“Welcoming the Stranger” just opened at the Maine Jewish Museum.

This multimedia art exhibit tells the story of the House Island Quarantine and Immigration Station, which, like Ellis Island, was a major entry point into the United States.

Artist Jo Israelson engaged hundreds of weavers, spinners and other people to create an “Abraham’s tent,” and involved many community organizations in this endeavor.

Do see this exhibit, ask how we welcome strangers (or don’t) and let yourself be transformed.

I left the exhibit asking myself, “Who are our ‘strangers’ today? And how can we welcome them with grace, acceptance, dignity and genuine openness?”

This journey took me far from the specific story that Jo Israelson’s exhibit depicts, and incorporated much of my own experience.

Who are some of these strangers I have encountered?

 Some didn’t come by boat or plane, but simply by coming out. Through what may have been a difficult process, they came to realize their true sexual identity – as lesbian, homosexual or transgender. For some of us, these designations may feel strange, uncomfortable, perhaps unnatural. But these are true attributes of a growing community that seeks to be accepted, with all the rights and respect that we accord all people.

“Mary, how is your daughter?” And Mary – who gave birth very recently – replies, “She’s dead.” I often work with people who embody this story – people who have lost a very young child, people whose child lived a very short life.

This is a profoundly uncomfortable encounter, and many of us would prefer to avoid reference to this truth. How can we embrace these bereaved parents, simply acknowledging that they have lost a family member? We may force them to be strangers to us, as their story is beyond our comprehension, but they, too, need our acceptance, love and caring presence.

When my own mother committed suicide, my father and his friends did everything they could to keep this fact from the local newspaper. Mental disorders of all kinds are strange to many of us, and encountering families who live with such illness, drug addiction or other such maladies requires that we stretch, let go of judgment and regain the core of our love.

In southern Maine we’re now seeing many who have come by boat or plane, often fleeing war, torture, famine or unrest. Can we see beyond their often limited or broken English to recognize compassionate and hardworking people whose values are our values, who want to use their education and skills to support their children and our communities? Can we see that these new Mainers may be really helpful to our shared economic future?

A childhood friend who had been blind from birth once told me that when people see that you have a physical handicap, they assume you are mentally handicapped as well.

Indeed, when I had to spend several weeks using a wheelchair, I found people in downtown Portland walking away from me on the street, standing back when I clearly needed some simple physical assistance and generally treating me as if I had a dangerous communicable disease. But as soon as I wheeled myself into the art museum or into a fine restaurant – thus identfying myself as part of a cultural or economic elite – the gap disappeared.

Can we see past any physical handicap or physical disfigurement to acknowledge and embrace a whole person?

The stranger may be within ourselves. Dare I “come out” as a pacifist in a society where reliance on military might is the norm? A friend whose daughter was brutally murdered was chastised for her public opposition to the death penalty, which she understood would not bring her daughter back and would not make any of us safer. Can we be public about our deeply held beliefs and values, even if that makes us appear “strange” to some others?

Sometimes the “stranger” relationship is reinforced by learned prejudice. Growing up on an all-white block in New York City, I learned (was never directly told) that people of color were properly in a subservient role, as our servants or helpers – and that they were strangers. And to this day a voice within me will sometimes ask “What is he (or she) doing here?” when I encounter a person of color in a largely white space.

Another voice – speaking from my moral intention – quickly answers, “He (or she) belongs here!” But the original voice – that of the sometimes even unconscious racism that had been trained into me – is still present and can rear its ugly face. This is a stranger we may not welcome, but we do have to acknowledge.

None of these “strangers” need to remain so distant. Many have become my dear friends.

We can open our hearts, connect with those who may appear to be “different” and forge a more inclusive, caring and compassionate community. I hope and pray that we will!