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franciscan - May 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

When the stranger is your brother

by Silas SSF

I am writing this in our Friary in Brooklyn, New York: the heart of the great American ‘melting-pot’. The theory was that in places such as this, peoples from all the nations and cultures of the Old World would meet and mingle to form a new, universal humanity under the improving influence of Reason and Freedom. This is not happening.

The fabric of society, here and elsewhere, does not resemble the seamless garment this theory predicts, and ‘irrational’ cultural peculiarities refuse to dissolve into a shared participation in the American Dream. A suspicion has arisen that the dream of a melting-pot is just another way for white protestant men to impose their own codes and practices on everybody else, as the ‘normal’ way to live. In resistance to this, there is developing a patchwork of ethnic identities and loyalties. There is a rediscovery of the importance of cultural roots and a rejection of the notion that we are all the same under the skin; a growing sense that culture goes ‘all the way down’, that it is not possible to dissolve it away without diminishing what makes us truly human. It turns out that people need to belong to units smaller than the great mass of universal humanity, need to be able to pick out friendly faces in the crowd to save them from the anonymity of modern life; and the result is a confusing mosaic of different ways of life.

The result of all this is that we have become strangers to each other afresh: it is no longer safe to assume that the people I meet share my perspectives and beliefs. At its best, this is an invitation to us all to live in the midst of a new and exciting diversity, which reveals to us in joyful surprise the richness of God’s dealings with humankind. But at worst, we are threatened with fragmentation, with the breakdown of communion into little groups of like-minded individuals, each inhabiting its own private universe. It can be frightening and costly to meet the stranger, and we are tempted to turn in on ourselves and our own familiar world. It is only by faith that we know the voice of the stranger to be, perhaps, the voice of God for us; and by faith that we go out to that meeting.

So the stranger meets us as both a threat and a promise, and Franciscans in particular are called to live in that tension. Because we believe that, ultimately, all human beings are our sisters and brothers, the stranger is no foreigner from a distant land but a member of my family. This is particularly true of those to whom I am committed under vow, the sisters and brothers of our community. The stranger turns out to be the one with whom I pray, eat and live. Here, the cultural diversity which infuses and perplexes all our lives is present in an especially intense form, and we find that there is no ‘melting pot’ in the religious life either. Each of us is called in a particular cultural context, with its own codes, habits and ways of seeing the world. These are not dissolved but redeemed and brought to fruition as our vocation flourishes. There is no core of culturally-neutral Franciscanism any more than there is a core of culturally-neutral humanity. There are only brothers and sisters, each unique, mediating God to me.

This can be a hard lesson to learn, harder perhaps for the British brothers than for others. Because we have traditionally been in the majority in SSF, and because most of the rest come from former colonies of the British Empire, it is easy to slip into thinking that we represent the norm and the font of Anglican Franciscanism. Nobody seriously claims that God is an Englishman, but there is a tendency to assume that ‘culture’ is something foreigners have: we may be curious about other cultures, but rarely see them as preaching the gospel to us, calling us to repentance. We forget that it was ‘foreigners’ who first brought the Good News here and, increasingly as British Christianity declines, it is ‘foreigners’ who offer us renewal. In this forgetfulness, everybody is diminished: we are deaf to the contribution of brothers visiting from overseas, assuming that they have come only to learn from us and insensitive to the struggles they endure in adjusting to peculiar British ways. As a result, we may be unable to see them as revealing God to us and fail to appreciate what it costs them in isolation and even humiliation to live in an alien cultural context. This is more than just a failure of brotherly love and communion: it is a blindness to the Christ who comes to us in the unexpected ways of the stranger.

As part of a response to this challenge, about three years ago the Minister Provincial initiated a series of ‘Hartlebury Days’, opportunities for brothers from different cultures to meet and discuss their cross-cultural experience. They include brothers from South Africa, the Philippines and Egypt who are members of this Province, along with a few British brothers with cross-cultural experience; and visiting brothers from Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Malaysia and Jamaica when they pass through. Many of the difficulties of the ‘missionary’, living out the gospel in a strange land, seem to be the same regardless of where you are or where you have come from: the rituals to do with preparing and eating food, for example, and the sense of isolation which arises from being unable to recognise the ways in which strangers express their support and love. There is also a shared recognition of the freedom and self-understanding which comes from viewing one’s culture through the eyes of a stranger. But beyond both of these, there is a shared commitment to find and to live a Franciscan way which embraces and celebrates the richness of cultural differences, but also gathers them into a unity of love, loyalty and prayer. In the process, we share in the surprise, the joy and the deepened awareness of God which we find when we encounter Christ in the stranger and, by faith, know that we are bound together in him.

‘Hartlebury Days’ are one aspect, but only one, of what it means to welcome the stranger. It is easy enough to recognise the strangeness of one who comes to us with a different language and passport, but there is a deeper sense in which each of us comes from a different land, with a different perspective on the world. Human beings are each unique, formed not only by their culture but by gender, class and the myriad details of a personal history not even fully known to themselves. My brother is also always a stranger, and I do him no favours by pretending that he is ‘just like me underneath’. Instead, we are called to embrace the mystery, the strangeness of the other, in faith that this also is an expression of the Holy Spirit, breaking into our neatly-ordered lives to open them up to the Mystery of God. Only in this way may we draw close to the Christ who is always both stranger and brother, who meets with us across all ages and cultures, to walk with him a little on the Way. §


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