On Becoming an Outsider

I had never been on the other side before. I grew up as an insider – I was of the majority demographic in my community, raised in the suburbs of Indianapolis. I understood the pop culture references of my friends, we’d grown up watching the same movies and eating the same foods. I served at my church and knew what was happening in the inner workings there.

And then within one day, with one flight, one beep of the passport scanner, one unpacked suitcase – I was an outsider. I said things that were wrong. The information I thought I knew was wrong. I offended people with things that I didn’t understand were offensive. I referenced things that I was accustomed to having in common with others, only to find that the metaphors or pop culture references fell flat.

It seemed I had nothing in common with these people. They owed me nothing. I was in their country yet I did not know their language. I was eating their food yet it was unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I was using their transport system, their roads, yet my ignorance made me an inconvenience or even dangerous. These new people had every reason to treat me like what I was – an outsider.

I was fearless with my language learning – I recklessly used the new words and phrases I was using. And as one might imagine, I got it wrong most of the time. I look back on those early days and remember so many kind cashiers, transportation authorities, or neighbors smiling kindly and either gently correcting my French or answering my questions without pointing out my mistakes. There were people who helped me get where I was going. There were people on the train who gently told me to put my phone away lest it be snatched by someone walking past.

I was an outsider, but I was welcomed in.

The culture I had come out of was one that valued belonging. We saw belonging as something that must be earned. You must learn our language and customs, you must learn to blend in with us, or we will not accept you. The burden is on you. And now I was on the other side of it.

As an outsider I was shocked with how much grace I required. I was constantly bumping into people – my body didn’t know how to handle itself with this new spatial crunch, these different rules for personal space. I was not able to express myself – my words no longer held any power. I was completely reliant on the grace of my new neighbors – and they did not fail to give it.

I was often moved to tears by these undeserved acts of grace and kindness. Remember when Jesus told his disciples that they could show their love by loving the stranger? “I was a stranger, and you invited me in,” he said to them. (Matthew 25:35) I was now that stranger, and the invitation and open hearts of those who welcomed me was a gift and a challenge to me.

The thing about being welcomed when you don’t deserve it, is that you begin to want to extend the same to others. When we have those moments of welcome in our host culture, it helps us understand what it is to be an outsider who is invited in. It reveals to us the invitation of Christ and the power of welcome and hospitality. How much more can we be carriers of the presence of Christ when we extend this same welcome to others?

I used to find it difficult to extend a spirit of welcome, because I didn’t understand what it feels like to be welcomed as an outsider. I am grateful for the gift of welcome, for those moments of feeling like I belong. And although there are many moments that I am aware I don’t belong, I am amazed at how grace overcomes those moments to make me feel like I am a part of a whole.

May we invite in the stranger.

May we show grace to those who don’t understand.

May we welcome those who are outsiders.

May we embrace the lonely.

May we expand our capacity to love those who don’t belong.

As we have been invited.

As we have been shown grace.

As we have been welcomed.

As we have been embraced.

As we have been loved.

What moments were you shown grace as an outsider? How have you shown grace to others who don’t belong? What opportunities do you have in your day to day life to bring in the outsider?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

3 Comments

  1. Elizabeth September 18, 2018

    After 6 years I realize more than ever what an outsider I am here. I am the foreigner. Before moving, I had assumed I would enculturate fully. Learn the language, the culture, eat the food, wear the clothes. Not that we can’t do those things, just that even IF we do those things, we still are not FROM here. We must depend on people to welcome us, the outsider, in. We know this in the beginning, but sometimes in the middle years we forget. This year I have just been reminded of it.

  2. Dana Bhalla September 19, 2018

    I loved reading this, and your style of writing and invitations at the end. I felt moments of the foreigner wecomed in this week. I’m living in India-and volunteering at a school. During school assembly, all the teachers started to move from outside to inside as it was the end of assembly. But as all the teachers started moving, a group of students came up and began to recite the nationa anthem. Everyone stopped. I folded my hands, and a teacher told me to stand with my hands at my sides. I was grateful for her correction, and felt like she cared about me being respectful!
    I still make so many mistakes, cultural flub-ups; but there really is so much grace.

  3. Annette E Petrick September 29, 2018

    Beautifully presented thoughts. I am an outsider in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Only been here for 27 years. This outsider status does not begin to match the one described by your blog post. But it is real. Opinions and stands taken will be evaluated by whether they are the consensus of the locals or those who have transferred from Northern Virginia/Washington DC. At one point, I no doubt did have a different stance and attitude. Not any more. I’ve mellowed and definitely have a rural outlook. So perhaps there are now three classes of people here – locals, long timers and newbies. I wonder if I’ve earned a seat in the middle yet.

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