Welcoming the Stranger? Rethinking Our Language of Hospitality

[1] We face a country increasingly riven by racial, ethnic, and religious conflict, conflict that often revolves around the figure of the immigrant. The incarceration of children on the border and President Trump’s call for four U.S. congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries (even though all are U.S. citizens and three of the four were born in the United States) are only two of a seemingly unending list of examples. In the midst of these crises, Christian churches have again and again raised their voices. In response to President Trump’s 2017 executive order banning Muslim migrants, for example, ELCA presiding bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton noted, “The Bible calls us to welcome the stranger and treat the sojourner as we would our own citizens.” This language echoes language from the ELCA’s social message on immigration, which draws on a passage from Leviticus 19: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[1]

[2] The idea of “welcoming the stranger” is not unique to the ELCA; the phrase appears frequently in Christian theological responses to immigration. A recent book by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, Welcoming the Stranger, has the phrase in its title; the US Catholic bishops’ website includes the phrase in its teaching on immigration; and the Church World Service, an ecumenical organization that responds to issues of global poverty, discusses the importance of “Christian hospitality and welcoming the stranger.”[2] Though the language is widespread, it sends a mixed message that undermines its presumptive goal. On the one hand, it offers kindness and generosity. But, on the other, it identifies newcomers as “strangers,” as “one of them,” not “one of us.” In this article I draw on research with Christians in twenty congregations across rural Nebraska and Iowa, most of whom are white and whose churches are responding in some way to recent immigration, to illustrate how this language plays out “on the ground.” I then suggest how we might reframe our language to cultivate a just and reciprocal community in which all welcome and learn from each other.

Language Matters

[3] Our language matters. Let me begin with one classic example. In 1974 Elizabeth F. Loftus and John C. Palmer asked research participants to think about a video of a car accident they had been shown. When the participants were asked “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” the participants provided much higher estimates of the cars’ speed than when alternatives such as “bumped” or “contacted” were used. They were also more likely a week later to say they had seen broken glass in the video, even though no such glass was present. All this with a single word. Theologians, too, clearly recognize the power of theological language to shape our lives. Sallie McFague, for instance, devoted an entire book to the role of metaphor in our theological language, arguing that “it is only as the basic metaphors in which we imagine the relationship between God and the world change that our way of being in the world will change.”[3] While she is speaking specifically about how we conceptualize God, our religious language about other people has similar power to affect our lives.

[4] A body of research has demonstrated that the way reality is framed shapes our understanding and behavior across a range of contexts. Media frames about immigration, for instance, shape attitudes toward migrants and possible policy responses. George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson note, “Each framing defines the problem in its own way, and hence constrains the solutions needed to address that problem.”[4] They note that the dominant narrative about immigrants as “illegal aliens” frames the situation as a problem of law and dehumanizes the people involved. In contrast, they note that using the language of “economic refugee” cultivates a sense of compassion and an understanding of the forces leading people to migrate. The words we choose shape how we think and respond.[5]

[5] Anthropologist Mary Douglas notes, “Though we laud charity as a Christian virtue, we know that it wounds.”[6] In great part this is because the benefactors—those providing the charity—retain control. They decide who to help, how much to help, which ways to help, and under what conditions. Welcoming the stranger is a parallel experience. We welcome people into our homes, our businesses, our churches. Note the pronoun “our.” The person doing the welcoming has the power to define the terms of the interaction; the visitor is subject to those terms. You are in my home now. You are welcome to visit, but it is still my home. Adding “stranger” to the phrase reinforces the dynamic. The visitor is not “one of us” but instead “one of them.” While the idea of welcoming the stranger is grounded in notions of hospitality and care, too often today that hospitality and care comes with strings attached to an unequal power dynamic.

Experiences with Immigration in the Rural Midwest

[6] While there may be no direct line tying the framing of immigrants as “stranger” to the actions of Christians responding to newcomers in their communities, people in mainline Protestant congregations in the rural Midwest communities I studied, in a context of increasing Latinx immigration, see the immigrants as “stranger” in a way that often hinders compassionate, welcoming, and reciprocal responses.[7]

[7] Immigrants from all over the world, but especially Latin America, have moved to the rural Midwest over the past three decades.[8] Iowa and Nebraska, for instance, have seen the population of Latinx people increase by nearly 500 percent between 1990 and 2016, the most recent year for which Census estimates are available.[9] Those shifts are likely to continue; a recent report estimated the Latinx population in Nebraska would more than double, to 24 percent, by 2050.[10] Many longtime residents of rural communities notice that their communities have been upended, with demographic change one marker of broader shifts, including a “brain drain” as youth move from small towns to cities and an economic transformations caused by the greater use of technology in farming.[11]

