Terry, our Thursday lunch volunteer, is a Greek-Canadian. She and her friend Elizabeth take turns coming to Matthew House each week where they prepare and serve meals for our newly arrived refugee guests. On this particular Thursday, Terry was not alone. She had brought along a new volunteer, Amir from Syria who is in the process of opening his own catering business (Beroea Kitchen). Terry and a group of friends had recently sponsored him, his wife and young daughter, to Canada.
As I watched her warmly interact with Amir and our other residents, I remarked about her having the gift of hospitality. Terry laughed and said, "There's actually a word for what I do in Greek which doesn't even exist in the English language," she said "philoxenia". "Philo" she explained, "means love or friendship, while "xenia" is the word for stranger."
In short, "philoxenia" is a word that encapsulates the concept of showing love, compassion, and hospitality toward strangers.
Something about this word really captivated me. As the founder of Matthew House a home for newly arrived refugee claimants, and having welcomed guests from close to 100 different nations in the past few decades, I was excited and encouraged to know that at least one language group so valued the practice of showing love toward strangers that the practice was given its own word.
While I often hear the term "xenophobia," (fear of the strangers) I had never heard an antonym for it. Philoxenia is just that. I would love to see "philoxenia" become as commonly used (and practiced) among us as it's opposite. It's what the world needs now!
During my nearly 30 years of working with refugees, I have observed three general responses to them: indifference, fear or disdain (xenophobia) and compassion/welcome. The first two sadden me and the third inspires me. And now I have found a name for the latter - philoxenia!
The more I have reflected on this word over the past few days, the more I appreciate and am inspired by it. I even discovered it is used twice in the New Testament - most significantly in Hebrews chapter 13:2 which reads: "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers (philoxenia), for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it." Who knows, perhaps over the years, we have actually hosted a few angels at our refugee home.
As I hear news reports of world events, it saddens me that "xenophobia" often appears to be having the upper hand. Even here in Canada, fear and suspicion of the "other" have resulted in an increase in hate crimes against minorities, the recent shootings at the Montreal mosque being the worst example. Sadly, some segments of our society engage in rhetoric that somehow mistakenly equates newcomers such as refugees with perpetrators of violence instead of victims of it. Empirical evidence clearly indicates otherwise.
I am therefore grateful for places like Matthew House where this rhetoric is ignored and quiet acts of kindness toward strangers reign supreme and I continue to have hope. Terry is just one of a vast number of silent heroes who come through the doors of Matthew House weekly. They don't carry large signs or write long speeches, but they have made the decision to go beyond their usual comfort zone and reach out with compassion to the "strangers" in their midst.
Today, I hear laughter as a group of Chinese-Canadians from a local church are interacting with our guests around the dining table where they just prepared and served a meal for them. Lesley a former editor at the Toronto Star, sat at that same table earlier tutoring one of our new Sudanese residents in English.
Years ago I read a proverb that said: "The bravest hero is he who turns his enemies into friends." Some may feel that it is easier to build up walls and weapons rather than take the risk to reach out toward strangers -- especially if they come from distant lands and foreign cultures. I believe it is well worth the risk.
I've seen it beautifully modeled on a small scale at Matthew House and believe it is possible on a larger scale if only we have the will (and heart) to do so. Then the world would be filled with friends, not enemies. Philoxenia trumps xenophobia any day, and the world will be all the richer for more of it.
Matthew House, Toronto
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