Last June, members of the StoryRunners staff team and I led a group of 11 college students on a summer mission into Atlanta, Georgia, a city rich in American history. However, another group is making history there: the thousands of international immigrants nestled in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston. They come from all over the world: Ethiopia, Nepal, Pakistan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Sudan and beyond. The region of Clarkston is truly a multicultural and ethnic mishmash of small-town America, steeped in international people groups whose ethnic ancestry goes back to the ancients. They all come for various reasons. Some have won the lottery, whereas others are fleeing devastation. They have one common goal: to make a better life.
Both educationally focused and outreach oriented, our project introduced and equipped students with oral Bible storytelling. Within community engagement, God gave us the means to care for and honor our international brothers and sisters.
We hosted an event at an apartment complex near us which housed several ethnic groups. Our team hired a Syrian family to cook an authentic picnic-style cultural meal for our group and invited families living in the complex to enjoy the food. As my team and I waited for the meal to arrive, we went around knocking on apartment doors to invite families. At first, I felt that initial tinge of uncertainty coursing through my veins as we approached the first doors. Some were not home while others had different plans for the evening.
At one of the many doors we knocked on, a Middle Eastern woman opened it with a slight crack, eyes peeking out and hurriedly put on a head covering. As an American, I felt somewhat awkward and did not know what to do. We told her about the picnic and she excitedly beckoned us inside with a gleam in her eyes.
To our delight, we walked in and my nostrils filled with the smell of fresh Middle Eastern spices and baked goods, transporting me to a different world. The woman had two young children, a boy and a girl, who shyly hunkered on the couch adjacent to the front door. We entered into a humble apartment transformed into a home. She had us sit on the floor around a glass table, as she scurried off into the kitchen preparing a fare of freshly baked bread, Middle Eastern treats and black loose-leaf tea. Little did the woman know that I was gluten-free, but I knew it would have been rude to not eat one of the delicious cakes she had just feverishly made.
We asked her where she called home, how she and her family got here. She told us her home country and said they had recently escaped a violent regime change. We could tell she missed her remaining family there immensely but felt thankful for the provisions they had now. She described her beautifully lush home to us and that this current flat was nothing compared to where her heart longed for most. When words and phrases stalled here and there due to the language barrier, her youngest son stepped in to translate with fluent English.
The picnic was near the start, so we thanked her for the cakes and tea and said we would love to see them there. As we walked out, her genuine hospitality struck us. How could a person who had just fled from immense trauma show strangers such warmth and kindness? Even though my stomach wasn’t too well afterward from the gluten, my heart filled with gratitude for having the opportunity to be invited into a home and to witness the beautiful diversity of humanity that God had created and placed specifically in this small Georgia town.
As we proceeded back, we saw an assortment of bed sheets and throws from our house had been laid out as makeshift picnic blankets covering the lawn. Most of the residents who joined us were of Middle Eastern descent, the women sitting in one group and the men in another. With wise old eyes, the elderly lounged in lawn chairs, affectionately watching their grandchildren play. Laughing and giggling as if it were an endless summer day, the children ran to and fro playing football (American soccer) with one another. I decided to jump in on the fun, immediately taking me back into my little league days.
A group of students and I helped carry large tin containers filled with steaming rice, juicy chicken and stuffed grape leaves, exuding traditional Syrian aromas. We set up a temporary catering table, with the tins on warmers. It did not take long before hungry mouths swarmed us, chaos ensuing, until we eventually came up with a somewhat peaceful system. Endless and bountiful, it was a true feast, and everyone had more than enough to go around. At one point, I could feel the overwhelming nature of the situation rising inside me, but when I looked at the satisfied faces of those fed, I knew this was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Once everyone had full plates, I heaped as much on my plate as I could. My summer mission friends and I sat with the kids and listened as they went on about their many adventures living at the complex, bringing me back into a familiar yet foreign childhood. For just a couple of hours, my team and I gained a sliver of insight into the immigrant/refugee experience. Yet, we still have so much more to learn.
It struck me how much the children lived with such abandon and freedom to approach people they did not even know and invite them into their world. It was as if they had known us their entire lives and had experienced no suffering, no pain, no desolation, which was far from the truth. Many of them had indeed escaped life-changing traumatic experiences from war-torn countries, and yet they radiated life and joy.
After we cleaned up the mounds of leftover rice and chicken in their tin pans and hauled it back to our house, the summer mission group and I debriefed our time. One student broke down in tears at how much his interactions with the kids moved him. He said that as we left the apartment, the children surrounded the students, pleading with them to stay and keep playing soccer. He reflected on how much the children have had to overcome at such a young age, and yet they still pursue joy, still find play and still embody a resilient spirit.
It was sobering for me as well to think that the Middle Eastern woman, a stranger in a strange land she’d only lived in for a year or two, would invite me into her home, feed me and converse with me. The encounter humbled and reminded me of the sweetness that is diverse communion, a beautiful reflection of what will one day be a complete reality in God’s Kingdom. Yet, according to the Journal of International Students, an estimated 40% of international college students reported having “no American friends but would like to have more meaningful interactions with Americans” (Gearis, 2012, as cited in Wang et al., 2017). Often when predominantly white Americans travel overseas, the majority response of locals is that of welcome. This is a stark contrast to the experience of many of our international brothers and sisters in America, and it should awaken in us a new sense of radical hospitality.
Let me ask you a question: Has there ever been a time in your life when you felt entirely welcomed by someone who seemed different from you? How did it make you feel? Reflecting on my interaction with the Middle Eastern woman, her simple act of inviting me into her home and offering what she had impacted me the most. It was not extravagant or glamorous, yet it was human and kind.
What does it look like to show radical hospitality to those around you, even those who seem different from you? I want to challenge you to think about people you know or a community you are aware of to whom you can show this kind of hospitality. No matter our origin, our skin color, our language, our family background, our story or our personality, we all have more in common than meets the eye.