The dragon was real enough. Red, scaly, and tall as a two-story house. Its undulating body stretched across both sides of a long, sandy side road in far southern California. We stood under the enormous head and gaping mouth, with whiskers and fangs like flaming swords, taking photos in the brilliant sunlight. Its tail was off in the distance somewhere, too far away to see.
The dragon, along with many other creatures fantastical and prehistoric, was the creation of a local metal artist. He placed them across a vast stretch of open desert in what used to be an inland sea, outside the small town of Borrego Springs. Once upon a time there were saber tooth tigers here and mammoths. Now, hundreds of his fabricated animals dotted the barren landscape just forty miles from the Mexican border.
Our campground, part of the California state park system, lay several miles to the west in a small grove of tamarind trees whose shade and greenery we welcomed — even in January. The main campground was full when we arrived, so it was here or nothing. In what felt like another planet to me, our little site was truly an oasis of civilization: a ranger station, a half dozen tiny cabins, all of them empty, and a few RVs. We had company the first two nights, but then everyone cleared out, including the park staff who go home at 6 PM. I had to wonder where home was in this Martian landscape.
Mid-week we found ourselves the only occupied campsite in the middle of nowhere.
I’m not afraid of the dark by nature, but when camping in a fairly isolated place I find comfort in the telltale signs of humanity around me—firelight, cooking smells, an engine starting up. So I was uneasy when a lone car with a small trailer pulled into our empty campground as we sat by the dying embers of our campfire, just about to head into our tent.
Who would be arriving now? It was pitch dark; any serious camper would’ve stopped for the night long ago. Whoever was driving kept circling the loop at a crawl, slowing down even more as they passed our site. They were clearly checking us out. It was mutual. Our dog stood on high alert, a low growl in his throat.
Finally, my husband broke the silence with his characteristic I-talk-to-anyone nature. Hello, there. We’re friendly. Don’t mind the dog. My heart pounded like a snare drum roll. The driver pulled down her window. I’m sure she was relieved to see an older couple as the only other campers. And Oskar, despite his sharp bark, is about as menacing as a turtle. She hadn’t planned her day right, made some unexpected stops, hence her late arrival. She pulled in right next to us and set up for the night. We exchanged pleasantries. And we all slept peacefully until dawn.
I’ve been thinking a lot about strangers lately. How do we treat those we don’t know, can’t see in the dark, and therefore, don’t trust? Do we hunker down, keep to ourselves? Is that common sense or fear talking? What do we teach our children and grandchildren these days? Don’t speak to strangers. Does that mean ever? No one?
In European fairy tales there are dragons and there are dragon-slayers. Clear enemies and clear heroes. But the twenty-first century world doesn’t function that way anymore, if it ever did. The lines between right and wrong become blurrier by the week.
Today’s worst dragons don’t shimmer playfully in the California sand. I suspect they hide behind guns and masks. They chant slogans, and fear anyone who doesn’t look and sound like them. They spew hatred and lies across social media; some of them even build walls of exclusion in the name of security. Many claim special favor from God.
What if our faith requires a different response than the status quo? I was a stranger and you welcomed me. What did Jesus mean by that? Who was he really talking about? Does he mean I should speak to every alcoholic, the mentally unstable person outside my post office? How about the families in detention centers at our borders? Can all be truly welcomed?
Last month a ship carrying 600 plus human beings, mostly from Africa, docked at the port city of Valencia, Spain, after being turned away from several Italian cities that refused them entrance. Not since World War II have as many refugees wandered the globe: more than 60 million, half of whom are children. Their sheer numbers are almost beyond belief.
Who are the dragons and who are the dragon-slayers in this modern human drama? European countries must struggle with such moral dilemmas every day now. Pope Francis hopes to raise millions of dollars in his own personal crusade for refugee relief. In Italy, the situation could not be more polarized: the Catholic Church taking the radical high ground against a new right-wing president — who aims to turn away all asylum seekers and has a lot of support from ordinary Italians.
But back to Borrego Springs and my desert dragon.
Let’s imagine the person who crept into our campground that January night wasn’t a lone woman, but a family who somehow made it over the Mexican border in cover of darkness, wanting to hide out in a remote place. Not a likely scenario but suspend your disbelief for a bit. Maybe they came from a drug-infested province and feared for their lives. Maybe they were poor, looking for better opportunities for their kids.
Would we have shown them hospitality—if only for that one evening? Shared some food or firewood, perhaps. Given them tokens for the showers. Maybe we would’ve told them about certain cities in the United States, like Albuquerque, New Mexico, that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities.” I’d like to think I would’ve lent them a map or a flashlight.