Angels Unawares

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Hebrews 13:2, NRSV

When I was eleven years old, my family moved from New York to Sacramento. As a child, I understood this as a great adventure, because of all we had heard about the “Wild West.” I was not expecting to find anything negative about the move… but only new and magnificent. What I experienced was far from wonderful; non-acceptance and ridicule because of what they called my “New York accent,” my short stature, my ignorance of the “California ways”… small things, perhaps, but to an 11-year-old, no. So I often felt unaccepted by my classmates. Little did I know how deeply this experience was impressed upon my developing understanding of interrelationships across all sorts of borders. In later years, I came to see it as a blessed experience – hearing a word of life – enabling me to identify with others in similar situations. 

It was during the initial transition years that I had my first conscious understanding of what a “stranger” was, when my family sponsored a Dutch-Indonesian family to move to Sacramento and live there after spending time in the Netherlands resettlement camps having been evicted from Indonesia because they had Dutch ancestry. At the time, I didn’t understand the politics of their situation, but I did understand what it was like to come to a new place to live, having left all your friends and all you knew of life. I saw what it was for the parents having no work, no food, no place to live, and not knowing the language — having to rely on the sponsoring family for everything. I saw my mother and father giving much to the new family with six children, along with keeping up with the needs of their own four children. And sometimes I had many questions, some of which would never have answers. This experience, and many more that followed, opened my eyes to the world and widened my heart to people as I continued – and continue – to meet and entertain the angels unawares in my life. 

In 2019 a sculpture was placed in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, the first one in 400 years, called “Angels Unawares” depicting migrants and refugees – men, women and children, old and young of various world cultures, showing the plight of those forced from their homes by unbearable and unjust situations. As I looked at the faces of the people, I was struck by both the anguish and the hope that the Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, had captured and depicted. One can look into the eyes and feel with them, people fleeing from oppressive governments, from hunger, from war and death. As I contemplated the sculpture, 

I realized I had known some of those people in my years of ministry with poor and oppressed people. The bronze sculpture came to life with real people I knew and had learned so much form – truly my angels unawares. These experiences continue to bless me in my life. My response of gratitude comes as a litany of thanks… 

In my life, I am grateful for awareness of the presence of the angels and their messages that bring me to deeper relationship within the family of God: 

o To our Dutch-Indonesian family, in particular to their daughter, Lydia, who first opened my understanding of the realty of a “stranger” who could become an angel with a deep message for me. 

o To the migrant farmworkers with whom we marched and for whom we boycotted grapes and lettuce, whose words and life kept me keenly aware that the cost of bringing food that nourishes us often has unseen consequences to the workers. 

o To the many undocumented/migrant families I ministered to in Hidden Valley, Nevada, in particular to the Rubio family, who through their words, “Si Dios quiere” (If God wants it) give me silent testimony to abiding faith in God’s providence through it all. 

o To the African American community with whom I ministered in Las Vegas, NV, for 25 years and who shared with me the word and wisdom of their Grandmothers as a testimony of our God who is walking with us all along the way, leading and guiding in the darkest valleys and the brightest mountains. 

o To my Indonesian sisters who work in a clinic for hydrocephalic children, who sensitive presence was demonstrated in letting me hold and look into the eyes of a little boy and receive his love and joy at being comforted. 

o To my Polish sisters who provided hospitality for many women and children fleeing Ukraine, and who introduced me to some of the mothers via the word of WhatsApp, giving me a direct experience of their immense courage and suffering, putting a face on my prayers for peace and direct assistance. 

o To my Brazilian sisters who walked me into the favelas of their ministry, introducing me to women whose lives of struggle spoke of the determination that gave them steadfastness for their children and homes. 

o To my Tanzania sisters who words in song and dance, even as they minister in the harshness of poverty and sickness, always find a way when the road ahead is rutted and unpaved. 

o To the recently arrived people at our borders, who know a hope undaunted in the midst of obstacles unsurmountable — whose eyes and words tell me of great expectation they have for their families as they come to a new and safer place to live. 

o To the homeless living under the freeway ramps and bridges of my city, who speak words of gratitude in all, expressing such appreciation for a fresh, moist bologna and cheese sandwich, given in reverence for nourishment of body and spirit. 

o To new-found angels in the Uber drivers who have taken me to my destinations in my travels, whose reflections help me to rejoice in the good things of my life, as they tell me of the plights in their home countries and what they value from home and experience in their sojourn in the United States. 

God, you say to me,
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” 

Ever-grateful for these angels and their messages, I come to know the true Word of Life;
there are no longer strangers, only brothers and sisters. 

Help me to always hear the message they bring, amid the noise and clutter of life that often distracts and deafens. May their angels ever protect and encourage them
on their journey. Amen.

Sister Deborah Lockwood

Franciscan Sister

Redwood, California