Welcoming the Stranger

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
      Matthew 25: 35

The constitutional right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers is basic to a free society and our individual liberty. I respect that right so much that I am always reluctant to criticize a jury that renders a verdict with which I disagree. Criminal law is so complex, and the rights of the accused are so essential that I do not think it is appropriate to second guess the results of a trial, particularly when it involves a capital crime.

Nevertheless I am discomforted that George Zimmerman was not found guilty of anything. There may be more, but the known facts are familiar to all. An adolescent African American boy, Trayvon Martin, is walking from a convenience store where he has purchased candy, through a neighborhood where George Zimmerman lives and is a self-appointed watchman. On several occasions Zimmerman has reported what he regarded as suspicious activity to the police. The police know Zimmerman and his enthusiasm for his volunteer watchman responsibilities. Zimmerman observes Martin walking, wearing a sweatshirt known as a “hoodie”, decides to follow Martin and takes along his handgun. An encounter ensues. There is a struggle. There are screams for help. A shot is fired. Trayvon Martin dies.

In spite of the jury’s decision, it is clear from the beginning that George Zimmerman was the instigator. If he did not intend to kill Trayvon Martin, he initiated the tragic outcome by arming himself with a fire arm and deciding to follow Martin, even though the 911 operator and police asked him not to.

It is difficult for me not to conclude that this is about race. It is impossible to know for sure, but I cannot imagine Zimmerman arming himself to follow a white youngster walking through his neighborhood.

It is difficult not to conclude that it is dangerous to be young and black anywhere on the streets of America, far more dangerous than it is to be young and white. Chicagoans continue to be appalled at the nearly nightly murder of young men and women and children, mostly black, on the streets and playgrounds and parks of the city.

Frederick Davie, Executive Vice President of Union Theological Seminary, reminds us that the Bible talks a lot about the moral mandate of welcoming the stranger, extending hospitality to the sojourner and alien. Davie concludes that “anyone who looks like Trayvon Martin is a stranger in almost any neighborhood, even his own.”

Rachel Jentel, Trayvon’s friend who testified at the trial was subjected to arrogant dismissiveness by the defense attorney whose daughter referred to Rachel’s “stupidity”. And, most appalling of all, many Americans apparently believe that what George Zimmerman did was appropriate.

Another innocent young man is dead. The reason is a deep distrust and fear of people of color, particularly males. And, of course, the killer’s possession of a loaded handgun in a state that has a “Stand Your Ground” law on the books.

In this year that marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, I find myself feeling grateful for my nation’s determination, at great cost, to end the scourge of slavery, and a century later, finally to extend equal rights to all of its citizens. But this incident reminds me that there is more work to be done, much more, and that equal treatment under the law and in the common life of the nation remains an elusive goal.

Christians and Jews and Muslims are under the mandate to welcome the stranger and to remember that that leads directly to the conviction that in God’s eyes, and in God’s Kingdom, there are no unwelcome strangers.

Lord of us all, forgive us for forgetting your love that encompasses every human being; love that confers value and dignity on every one of your  children. We thank you for the gift of Trayvon Martin’s young life and we pray for his parents as they cope with the loss of a dear son. We pray for George Zimmerman and his family, and pray your blessing and guidance for him in all the years ahead. Continue, O God, to bind up wounds of spirit and body, and give us strength and courage to be people willing to live in your all-inclusive love and to extend your amazing grace to all. Amen


  1. David A. Donovan says:

    A helpful piece in so many ways, John. Thanks for your continuing thoughtfulness.

  2. Thank you, John. I am finding the conversations around this difficult and painful. It is so hard for white people, men in particular, to try to identify with Trayvon or with his family. There is a pressing and urgent need for all of us to listen and understand one another. Helen

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