled person who is with me to speak for me (i.e., when waitresses take one look at my wheelchair and communication machine and ask my husband what I would like to order).
I also see this “otherness” in a society that deems some people of worthy of welcome as neighbours and others worthy of languishing in refugee camps, many of which brim with hardships such as poor sanitation, food insecurity, overcrowding, significant levels of violence, and a very high risk of sexual assault, especially toward women and girls.
Why does our society tend to deem some people as worthy of kindness, dignity, and respect (i.e., a well-dressed businessman in a suit and tie) and others as far less worthy (a homeless woman living with mental illness pushing a shopping cart, for example)? Why do we as Christians often seem to do this just as much as general society?
Why and how is it that we can turn a blind eye when another is suffering? Why do we see a fellow human being as “other”?
I think it is because often, especially in a time of challenge or struggle, our natural reaction is to run toward protectionism and self-interest, to go on high alert against anyone and anything we think could hurt us or threaten our position in life. Sometimes it’s a trauma response, that heightened sense of vigilance and mistrust.
This year, 2020, has been a very hard year for many of us, so we need to guard especially against this hypervigilant trauma reaction that results in unjust “othering” toward our fellow human beings.
The Christian Response
The problem with otherness for Christians is that it’s exactly the opposite of how Christ calls us to live. Jesus was known for loving and welcoming all types of people: women, children, the sick, the hurting, the struggling, those with varying amounts of wealth, and people of a different ethnicity than him.
He didn’t just love people who looked like him—which is a good thing for me, as I am of an ethnicity, gender, and physical (dis)ability level different than Jesus was when he was on earth. How easy it would be for Jesus to look at me and see “other,” and how incredible that he instead looks at me and calls me “daughter.”
Our calling as Christ’s followers is to look past our initial natural tendencies to “otherize” others. To realize that there is no “other”—even in a time of challenge, pain, and struggle in our own lives.
We must hold onto the words of the Apostle Paul in Gal. 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
If we are all “one,” then there is no “other.” Christ is for us all. How can we not dedicate our lives to helping, embracing, and welcoming people in need, those who are seen and classified by this broken world as “other”?