[8] Between 2008 and 2010, I interviewed Christians in Nebraska and Iowa whose churches were responding in some way to recent immigration. In total, I interviewed thirty-two people representing twenty mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations and religious organizations.[12] Those I spoke with were clear about what was happening to their communities. Nancy, the pastor of a mainline Protestant congregation, explained it to me this way: “ The community had a certain sense of itself at one point. That whole sense has shifted. [It] is not the community it once was, nor will it ever be that way again. And so there’s grief. There’s anger.”[13] The same forces at work in rural communities are also at work in predominantly white rural churches. Ruth, a Protestant layperson, told me, “ Sunday services, we used to have the children’s sermon. They don’t even have it any more because there’s so few kids. Hardly none. It’s really sad. ” Father Luke explained that, in his parish, “It’s kind of like a funeral watch or geriatric ministry. ” Although there are clearly multiple causes for rural community change, some find it difficult to avoid turning correlation into causation: communities have changed and newcomers have moved in, so the newcomers must be causing the uncomfortable change. Some of my interviewees struggled with the question of causation throughout our interviews. Esther went back and forth between positive portrayals: “I live around them [Hispanics]. . . . They’re nice people. . . .” and negative attributions: “But it’s just those few [Hispanics who cause trouble]; they ruin it for everybody.”

[9] In the midst of concern about changing communities and the role of recent immigrants in that change, some churches, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, have been reaching out to newcomers in their communities. For example, churches in the region are providing social services, including free meals and immigration support, offering services in Spanish, and inviting small immigrant congregations to rent space from them. Yet ambiguity about immigrants and sometimes outright hostility is also present in these responses. This is particularly true in mainline Protestant churches. Congregation members often perceived new Latinx community members to be either Catholic or Pentecostal and thus not immediately a part of the mainline Protestant congregation’s community.[14] Renting congregations are rarely part of mainline traditions—nearly all of those in the churches I studied were Pentecostal—and thus full welcome and inclusion seemed untenable to the mainline congregants. Many respondents talked about the very different worship style of the “nesting” congregations, with loud music and simultaneously verbalized individual prayer and speaking in tongues. In other words, there is no clear mandate to include this new group, nor is there a sense that the Anglo community should change to learn from newcomers.

[10] Again and again, without my inquiring, Protestant laypeople brought up the idea that the newcomers to the community were fundamentally different from them. Pastor Lucy relayed what her parishioners said about Latinos/as, identifying a sense that the newcomers were not and could not be part of their mainline Protestant community: “Aren’t they all Catholic? Shouldn’t we just let the Catholic Church deal with these kind of people? If they really want church, they’d be coming anyway.” Jonathan was even more direct: “My gut is that—and this is going to sound terrible—sheep herd with sheep, cows herd with cows.”

[11] Many Protestant pastors experienced the effort to welcome newcomers as dangerous, taken at some risk to their well-being and their jobs. In a couple of cases, this opposition became more pointed after joint events at which Anglos and Latinos were brought together for conversation, a meal, and festivities. In one instance, loud music was the catalyst, as Pastor Gabe explained to me: “I had cautioned [the renting congregation] many times that the music needed to be quiet [during the event].” He continued, “It was like Black Sabbath loud . . . and I immediately knew there was going to be a backlash.” Afterward, Pastor Gabe noted: “I just cooled everything down with everybody because it was either that or . . . I was the person whose head was going to roll.” Others, such as Pastor Madison, noted that because of congregational backlash they were unlikely to schedule additional events bringing the two communities together. At best, the invitation among Protestants was a call to “Come, be like us,” as one pastor characterized it. At worst, the invitation was no invitation at all.

[12] Pastor Jim explained, “Most of these communities are ill-prepared for the change that faces them. And, in most cases, are reluctant to engage that change in any positive way.” He continued: “We simply want people to become like us. . . . We are not, as a dominant white culture . . . interested in shifting any of the rules, regulations, procedures, processes. . . . If you can do it the way we do it, great. If you can’t, fine, it’s nice to have you around, but don’t mess with anything.” The desire to maintain social arrangements also filtered down to the congregational level. Jonathan, a Protestant layperson, said something similar about resistance to change, describing what he perceived to be the dominant perspective in his congregation: “We’re not going to change, they should learn to like us like we are, the way we worship.” In other words, efforts to welcome presumed a nonreciprocal relationship in which the newcomers change and the receiving community remains the same. As one might imagine, such an invitation is much more attractive to the group in power than to the group being invited to change.[15] We see here echoes of the problem identified earlier: “Strangers” are coming; we ought to welcome them. The “strangers” are here, and they are not like us.

