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What a cultural event can teach us about welcoming the stranger

By Rhina Guidos
Catholic News Service

Prior to Christmas each year, enclaves of Latin American communities in the United States continue a practice in which strangers are welcomed into private homes, where they sit down to music, food and prayer.
The intention of these cultural practices called “posadas” is to recall the journey of the Holy Family as they received shelter from danger in their homeland. Shelter is one of the closest translations of the word “posada.”
When you ask, in Spanish, if someone can put you up, colloquially, you ask if they can “give” you “posada.” You, as the pilgrim, or traveler, or foreigner, ask for shelter from the elements, nothing else. As the host, it has a different meaning.
Having attended dozens of posadas over the years, I’ve noticed that when someone asks another person to host a religious posada, the host feels honored. It has been astounding to watch over the years, families, many of them Mexican immigrants, open the doors of their homes to strangers of different races and, sometimes, faiths, and served them the best of the modest food they have. They have provided smiles and personal warmth even as they’ve faced a harsher society outside, one that doesn’t always welcome them.
As someone who didn’t grow up with the practice of posadas, I’ve come to think that there’s a lot the posadas can teach us. How would we have treated the Holy Family if they knocked at our door (or country) asking for shelter?
As tensions over immigration rise in Congress, in our communities and in our country, it is fair to begin to ask and reflect on how we have treated others. Have we looked down on others because they cannot communicate with us, because they look a certain way, have jobs that we look down on?
Recently, I spotted in a chapel a copy of something called the Prayer Book of the Migrant, a booklet from the church of Santo Toribio Romo in Jalisco, Mexico, aimed at those who have left or are about to leave their homeland. It’s something that has helped me meditate about the plight of others who come to our country from various parts of the world.
One of the prayers listed gives thanks to God for allowing the supplicant to work that day, to help overcome the loneliness of not being with family and achieving even better work the following day in order to support loved ones who are far away.
Another prayer asks God for protection, for the emotional pain the supplicant feels at leaving the homeland, “not out of egotistical adventure, but out of necessity.”
The prayer I found most interesting is one titled “On the Journey to the North.” It expresses the anxiety of a person (aboard a truck) heading to an unknown land:
“You who knew the bitterness of the desert when with Joseph and Mary you had to seek refuge in a foreign land also understand that my soul is destroyed as I leave my loved ones.”
This pain, loneliness and the circumstances that lead people to leave their familiar surroundings is what Pope Francis has urged us to understand.
“Fleeing from situations of extreme poverty or persecution in the hope of a better future, or simply to save their own lives, millions of persons choose to migrate,” Pope Francis said in his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which will take place on Jan. 19. “Despite their hopes and expectations, they often encounter mistrust, rejection and exclusion, to say nothing of tragedies and disasters which offend their human dignity.”
The posadas, in this sense, can help us understand how to be better hosts, mostly by getting rid of the “suspicion and hostility” that Pope Francis says accompanies “the arrival of migrants, displaced persons, asylum seekers and refugees.”

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