Do you ever find yourself in awe of beauty, and yet incapable of capturing the magnitude of the scene with a camera? Have you ever returned from your travels, to show friends or family members a photo of a beautiful sunset, mountain, or flower, and the photo doesn’t do the memory justice? Sometimes, this is how I feel when attempting to share a story with words. The moment… the person… all the combining elements of the the story are too rich to re-tell. The attempt to do so seems almost as impossible as thinking a photo can show the majesty of the Smoky Mountains.
Today, I struggle to do the story justice with my writing limitations. I struggle to know where to begin.
Maybe I’ll just start at the beginning and see where we end up.
When my husband founded an ESL ministry called For the Nations DC, during our engagement, I was so excited! I could envision myself teaching and coming alongside immigrants struggling to adapt to a new language and culture. My old dream of being a licensed ESL teacher among the Marshallese in Arkansas was awakened. I thought of my experiences in Spain, Mongolia, and Haiti. I thought of the long-term substitute ESL teacher job I had in Maryland…. my sweet middle schoolers struggling to understand what was going on in class. I remembered how much I loved volunteering at my former church’s weekly ESL classes for the community.
But then the reality of being a newlywed, in a new city, with new children, knocked me off my feet. I underestimated how much time it would take for me to settle into this new life. I was in survival mode and had zero margin for adding one more thing to my plate.
When October rolled around and I realized all four children were adjusted to a new school routine, I let out a long exhale. For the first time, I felt settled. Mossy was home now. Every person in my family was under one roof. My monthly drives to Connecticut were over. I decided to go to For the Nations with Chris one week, to watch him teach the short Bible story during the coffee break. Something about being in this room with these dear immigrants (mostly women), felt like home. It’s one of the places I fit. No pretenses, no special degrees needed to impress. Just a servant hearted love and availability.
Chris let me know they were short handed in one of the classes, so I contacted the volunteer coordinator. She asked if I would be willing to assist one of the teachers in the Level 1 class. There was a wide range of ability and it would help to split the class from time to time. So one day a week, I sit with my brother from Mongolia, and sisters from Morocco, Ethiopia, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Cote d’Ivoire ……. and we practice English.
I look forward to Wednesdays, knowing that as I serve, my own cup is being filled. I know that Hakimah will give us all some health tip… “You have a sore throat? Black seed. You have a fever? Black seed. You want to lose some weight? Drink 64 oz of water before eating in the morning.” At some point, when we are stuck explaining a concept, we will ask our Mongolian artist, Ganzorig, to illustrate some concept on the white board. We will patiently slow down for our Moroccan sister, Faiza, who never went to school or learned to read in her own language. We will laugh. We will share our understanding of the challenges of mothering and housekeeping. We will smile at each other as we stumble through figuring out why there are so many strange rules in the English language.
My neighbor Miskeenah wanted so much to spend time together, and her English was so limited that we could barely communicate. She would regularly bring my family delicious baked goods and Turkish treats. Also on a regular basis, I felt guilty that I could not accept her invitation to come visit and practice English “every day.” She wanted me to feel welcome in her home and life, but I was struggling to keep up with the busy schedules of my pastor husband, four teenagers, and the various appointments with service providers for Mossy.
After two months on the wait list, there was an opening in class for Miskeenah at For The Nations! Now, each Wednesday, she rides with me to class and we spend time in the car talking about our children, our husbands, our faith and daily routines. Surprisingly, we’ve been able to find ways to share glimpses of our deeper griefs and struggles – the challenges of marriage, stubborn children, missing friends, death of loved ones, the struggle of making new friendships in the busy mid-life stage.
Many afternoons, when we return from class, Miskeenah invites me in for Turkish coffee. What a treat!!!! It’s so delicious! When I step inside her house, I remove my shoes and she has a pair of house shoes to offer me. She then leads me to her beautiful living room and places the small shot sized tea cup of coffee on a silver tray, with a Dove’s dark chocolate and a small delicate glass of water. Miskeena’s hospitality is such a tangible expression of love and friendship.
One afternoon, I took a small photo album with many of my favorite photography experimentations. I was amazed at the number of conversations and topics we could discuss from pictures ranging from a grasshopper, an aged gravestone angel, a Haitian woman making Lalo, a Mongolian kitchen silhouette, and an island sunset. Then we came to a photograph of a tree swing in an open grassy field. In simple words, I described what this photograph meant to me. The swing is in the yard of the Butler’s mountain-top home. I talked about the painful memory of my father disowning me, the beautiful way the Butlers stepped in as parents to me during that hard time, and the precious gift of Mr. Butler giving me away at my wedding.
Miskeenah smiled and said, “You are a beautiful woman. I think God… and you…very likes. You are a very beautiful friend. I love you.”
I was so humbled to hear my Turkish, Muslim friend tell me that she thinks God is pleased with me. I knew her words were not said lightly, or just to complement me, but they were heartfelt words of love and honor. I felt amazed and privileged to be a part of welcoming her, helping her feel valued, and … ultimately… being a very imperfect picture of Jesus’ love.
I think of Mary, when the scripture says, “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). When we see God include us in His bigger story, it’s more than we can comprehend.