Our home has never felt emptier. I’ve realized, over these months of isolation, just how much it means to me to welcome people here. What I miss most is family, especially our weekly Sunday family gatherings. I also miss out-of-town guests. And I miss old friends as well as new people we meet through house concerts, potlucks, and community meetings here. It feels as if we deny something intrinsically human when we shut others out, even though we’re doing it to protect one another from a deadly virus.
The importance of welcoming people, most especially the stranger, is emphasized by religious and cultural traditions around the world.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1
“The husband and wife of the house should not turn away any who comes at eating time and asks for food. If food is not available, a place to rest, water for refreshing one’s self, a reed mat to lay one’s self on, and pleasing words entertaining the guest–these at least never fail in the houses of the good.” Hinduism. Apastamba Dharma Sutra 8.2
“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” Judaism, Exodus 22:20
“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” Islam. Quran 4:36
“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137
“The heavenly food is needed successively; be thou a server of the food and direct thou the people of the world to present themselves at that table and guide them to partake thereof.” Baha’I (Abdu’l-Baha)
“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu
A divide between welcoming people in and shutting people out has been amplified to the extreme in the last few years here in the U.S.
- The administration’s travel bans and immigration bans, particularly on people from Muslim-majority countries.
- Human rights violations at the southern U.S. border, including the detention of children and families.
- A growing threat from white supremacist violence and terrorism.
- A continued emphasis on eliminating people from food assistance and healthcare coverage, plus threats to allocate aid based on whether a state is red or blue, all during a pandemic.
- A nation seeing more clearly, due to cellphone evidence, the deadly impact of racism. Week after week, year after year, we witness the deaths of Black, Latino, and Native people murdered simply for living their lives. George Floyd’s execution by suffocation leads to mass protests, and again, to us versus them behavior from provocateurs who break windows, burn buildings, and otherwise do everything possible to discredit protesters’ anger, grief, and demand for solutions.
That’s why the open doors of Rahul Dubey’s home on Swann Street, in Washington, D.C. means so much. On Monday, before the curfew went into effect, shield-bearing riot officers and mounted police used smoke, flash grenades, and chemical spray to rout peaceful demonstrators from the area around St. John’s Church, even clergy from the church patio, clearing the way for a presidential photo opportunity. About an hour later police began boxing protesters into the residential area of Swann Street, making it impossible for people to leave.
Mr. Dubey heard clubs, screams, and chemical sprays going off outside his home. He flung his door open and urged people in, telling them to find refuge anywhere inside. Police shot pepper spray through the window and tried, throughout the night to gain access. Inside over 70 people rinsed their eyes, helped each other, cleaned up whatever messes they’d made, and tried to understand the situation.
As Mr. Dubey said in a video by HuffPost, “When they felt they were safe, I can tell you the pride and security and intellect of this group of people, ranging from 20 to 50 years old, shone over and over for the 10 hours they were held captive in this house — as my guests…. They all delegated to each other and self-managed beautifully.”
“Every square inch of this place had a person in it,” Mr. Dubey said in a BBC interview. “They were all strangers. That was amazing. They didn’t know each other… From age to race to ethnicity to sexual orientation, it was amazing. It was America. I just gave me a lot of hope.”
The next morning, as his guests left, Mr. Dubey stood on the steps of his home, surprised again, this time to receive applause from protesters and onlookers.
“It’s not something that should be celebrated,” Mr. Dubey said. “I shouldn’t be getting attention.” Asked whether he would do it all over again, he said of course he would. “I don’t think what I did was anything special,” he said. “If it is, we have a ton of work to do in this country.”
History shows us countless quiet heroes who reach out to help others, often endangering themselves in the process. They open their doors to shelter people from persecution, even genocide. What separates them from others?
People who have imperiled their lives for months or years to help others can give us some insight. Svetlana Broz, author of Good People in an Evil Time, says it requires at least three attributes.
- The courage to think for oneself, resisting conformity even at the risk of one’s own safety.
- A moral core that inspires action.
- The capacity to empathize with those who are dissimilar.
In this spirit, try a thought exercise right now. Imagine as fully as possible that a crowd of desperate people are at your door. Their eyes and lungs are burning, they are afraid, angry, out of options. You have seconds to decide. Imagine you open the door and now your home is filled with these strangers, every available space taken up. They need food, water, aid. Can you do it?
Now imagine this. You are on the other side of a stranger’s door. You’re the one in pain, afraid and desperate. Will the door open for you?