Befriending the Stranger

Greetings! Thought I’d share a little about a book I recently read, how it’s helped me with some of the tough parts about walking with the broken, and some stories of my own struggles.

Every once in a while you come across a book that truly moves you, that speaks directly into your life at that given moment. I’ve just finished reading the excellent ‘Befriending the Stranger’ by Jean Vanier, and it’s one of those books. It was originally a set of lectures given by Jean at a retreat in the Dominican Republic. Jean is best know for founding a network of Christian communities, called L’Arche, caring for (or caring with as he would say) people with severe physical and mental disabilities.

A brother from God’s Squad CMC recommended his work to me, especially as someone about to embark on establishing a Christ-Centred community. Jean’s words are so disarming, and on several occasions left me with bloodshot eyes. In the book he expresses the beauty of sharing in God’s love with the poor and weak. In doing this, he says, we accept God’s love for the brokenness and weakness in ourselves, in embracing the stranger we embrace God’s love for the strangeness in our own selves. This challenged me a great deal.

I’ve been through a few difficult experiences in my life, and for one reason or another I’ve generally tried to go it alone. My survival instinct has always taught me that only the strong survive. I’ve put walls up around myself, projected a strong, and sometimes downright mean, exterior to others. Often this has led to loneliness, pride and a judgemental attitude. Atop my ivory tower I’ve learned to despise weakness, especially in others. This leads to an idealistic attitude which scorns those unable to lift themselves out of whatever mess they’re in. As you may guess, this is not a good outlook for someone sharing God with the poor, broken and marginalised.

Witnessing the absolute poverty and desperation of the women we encounter through Azalea began to challenge these attitudes a few years ago. You see, I’ve lived in a world where generally if I work hard and do the right thing life goes pretty well. But many people do not live in such a world. Many people have experienced a life where working hard gets you nowhere, and doing the right thing gets you mocked or beaten. Some people have been so disempowered by the negative experiences and abuse that they have no strength left at all. They have such low self-worth that they don’t expect life to be any different, or believe they deserve it to be. This broke me.

Over the last few years these experiences have been a black mirror, reflecting my own insufficiencies, my own weaknesses. One young lady we know was living with her mother, a severe addict, after running away from the care system. She was horribly abused in the care system by various individuals, and the only thing which felt like safety was to return to her mother. Mum had been working the streets for most of her life, and the years of abuse and drug use had really taken their toll. She was now receiving so little money for sex that she turned to alternative methods, which often meant some nasty people being around. To see this 18 year old girl stuck living in this situation was heartbreaking. On many occasions their front door had been kicked in and needed repairing. I was trying to arrange to go round and fix it through Azalea, but at the time I didn’t understand that concepts like ‘office hours’ and appointments mean nothing to an addict. Their life is the same, day and night, every day. No weekends, no holidays, just a relentless cycle. I grew impatient and frustrated at missed appointments and so began to put the job to the bottom of my list. After all, I was a very busy man, a business owner and very generously giving my time, so shouldn’t they work around me?

Then something really bad happened. One night, when her mother was out, a man came in through the broken door and sexually assaulted our young friend. I’ll never forget that moment. All my shame, all my weakness, all my anger came crashing down on my own shoulders. In my mind this girl had been raped on MY WATCH. All my delusional fantasies about being the tough guy and some kind of hero came crashing down and I bore the full weight of this awful act on my own shoulders. Looking back I know that I can’t be held responsible for what that man did. I can’t help everyone. Heck, I can’t really even help myself. ‘God helps those who help themselves’? NO! God helps those who can’t help themselves!

I’m pleased to say that this young lady left her mother’s home and is now doing really well in a place of her own. She has grown from strength to strength and is living a life of slow recovery from the horrendous abuse she has suffered. But she is not alone, there are countless tragic stories out there.

This experience, and others, has taught me that in myself I have so little to give, but that as Jean Vanier says,

 “if we drink from the source of life, which is Jesus, we too will become a source of life;
we will bring life, the very life of God, into our world”

I’ve realised that to truly walk with the poor and broken, I must accept God’s love for the poverty and brokenness in me. So much of western ‘mission’ has been the empire mentality of ‘we have all the answers, we’ll teach you to be more like us’. I don’t see this in the gospels, I see St Peter saying,

 “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you.”

If we present to the world that we have it all figured out, they’ll soon see our weakness and walk away. If we say to the world “Meet the saviour who embraced me in my weakness and is leading me towards wholeness”, maybe there will be more of a response? On a few occasions people have used the old ‘faith is a crutch’ argument when I’ve been in good-natured discussions. My response is “absolutely, unequivocally and unashamedly my faith is a crutch”. Without it I was crawling on my hands and knees in the dark. As a weak person I cannot relate to a self-sufficient brand of humanism. How can you place so much faith in the ability of what you believe is a highly evolved ape?

So for anyone tired of trying to be strong, or engaging with people who are broken and weak for one reason or another, I wholeheartedly recommend Jean’s book. In the few weeks it took me to read it I have been on a journey of realisation and refreshment.

 ‘Befriending the Stranger’ by Jean Vanier on Amazon

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10 thoughts on “Befriending the Stranger”

  1. Oh Luke. This is amazing. Thank you for it. May I quote from it? May I use it? You have copyright. Are you keeping these to put together in a book?

    1. Of course you can! Don’t know about a book, not sure anyone would want to buy it! Just writing to help my brain make sense of things and hopefully encourage others too.

  2. You have so much to say! I love it.
    Awesome to hear your heart from all these thousands of miles away. I agree about realizing our own depravity. Falling on His sweet mercy is all we have.

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