Of strangers, pilgrims, hospitality

Jan 18, 2016 by

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The immigrants had arrived. Was there no end to their numbers? What language were they speaking? What was their origin? Their destination? Why were they here?

The two worlds were a study in contrast. The people of the host region enjoyed the full range of God’s bright and many-splendored creation; the strangers were somber and plain — their customs, clothing, means of transportation and even their expressions were sober.

Russian Mennonite immigrants with a Russian military escort at Kaplanbek near Tashkent, Uzbekistan, about 1881. — Robert Friesen and Walter Ratliff

Russian Mennonite immigrants with a Russian military escort at Kaplanbek near Tashkent, Uzbekistan, about 1881. — Robert Friesen and Walter Ratliff

Did they pose a threat? Were they packing guns in those large chests?

Some believed the immigrants did, indeed, pose a threat as agents of a violent empire. There had been so much violence and bloodshed. Would these aliens bring more?

They asked for asylum in nearby territories, but the authorities denied their request. They were not welcome. Nevertheless, they settled illegally, believing God would overrule human authority. After several weeks, after they had built house and barns, government agents forced them out of the territory.

The immigrants, on the run again, crossed the border, seeking a refuge and safety for their families. What should be done with them? And who were they?

The immigrants were German-speaking Mennonites from Ukraine and Samara, Russia, following divine leading into Central Asia in the early 1880s. They were escaping oppression — military conscription and Russification, the forced cultural assimilation by the Christian Russian Empire.

After a long and torturous journey by horses and wagons, they wanted to settle in the Khanate of Bukhara, but Khan Emir Muzaffar denied their petition. Believing God had led them to this place, they defied the khan’s authority. They laid out streets and built their dwellings, calling their new village Ebenezer, meaning “hither hath the Lord helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12).

The khan’s soldiers forcibly removed them, even throwing several men on top of loaded carts. The migrants were forced over the border into the Khan-ate of Samara and into the village of Serabulak (now in Uzbekistan).

Surely, the Mennonites were a burden to the people of the village who took them in. Nevertheless, they offered generous hospitality, prompted by the teaching of Muhammad in the Quran. They shared their holy worship space with the newcomers. The mosque heard the prayers and songs of the Mennonite migrants.

Did the pilgrims understand that Islamic hospitality was conceived as a sacred triad — a ritual involving the guest, the host and God — and as an expression of right living as noted in the following passage from the Quran?

It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward East or West; but it is righteousness — to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which you have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of the truth, those who fear Allah. (Quoted by David W. Shenk in Christian. Muslim. Friend: Twelve Paths to Real Relationship, Herald Press, 2014.)

Perhaps Mennonites considered their own heritage of hospitality, the call to love strangers and aliens, even enemies. Did they recall Jesus’ definition of the righteous as those who served the least of these and thereby served Jesus himself? Did they think of Jesus’ invitation to mirror the extravagant love of God, who sends rain on the just and the unjust?

Did they find, across the cultural and religious differences, a common identity as children of Abraham and as children of God?

When the Mennonite pilgrims left the village in the spring of 1882 to continue their search for the land of promise, they did not leave empty-handed. The villagers extended yet another lavish expression of hospitality in cash and other gifts.

Will the distant memory of Islamic hospitality in Serabulak, Uzbekistan, move us now to offer a generous welcome to current aliens and strangers?

John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston College in Kansas.


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