He came in late and sat on the back row. He was overdressed — not for worship but for the weather. Overcoat. Backpack. Disheveled. I couldn’t tell from my perch behind the pulpit where his long gray hair left off and his long gray beard began.

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Did he read my column in the Advocate last month about church safety and security? Did that backpack pack a bomb or a lunch? Did his heavy coat conceal a heavy heart or one filled with malice?

Our associate pastor left the chancel and scurried behind the scenes to the narthex. Don’t you just love church words for common spaces? He found the armed security guard there with a couple of ushers and greeters. They were on the job. They had all greeted the man, welcomed him to church and helped him find his way to a pew. Eyes were still peeled from behind the windowed doors.

After worship, I could see members making a point to introduce themselves to make him feel welcome. 

“He just wanted a place to pray,” the usher said.

He was gone before I could shake free from handshakes and hugs to greet him myself. Not to worry. Love won the day over fear. Way to go, church!

“My house shall be a house of prayer for all people,” Isaiah and Jesus said. 

All people.

We’ve been shell-shocked by shootings in churches, synagogues and mosques. We’re on our guard now. We have to be. But for all our caution and care, the spiritual challenge is heightened. People of faith are called upon to model for the world a different way of treating those who seem different.

At any time in Dallas, a certain percentage of the population will look like people we are apt to profile. They don’t look like they fit in. They are outsiders, foreigners and strangers. The sociable will see them as anti-social, not just unsociable. They might be right. 

“Be kind, for everyone is carrying a heavy burden,” the saying goes. Sometimes that burden is obvious, sometimes not. The pain may be deeper than the eye can see. 

They are, nonetheless, as we all are, children of God or something more.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it,” the writer of the Book of Hebrews said. 

It’s interesting to imagine whether unknown visitors might be divine guests, showing up to test our hospitality.

In his account of the End of Days in Matthew 25, Jesus spoke of the last judgment. He said, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” The faithful ask, “When were you a stranger and we welcomed you?” And Jesus said, “When you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”

Stranger? Vagrant? Angel? Jesus? God knows. In the meantime, extending our hand and expanding our heart seems the truly safest strategy.