Presidential Speeches

Bacccalaureate Meditation
Strangers No More

May 19, 2013

In 1997, my husband Dave and I flew away together. We had signed up for eleven days of cooking school in rural Italy. When we arrived at the Pisa Airport, an old, wiry, toothless man held up a small hand-written sign that said “Villa Delia.” Without know his name or if he really worked for Villa Delia, we schlepped our bags into his small, dusty Fiat and headed into the countryside.

We drove out of the Pisa onto the Autostrade, our breath taken away by massive fields of sunflowers facing directly into the bright sun. Our driver exited the highway and began a meandering journey through smaller and smaller towns.

Eventually, we drove through a town with a church and no more than seven or eight houses. The turn onto the small dirt road was so tight, that even his tiny Fiat, he had to go forward and then in reverse several times to squeeze between the walls. After turning, we slowly bounced down a one-lane dirt road and began to question our judgment.

       • Who was this guy?
       • Why did we think it was okay to get into his car?
       • Was he a sweet old Italian man or a serial killer who preyed on innocent tourists?
       • Will they ever find us again?

Then we turned around a shallow curve and saw the Villa – vast hedges of lavender in full bloom. A beautiful villa from centuries ago. The sun was kissing the silver leaves of the olive trees. Grapes were green on the vines, and tomatoes bright red in the garden.

What happened next is the real story.

As we pulled up to the Villa, the owners – Umberto, Marietta, Silvano – the kitchen staff, and even some guests burst out the front door to welcome us. We were strangers to them, but they greeted us like long-lost family. They inquired about our trip, our fatigue, our hunger. They seemed genuinely glad that we had arrived.

We have never forgotten that moment when we were strangers no more. Their hospitality toward us made a permanent mark in our memories.

Seniors, most of you arrived here as strangers. You probably got a warm welcome from your SOL leader. But over the next few days, you may have walked into Haist Commons, not sure if you’d find anyone with whom to sit. Some of you stayed in your rooms because you didn’t know anybody. Remember?

But today, you leave with lifelong friends. I’ve seen you on campus this past month, and the joy of your friendships is vivid. A few of you leave with lifelong commitments to one another. And all of you have a fuller understanding of how to live in community. You are strangers no more.

Why? Because Thelma Rohrer and Rick Espeset and Justin Lasser and Dave Good and Rachel Polando and Dave Hicks and Shanon Fawbush and Walt Wiltschek and Heather Schilling and Patty the lunch checker and many more faculty, students, and staff welcomed you here.

How does it feel to be the stranger? What happens to us and to our community when we choose to make welcoming strangers a way of life? It’s been at the heart of Manchester University for 124 years.

Let me tell a story about Paul and Mary Grandstaff, both of whom have died in the last 10 years. The Grandstaffs lived here in North Manchester and attended the Lutheran Church. In the 1960s, they’d meet new college students at their church on Sundays, and they began to invite a few of them to their home near the bank downtown for dinner on Sunday nights. They served a home-cooked dinner, on real china with a table cloth. At first, they could easily sit around the dining room table.

The College students loved it, and they began to ask the Grandstaffs if they could bring along a boyfriend or a roommate. By the 1980s, The Grandstaffs were still serving homemade meals – on their nicest dishes and cloth tablecloths. As time passed, more and more students came until well over 100 students ate there most Sunday evenings. The Grandstaffs prepared the home-made food, served it lovingly, and washed all those dishes and linens.

We have hundreds of graduates who remember how welcome they felt at the Grandstaff’s home. They were well-fed, and more important, they were valued. What a lesson for us. The Grandstaff’s actions said “welcome,” and our students were strangers no more.

In Christine Pohl’s book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, she writes "We become proficient in a skill by performing it regularly, and by learning from persons who are masters of it." She goes on to say that every one of us learns from others’ examples: “from the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who have gone before, a gracious grandmother, or a wise and generous coworker. People for whom hospitality seems natural ..." On campus, we learn about hospitality from Chef Chris of Chartwells, from Stacy Erickson and Adam Hohman, from the Sharfman family.

Unfortunately, some societal changes have become enemies of hospitality. Our jam-packed schedules squeeze out opportunities for spontaneous get-togethers and the warmth that is embedded in them. We sometimes focus more on our iPhones than on listening to our friends at Sisters Café. We forget to welcome strangers and we forget to welcome our friends.

We have a lot to learn from the Grandstaffs, who performed hospitality every Sunday for over 40 years. When people talk with us, we can tune out all distractions (including our cell phone that just vibrated) and really listen to them. We can practice hospitality today, by focusing on others and less on ourselves. When we see parents of our friends today, in fact, we can go up to them and introduce yourselves, telling them how much you like their sons and daughters.

Hospitality, though, means more than kindness toward people with whom we are comfortable. At its core, hospitality means being kind to strangers. It means welcoming those who might not be welcomed by others – people with skin color or religious beliefs different than ours, people with more piercings than we like, people whose mental illness or memory loss makes them act inappropriately. Hospitality with these folks makes us uncomfortable. They might steal our silverware or embarrass us with odd questions. Or they may ask us the same questions over and over and over.

Jesus ate with those outsiders tax collectors and lepers. He didn’t win the “Hospitality of the Year Award” for doing it. In fact, the Pharisees criticized him sharply. A commitment to hospitality sometimes means that we make ourselves vulnerable to criticism or to being taken advantage of. The Grandstaffs were willing to do that. They may have lost some forks. Or had neighbors who complained about the noisy students. Hospitality doesn’t mean just warm hugs and smiles over fried chicken.

Hospitality is not a tame practice: It may mean we become vulnerable to hurt, loss, and disappointment. Hospitality is not for the weak! It takes courage and strength.

Manchester University welcomes students from many backgrounds. Some of you come from small towns, some from large cities. Some come from families that recycle, and others don’t. Some of you are extroverts and some are shy. Some of you come from Africa and Palestine and Iraq. Some come with anger issues. Some arrive here comfortable with others who have different views. Some come with closed minds.

But you know what? From Day One, faculty members and residence hall staff and custodians and cooks said “welcome. We are glad you are here.” You could each tell a story about someone who extended a welcome to you when you started here and felt out of place. Over your time here, you not only grew intellectually and personally, but you too also began to welcome the stranger. You were kind to
      • new members of your athletic teams
      • new members of the choir and the band
      • new students on your wing in the residence hall
      • and even to students sitting by themselves in Haist Commons

You welcomed the stranger, just as you were welcomed here.
As for me, when I grow up, I want to be like Paul and Mary Grandstaff. Welcoming. Not expecting anything in return. Hard-working. A wonderful man and woman who made their guests feel like they were the most important people in the world. People who treated students they did not know with the same grace that they would have treated angels in their midst.

I hope you felt welcomed and valued as students at Manchester University. We have valued you during the days we celebrated your successes at the Student Scholarship Symposium and also the uncomfortable days we were talking with you about a problem.

As you leave, we hope you carry on the practice of welcoming those who are strangers. We hope you will welcome them as you were welcomed here – by faculty members, by the children of faculty and staff, by residence hall staff and admissions and Chartwells and athletics and custodial services.

Small changes in our lives, cultivated over time, can reshape us and our communities so that those who come to us will say those most precious words: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me."

Let it be so. Amen.


Scriptural Foundations

Leviticus 19:18, 33-34
18   Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighborr as thyself: I am the LORD.

33   When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.   34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

Matthew 25:31-40
31  When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.   32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.   33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.   34 Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.

35   For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,   36   I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'   37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?'

38   When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?   39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'   40 The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

Hebrews 13.2
2   Don't forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.

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