“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” – Jesus (Matthew 25:38-40)
Mercy is hard. Mercy can be dangerous.
On an August morning in 1942, three buses rumbled up the road to the French mountain village of Le Chambon. The buses were accompanied by police cars, police of the Vichy government which, in league with the Nazis had sent them to gather up Jews and take them back to concentration camps. The officials knew that the village of Le Chambon was a major hiding place and way station for Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust. When they arrived, the police captain confronted Pastor André Trocmé (1901-1971), the spiritual leader of the village.
The policeman went to Pastor Trocmé and asked, “Are you hiding Jews in this village?”
Pastor Trocmé, committed to truth-telling responded, “Yes.”
The policeman ordered, “Give us their names.”
Pastor Trocmé replied, “To be honest, I don’t know their names.”
“Show me where they are,” the policeman insisted.
Pastor Trocmé said, “No, I won’t do that. They are my brothers and I am commanded by my Lord to love my neighbor.”
The police then searched the village. They were unable to find any Jews or anyone who would identify a Jew. They left in frustration, warning Pastor Trocmé and the others that they would be watching and they would be back. Indeed, the villagers were hiding Jews. They hid the refugees in private homes, on farms in the area, as well as in public institutions. Whenever the Nazi patrols came searching, the Jews were hidden in the mountainous countryside.
Refugeee children in Le Chambon
The story of Pastor Trocmé and the villagers of Le Chambon is inspiring. You can read about it in the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie or watch a documentary, Weapons of the Spirit: The Astonishing Story of a Unique Conspiracy of Goodness. You can watch a shorter video here.
In the midst of a world gone mad, in the midst of the darkness of the Nazi terror engulfing Europe, these villagers chose to be light in the darkness. Because they were committed to following Jesus, these common people risked much to extend the mercy of hospitality to strangers. They knew what they were risking. To be caught harboring Jews, or helping them escape, not only put your own life or livelihood at risk but the lives and livelihood of all your family. Even children of rescuers were often sent to concentration camps. As far as the Nazis were concerned, if you wanted to be the friend of Jews, you could share their fate. It was all the same to the Nazis. In fact, some of the residents were arrested by the Gestapo including Pastor Trocmé's cousin, Daniel Trocmé, who was sent to a concentration camp, where he was murdered.
One of the enduring scandals for the Church is that so many Christians in Europe chose to play it safe. And some even collaborated with the Nazis.
The villagers of Le Chambon believed extending hospitality to refugees was a risk worth taking. They risked their lives and the lives of their children because they would rather take that risk than play it safe.
The mercy of hospitality is always risky, even in contexts less dangerous than the example of Le Chambon. If you invite strangers – or family or friends for that matter – into your home, you cannot guarantee that your home will be the same afterward. Perhaps something will go missing. Perhaps some mud will get tracked in, something will get spilled or broken. Welcoming the stranger into out congregations is similarly risky. At the very least strangers can be inconvenient. And their presence changes things. And allowing strangers into our own lives, our own hearts is risky. Perhaps they will not be what we want them to be. Perhaps our hearts will get broken. At the very least, they will mess with the way we understand ourselves and the world.
It would be easier – and safer – to keep the stranger at a distance. But, that is not the way of mercy. That is not the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus sees in the face of the stranger the face of Jesus himself. To ignore or turn away the stranger is to ignore or turn away Jesus. Because Christians love Jesus and desire to welcome Jesus more and more into their lives, they have no choice but to show hospitality to strangers. Even at the risk of their own comfort or safety. Pastor Trocmé and the people of Le Chambon understood that. I am grateful for their faithful witness. I pray the Church today might follow their example and be a conspiracy of goodness extending the mercy of hospitality to the stranger, however risky that may be.