A Stranger at Thanksgiving
In opening your home—and table—this season, you might just unlock a closed heart.
By Suzanne Lesser
The elderly stranger made his way to my back door with careful, unsteady steps. My mother stood behind, helping him navigate the tight space, while my husband and I watched from the porch.
It was Thanksgiving Day, and I wanted to reach out to people who might otherwise feel alone. When I asked my mother if we could invite anyone from the assisted living facility where she volunteers, I imagined she’d bring a couple of sweet ladies who had come to my grandmother’s birthday party and easily blended in. Instead, it was 80-year-old Peter, whom I'd never met, coming up the stairs.
I soon began to feel anxious. Peter hadn’t cracked a smile since he arrived, not even in saying hello. Pondering his frail condition, I began to worry that he might have a hard time fully participating in the meal. But there was another concern—perhaps bigger than the first: Peter wasn’t a Christian. Mom told me beforehand that she had shared the gospel with him, but he just couldn’t accept that Jesus was God’s Son. That meant we wouldn't even have the common ground of faith to bridge the age gap.
As it turns out, some of my apprehensions were unfounded. Peter had no problem enjoying the meal, sharing his firsthand accounts of post-World War II America and our city in the 50s and 60s. But as I'd expected, he wasn’t a gracious conversationalist. To almost every topic we brought up, Peter reacted with cynicism and negativity.
Peter’s personal life had been hard in many ways: a difficult marriage ended in divorce; his only child, a daughter, lived in Hawaii and had broken off all contact with him; and he had no other family. Worst of all, he was slowly dying of a disease that was attacking both his mind and his body.
After dinner, we settled into the living room for our traditional time of giving thanks to God for His blessings over the past year. I wondered how Peter’s presence would influence our fellowship. Would we feel free to share from our hearts, or would we be self-conscious?
When my turn came, I felt keenly aware of my new audience, but the rest of the family seemed to share without inhibition. Then Peter’s turn came. And I was surprised to find he had plenty to say.
Because of his military years, the veterans’ association was providing medical care for him. He also had great accommodations during his declining years, since he had qualified for a subsidy to the assisted living home. The staff there were kind to him, something not everyone in his situation could claim. And in closing, he surprised me more by mentioning God’s goodness to him.
About two months later, we received a note from Peter, thanking us for including him in our family celebration. It was the first time in two years that he’d eaten a meal outside of the assisted living home.
Although he didn’t go into detail, he said he had stopped believing in God a long time ago as a result of “something very bad” that had happened to him when he was much younger. But now he was starting to reassess his beliefs.
Perhaps we played a role in Peter’s shifting views. Whether or not we did, it was clear that opening my home to a stranger, though somewhat uncomfortable for me, blessed his life last Thanksgiving. And if God continues to draw Peter to faith in Christ, perhaps our hospitality will have been a stepping stone on his path to heaven, where thanksgiving never ends.