Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

A Homily for September 18, 2022

Matthew 25: 35. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

When my mother was a young girl growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, her parents opened their large farmhouse located along the busy Route 33 to travelers and passersby as a way to supplement their modest income. Many guests were vacationers to the nearby Shenandoah National Park, or headed to points west along a major thoroughfare that connected Richmond to Elkhart, Ind. The Fraziers were so known for their hospitality that in the late 1930s a newborn baby boy was left on their front porch steps in a basket with a bottle. According to family lore, if Grandma Frazier weren’t already caring for three young children under the age of six with a fourth on the way, she might have adopted the infant instead of alerting the child welfare authorities of the day.

My mother, Louise Frazier Dovel, in front of the Frazier Inn.

Around 1950, “The Frazier Inn” hosted crews of migrant construction workers who had been hired to build a new Montevideo High School at the foot of the Massanutten Mountain (which my mom and I both attended). I’m not sure how much longer “The Frazier Inn” operated after the new school opened and the four Frazier siblings had grown to adulthood, but I know that the work was hard for my mom: cooking breakfasts, packing lunches, fixing dinners, cleaning rooms, and changing sheets on top of her daily farm chores. But she also spoke fondly of friendships made among favorite guests.

Knowing my grandparents, the worker guests would have been expected to comply with certain house rules: no alcohol, tobacco, cursing, or unruly behavior. Being a Yankees fan might have gotten you a nicer room. As Granddaddy led grace before meals in his mouth-full-of-marbles mumbling style, “Kind heavenly father, bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies….and when our mortal life is done, take us home at last to be with thee,” all heads were bowed, regardless of your faith tradition.

When Jesus was describing the coming Kingdom of God to his disciples, he used language that would have resonated with listeners whose ancestors were themselves enslaved in Egypt and held captive in Babylon. He said: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Not “I was a stranger and you used me as a pawn to poke your political enemies in the eye and score points with your supporters.” Nor “I was a stranger and you tricked me and sent me under false pretenses to an unknown place.” Jesus concludes that conversation with them by saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Michele Norris, writing in the Washington Post about Venezuelan asylum-seekers unwittingly transported across the country using public funds, says: “We’ve seen this political gamesmanship before, during the Jim Crow era, when Southerners tried to retaliate against Northern liberals with so-called reverse freedom rides. When young civil rights workers were traveling by bus to places such as Mississippi and Alabama, Southern leaders recruited busloads full of unsuspecting Black families and sent them to Hyannis, Mass., under the ruse that President John F. Kennedy himself had arranged jobs and housing for them. It was all a hoax, and similar to the play toward hypocrisy this week, the thought then was that if busloads of Black families with lots of kids showed up in Hyannis and other cities, the Northerners would balk, and their insincerity would be exposed for all to see. Instead, local leaders, Black and White, formed a Refugee Relief Committee and arranged housing and jobs and got the children enrolled in schools.”

In similar fashion, the people of Martha’s Vineyard stepped up with alacrity, organizing food and temporary shelter, gathering toys, feminine hygiene products, and linens, and recruiting volunteer interpreters. They showed compassion to people fleeing trauma, poverty and hopelessness, who had already traveled a dangerous 3,000-mile path just to get to the U.S. border and had been abandoned in this small village disoriented and confused.

If those operating the puppet strings of these performative displays call themselves Christian, then they have succeeded in further deepening the cynical disdain that many young people have toward organized religion in America (but that’s another sermon). “Faith without works” is bad enough; faith without basic decency is heretical.

The message of hope is that this week we saw God’s Kingdom foreshadowed after all—in the residents of Martha’s Vineyard and in the U.S. military personnel who transported the asylum-seekers to Joint Base Cape Cod, not to be booked and charged, but to be treated with humanity and provided health care, crisis counseling, and legal services. May these “strangers” eventually recover from the indignity of being the victim of a callous prank, and instead remember the extended hand of welcome that they received as they begin to build a new life in a foreign land.

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