I Was a Stranger: Matthew 25

A Letter from Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, serving in South Sudan, currently in the U.K.

February 2020

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“‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matt 25:37-41)

What resonates with my spirit from this dialogue? Being a stranger and being welcomed. There is a humbling pattern in my life of arriving in a new place and being embraced like family. Many of these experiences occurred in churches around the U.S. and many in communities and churches in other countries.

My first opportunity to serve internationally came in my early twenties in El Alto, Bolivia. The Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, run a home on the high, cold altiplano. They gather people from the streets who cannot care for themselves and give them food, clothes and a place to stay. They welcomed me to volunteer weekly.

It was not easy to fulfill my weekly commitment. Forming relationships with persons physically and mentally different from me, across a cultural, economic and language divide, proved challenging. The best days included a long game of UNO, as residents laughed and laughed when the color of the cards changed. I still remember the off-putting smell of guinea pig cooking in the kitchen, and I also cannot forget the way the sisters cared for others, day and night, without tiring.

A few years later, I arrived in Nairobi, where the Kenyan staff of Church World Service (CWS) kindly invited me to join their efforts. One of their programs targeted communities where girls and women spent the majority of their day fetching water. In some places, they walked from sunrise to sunset for a jerry can (20 liters) of dirty water. Some women talked of miscarrying babies along the way. CWS assisted such groups with the construction of sand dams, which store and purify water from the rainy season for the dry one. The celebrations of whole neighborhoods able to drink water when thirsty remains etched in my mind; the dancing, the singing and the words of thanks.

In 2011, the RECONCILE Peace Institute (RPI) in Yei, South Sudan asked our family to be part of their team. The dormitory next to our home housed grassroots peacebuilders attending a three-month training which included practicums and mentorship. The students learning community-based trauma healing visited hospitals and prisons. They applied their new counseling skills, providing a safe space for patients wrestling with an HIV diagnosis or prisoners whose fate remained uncertain. Initially, many RPI students felt anxious stepping into such heavy situations, yet the glow of their faces once they returned from their practicums, having let God use them, gives me strength to this today. I wish I could still go to bed listening to the prayers and songs lifted up during their student-led evening devotions. There was a sweet spirit present.

Currently, we live in Oxford, England, and my children attend a Church of England (CoE) primary school. Roughly a third of the children are Christian, a third of other faiths, and a third do not claim a faith tradition. The CoE schools are free and seek to serve their communities through education. While respecting the diversity of beliefs present, there remains an element of spiritual development in some school activities. Assemblies focus on values common to the main religions, and last week, “Be Space” took place in the library.

With the bookshelves covered in sheets, a light tube with bubbles reaching to the ceiling, and fluffy pillows on the floor, the classes took turns entering this calm oasis to learn about prayer and reflection. I am deeply grateful I was invited to facilitate one of the four stations. “How do you feel about where you live or where you go to school?” I asked each small group. Followed by, “How can you make your school community, or where you live, a better place?”

I got to help children think through their roles as change agents by asking them to either pray or reflect on a need they see and write it on a post-it note. The sticky notes then covered cardboard buildings representing their school or neighborhood. One child wanted to promote more kindness at school, while another hoped to include every single neighbor in a block party. God used the space, encouraging young minds to think beyond themselves and to the needs of others.

Why am I sharing these small portions of my journey in light of God’s call in Matthew 25? Because I am deeply grateful to have been welcomed by and to have witnessed Christians around the world helping the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or stranger near them. They stretch my faith and give me courage.

May we be inspired to action by the commitment of Christians in other nations, and may we be grateful for opportunities to contribute our talents in both distant places and in our own neighborhoods.

Thank you for your support of our family, and the ministries we feel called to serve.

Nancy Smith-Mather

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