Reframing Our Theological Language

[13] In light of these challenges, how might we rethink our theological language? If one of the problems of identifying immigrants as “strangers” is the implication that they are “other,” then reframing the conversation may open space for new ways of thinking and acting.

[14] Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio, in their work on aversive racism, discuss the role of a “common in-group identity” for bringing people together.[16] Gaertner and Dovidio cite a number of studies indicating that recategorizing someone as an in-group member increases the sense of shared beliefs and may encourage empathy, greater self-disclosure, trust, and cooperation.[17] For example, in an experiment conducted outside a football stadium prior to a game, white and black “interviewers” approached fans entering the stadium. The interviewers wore caps with either the home team’s logo or that of the opposing team. Sharing a team identity with black interviewers substantially increased the likelihood that white people who were approached would consent to an interview.[18] Moreover, Gordon Allport highlights working together on a common goal as another feature of effective intergroup contact.[19] In other words, finding ways of working together and understanding oneself as “on the same team” enhance the possibility of true mutuality.

[15] There is some evidence of these strategies at work in rural communities. For instance, a natural disaster in one small town brought together the Anglo and Latinx communities out of necessity. Father Luke explained to me that though there had originally been “a lot of resentment, a lot of fear” in the community, some of that has changed because of the unified community response. Immediately following the disaster, “Latinos helped in the rescue efforts.” And, in response, Anglos began to think, Father Luke explained: “Wow, these Spanish aren’t so bad after all! They care!” The responses of the Catholic parishes I studied illustrate the common in-group identity that Gaertner and Dovidio describe. Both the people previously in the community and the newcomers are perceived as part of the same group. Although there was also resistance to welcome among Catholic laypeople, they recognized a fundamental “family resemblance” between themselves and the newcomers to their community and thus the need for some response. At the same time, the path to full mutuality remained a long one.

[16] These two examples have something important in common: they create the conditions for the possibility of equality, even if equality remains a distant ideal. The same can be true of the metaphors we use to think about immigrants. The familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) might provide one clue about how to do this. While the parable is sometimes reduced to a simple lesson about caring for one’s neighbor, its claims, like those of so many of Jesus’s parables, are much deeper. In the parable, Jesus describes the caring response of the Samaritan, the “outsider,” to the wounded man on the side of the road after others in the community had passed him by. The Samaritan is not welcomed, helped, or cared for; rather, he is the exemplar, the one who offers welcome and care. We are called by Jesus to learn from the “stranger.”

[17] Stephanie Spellers argues that congregations should engage in “radical welcome,” which she explains is “the spiritual practice of embracing and being changed by the gifts, presence, voices, and power of The Other: the people systemically cast out of or marginalized within a church, a denomination and/or society.”[20] By reenvisioning our relationship with newcomers to our communities as an opportunity to learn, to engage in mutual recognition and care, perhaps we can begin to shift the frame from “strangers” entering our communities to a family reunion, where long-lost relatives, children of God all, meet each other for the first time.


Jeremy Rehwaldt is a professor of religion at Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska. He is  grateful for a grant from the Louisville Institute that supported his research with rural congregations in Nebraska and Iowa.

[1] Theological Discernment, Office of the Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “A Social Message on . . . Immigration,” November 1998, https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Messages/Immigration (accessed September 10, 2019). A footnote in the document indicates they’ve rendered the passage using the RSV’s “stranger” rather than the NRSV’s “alien.”


[2] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration and the Movement of Peoples,” http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/immigration/catholic-teaching-on-immigration-and-the-movement-of-peoples.cfm (accessed September 10, 2019); Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2018); Church World Service, “Christian Hospitality and Welcoming the Stranger,” https://www.greatplainsumc.org/files/ministries/mj_christian_hospitality_welcoming_strangers.pdf (accessed September 10, 2019).


[3] Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1982), xi.


[4] George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson, “The Framing of Immigration,” Rockridge Institute, May 25, 2006, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0j89f85g (accessed September 10, 2019).


[5] See Juan-José Igartua and Lifen Cheng, “Moderating Effect of Group Cue While Processing News on Immigration: Is the Framing Effect a Heuristic Process?,” Journal of Communication 59 (2009): 726–49. Lindsay Pérez Huber provides strategies for drawing on the rich resources of Latinas to “reframe the immigration debate” in her “Challenging Racist Nativist Framing: Acknowledging the Community Cultural Wealth of Undocumented Chicana College Students to Reframe the Immigration Debate,” Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 704–29.


