The church had a gigantic oak in its courtyard; I watched our children collecting acorns underneath with some of the kids from their Sunday school class.
Little knots of people dotted the patio; people moved from one group to another, kissing cheeks, tousling kids’ hair, talking about the service, Sunday school, and the family asados that would happen that afternoon.
I knew I needed to introduce myself, make connections, be charming and chatty so I could help us settle into Buenos Aires for a six-month sabbatical. I needed to put myself out there.
I really didn’t want to.
Mostly, I’m an introvert. Large group gatherings always intimidate me. The thought of breaking into the little knots of people gave me a stomachache.
But there’s also the uneasy knowledge that as a foreigner, people simply don’t know what to do with you.
I saw this during my first time living in Argentina in college. After a few weeks, I could predict what questions people would ask of me.
Where are you from?
What brought you here?
Do you like it?
How long have you spoken Spanish?
When do you go back?
Then best case, the conversation would segue into one of the pet topics Argentines always seemed to bring up: how bad their country’s situation was, or the relative difficulties of Spanish and English grammar.
Or, worst case, they would run out of questions, smile politely, and excuse themselves to talk to someone that didn’t confuse the imperfect with the preterite tense.
I’m not picking on Argentines here. I think this is true anywhere.
We just don’t know what to do with people foreign to us. We don’t know how to welcome them. We don’t know how to talk to them.
I get it, because in the US, I sometimes do the same thing.
In Argentina, it took me a while to realize that I could either feel resentful that people all asked me the same, tired questions, or I could start looking at each conversation as a chance to bless the other person.
I could start asking questions that showed a genuine curiosity about their life, their passions, their circumstances.
I’m surprised at how hard that is. Especially when you’re aching with loneliness as an outsider, you want someone tonotice you. You want someone to care, to engage you, to show an interest.
Truth is, it is only fair for other people to be more welcoming than the foreigner. It’s even Biblical.
But as soon as I started laying down my right to be welcomed, I discovered something precious:
Friends. Blessings. Community.
Laying down my right to be welcomed first was a heart-transforming, life changing decision.
I almost hesitate to write this here, because I don’t want you to mistake my message. If Argentines struggle to welcome strangers, I’m afraid Americans have just as far to go. Over and over, I have heard how my immigrant friends have not been welcomed here, in ways that shock me. I think those of us who are natives have a serious task to do in welcoming strangers whole-heartedly into our country.
But the truth is, going past these cultural barriers, past prejudices and misunderstandings will require something of us.
It will require laying ourselves down. Our convenience. Our world-views. Our right to a conversation where we understand every word. Our right to not feel uncomfortable about our limitations.
I’m here to tell you something; It’s worth it to surrender our selves for the sake of one conversation, one interaction with a stranger. It is worth it to approach someone new at a park and ask about their day. It is worth noting who the immigrants are around us and make a special effort to ask them warm, open-ended questions.
It is worth it to open our ears and listen to their stories. Because as unlikely as it seems, one small act of surrender is a gigantic doorway into a life of transformation.