[6] Quoted in Janet Poppendieck, Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement (New York: Penguin, 1999), 232.


[7] I have chosen to use Latinx when possible in this article to include as fully as possible all people of Latin American descent living in the United States, though most in the rural U.S. Midwest refer to their identity in terms of national origin. “Latinx” has emerged as an alternative to Latino/a to address the exclusion of transgender and gender-nonbinary persons, though others have critiqued the term for confusing linguistic gender with the gender of persons and for creating neologisms that cannot be easily spoken or read. See Mark Hugo Lopez, “Hispanic or Latino? Many Don’t Care, Except in Texas.” Pew Research Center, October 28, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/28/in-texas-its-hispanic-por-favor (accessed September 10, 2019); and Racquel Reichard, “Latino/a vs. Latinx vs. Latine: Which Word Best Solves Spanish’s Gender Problem?,” Latina, March 30, 2017, http://www.latina.com/lifestyle/our-issues/latinoa-latinx-latine-solving-spanish-gender-problem?page=0%2C1 (accessed September 10, 2019).


[8] As of 2014, about two-thirds of the Latina/os living in the Midwest were born in the United States. Lissette Aliaga Linares and Jasney Cogua-Lopez, Latinos and the Economic Downturn in Nebraska: Demographic and Socioeconomic Trends 2005–2013/2014 (Omaha: University of Nebraska Omaha, Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, 2016), https://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-arts-and-sciences/ollas/_files/pdfs/publications-presentations/report-latinos-and-the-economic-downturn-2016.pdf (accessed September 10, 2019).


[9] U.S. Census Bureau, “Quick Facts,” https://www.census.gov/quickfacts.


[10] Mike Tobias, “Nebraska’s Hispanic/Latino Population Could Triple by 2050.” NET News, August 20, 2013, http://netnebraska.org/article/news/nebraskas-hispaniclatino-population-could-triple-2050 (accessed September 10, 2019).


[11] See, for example, Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America (Boston: Beacon, 2010); and J. L. Anderson, ed., The Rural Midwest since World War II (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014).


[12] Among the interviewees—all part of congregations in Iowa or Nebraska communities of fewer than 30,000 people where a substantial number of immigrants had moved—were ten Anglo Protestant pastors, two Latino Protestant pastors, three Catholic priests and three Catholic women religious (four Anglo and two Latino), six Catholic Anglo laypeople, and eight Anglo mainline Protestant laypeople. Each interview, typically between one and two hours long, was recorded, transcribed, and coded for key themes. I found respondents by talking with denominational leaders to find out which congregations were in engaging in outreach. I then contacted pastors at many of those congregations, interviewed them where possible, and asked for others I might speak with. I did more extensive research, including a congregational survey and participant observation, in one mainline Protestant congregation and one Catholic parish.


[13] Pseudonyms have been used and identifying details have been changed to maintain the anonymity of the respondents.


[14] See Jeremy Rehwaldt, “Responses by White Christians to Recent Latino Immigration in the Rural U.S. Midwest,” Religions 6 (2015): 686–711.


[15] Tamar Saguy, John Dovidio, and Felicia Pratto, “Beyond Contact: Intergroup Contact in the Context of Power Relations.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34, no. 3 (2008): 432.


[16] Aversive racists consciously and sincerely believe in equality, but they are anxious around people of color in ways they often do not recognize. Because of this discomfort, they seek to avoid interactions and ironically end up acting in ways that have discriminatory effects, generally by rationalizing discriminatory behavior on the basis of some nonracial factor.


[17] Samuel L. Gaertner and John F. Dovidio, Reducing Intergroup Bias: The Common Ingroup Identity Model (New York: Routledge, 2014).


[18] Ibid., 5, 63; see also Samuel L. Gaertner, John F. Dovidio, Jason A. Nier, Christine M. Ward, and Brenda S. Banker, “Across Cultural Divides: The Value of a Superordinate Identity,” in Cultural Divides: Understanding and Overcoming Group Conflict, ed. Deborah A. Prentice and Dale T. Miller (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).


[19] Thomas F. Pettigrew, “Intergroup Contact Theory,” Annual Review of Psychology 49 (1998): 67.


[20] Stephanie Spellers, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation (New York: Church Publishing, 2006), 6.

Jeremy Rehwaldt

Jeremy Rehwaldt is a professor of religion at Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska. He is  grateful for a grant from the Louisville Institute that supported his research with rural congregations in Nebraska and Iowa.