For those of you who don’t know, I tutor a very nice Chin family in ESL once a week and have been doing so since they arrived from Burma/Myanmar two years ago. The parents struggle, but the two school-aged boys, Moses and David, are doing quite well, especially Moses who is now asked by many of his Chin friends to come with them to appointments to translate. (Aside: it seems to me that refugees have more appointments than anyone I have ever met.)
This wonderful family invited my family to come to their apartment Saturday night for a celebration. This was right after I had asked them if they planned to celebrate Thanksgiving. They swiftly told me about “December One,” which they called Sweet December, and which, in my limited understanding of what they told me (there’s a difference between being able to speak English and actually speaking English after all), seemed to be a celebration of when they first arrived in America, like their very own personal Thanksgiving. I gladly accepted the invitation, despite my fear that I would again be served intestines, and started thinking of a way I could serve myself at the meal.
As my husband typically works Saturday evenings, just my four-year-old son tagged along with me on Sweet December. When I got to the Lian home, I could tell from outside that the place was full of celebration–kids yelling, people singing, lights on in every room–and I assumed that the already large family had invited some other friends from their church, which meets in our church building Sunday afternoons. Moses met me on the dark porch and explained that we would go in once the song was done. A moment later, he opened the door.
You know how Lucy must have felt seeing Narnia for the first time? Or how Dorothy surely felt when she opened the door of her dark gray house and was confronted with the bright and colorful world Oz? That’s kind of how it was when Moses opened that door. The dark concrete porch was awash in golden light and instead of seeing the dozen people I expected, it was more like fifty. One hundred deep brown eyes in tanned faces. Plus the children who were running about and playing. Altogether I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to place the total number of people in that one apartment at about 75. At least two thirds of that number were seated on the floor in the living room, facing the front door, and looking at me and my son as we squeezed in and added our shoes to the veritable mountain range that already blocked the front closet and much of the front door.
Moses pointed me to two empty kitchen chairs along the edge of the sea of people seated on the floor, the only two chairs I saw in the entire room. Now, being one of only two white people there (the other being my son), and being a good liberal arts graduate and stuffed full of oodles of white guilt from all of my white professors, I felt distinctly uncomfortable sitting “above” all of the Chin people in the room. Heck, even if I sat my 5’9″ self on the floor I would tower over these petite people. So I told Moses no, we would sit on the floor. But he again gestured to the chairs.
Then I looked to my immediate right and saw their pastor and his wife seated on a sofa in the front of the room. I realized that they had given me the chair because my husband is the pastor of our church and I, his wife, would be honored the same way he would. Coming from a country in which they are persecuted for their Christian faith, the Chin have the utmost respect for clergy. So I sat down and tried to figure out how I had thought I was coming to a family gathering when I was now so obviously in a church service. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about being offered intestines.
After another couple songs, I sent my son upstairs to play with the other small children, many of whom already speak English like natives. He gleefully joined them and I didn’t see him much for the next hour. Back in the living room, Moses took the chair next to me in a valiant attempt to help me understand what was going on. While people were talking he would lean in and say in his very soft voice, his words slurring together, that this was a prayer or this was announcement time or this was a group song. Most of the time I couldn’t quite make out what he was trying to tell me because, despite it being a church service, the din from the children upstairs, in the kitchen, on the staircase, and even sometimes in the living room, was constant and seemed fairly loud to someone who grew up in the Lutheran church with a very German sense of decorum (i.e., no talking, no fidgeting, and certainly no messing with the keyboard or standing right in front of the speaker and staring up at her as though you were a living pulpit…which, as you may have guessed, happened later that night).
But the wonderful thing about being part of a worldwide body of believers is that even if you aren’t quite sure what someone else is saying, and even if you only catch occasional words (Abraham, Hosanna, Jerusalem, Christmas, December, God is good) you still know the story. Moses gave me an English Bible and told me the passage that Pastor Hrang’s wife was going to speak on. Luke 2:11-… well, to be honest, I’m not sure where she ended, so I kept reading until verse 21. The story of the angels announcing to the shepherds that Jesus was born and the shepherds going to see the baby in the manger.
And even though I speak very limited Chin (I know that watermelon is dawnzuk–though I’m sure I’m spelling it wrong) I could still follow some of her sermon. I had to fill in enormous gaps, but when you know the whole story of God’s people, it is not difficult to do. She mentioned Moses, so I thought of Moses being sent as the deliverer of his people Israel from the whips of the Egyptians. Then I thought of Jesus the deliverer, sent as a little baby to save the world not from human oppression but from spiritual death. She said Hosanna and so I knew she was talking about Palm Sunday, when Jesus road into the streets of Jerusalem on a donkey, entering to the shouts of people asking him to save them. She moved her hand up, looked to an unseen hill, and I knew she was talking about those same people yelling “Crucify him!” and taking him to Golgotha to be executed.
After that, there were fewer things I could understand. No more familiar words, though she gestured several more times to the cross. But it was enough. I knew the story.
During this service there were also several prayers given by several people. I could recognize only the words Christmas and Amen. That, too, was enough.
Perhaps the strangest thing I witnessed that night was when everyone in the room prayed individually, not silently or taking turns as you would in an American church, but out loud and all at once. A cacophony of loud and fervent voices lifted to God in adoration. It took me so much by surprise I felt extremely uncomfortable for a moment (remember: German Lutheran). And I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that all speaking at once might not be looked upon favorably in the pages of Scripture (husband tells me it’s 1 Corinthians 14:26-33).
All the same, I felt compelled to join my thoughts and prayers with theirs and offer them up aloud to God (though at a much more restrained volume–God’s not hard of hearing, after all). And further checking into that Scripture shows me that it is talking about an orderly worship service and speaking in tongues. This service was certainly orderly and any speaking in a different tongue from the one everyone knew seemed to be done by me. So I thanked God for bringing these people safely out of a land of persecution to a land of religious freedom. I thanked him for the opportunity I have had to serve a few of them. And I asked him to show me and my church how we could serve them further.
And that’s where I went wrong.
There are prayers that God seems to take a long time to answer–months, years, decades, lifetimes. And there are prayers that God answers almost before you’ve said Amen. This was one of the latter kind. The service ended, strange food (though not intestines) was served, my boy came into the room for a doughnut hole and some water, his hair plastered to his head with sweat from running around constantly, and a woman asked me (through Moses) if I knew if there were any other people at the church who could help her niece and nephew with their homework.
Ah, yes. Homework.
One of my primary gripes when coming home from my ESL tutoring with this family for the past two years has involved the boys’ homework. In a large city with as many refugees and immigrants as ours, I simply can’t believe we don’t have a better system for intensive English instruction as the primary discipline of a new transplant and instead send students home bearing pointless and inane worksheets that will never help them succeed at life or even secure a job (like the crossword David was supposed to fill out last December in which every answer came from the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and ‘Twas the Night before Christmas–seriously).
Immediately I wanted to help these young people. Then I thought of how many junior high and high schoolers are in the Chin church and how many willing volunteers we might get from ours. The numbers didn’t match up. One thing that might make it more feasible would be if we had one big tutoring time scheduled at a central location that all students needing help could get to, transportation being an issue for almost all of them, and that the volunteers could easily reach. Like the church.
I asked Moses and this woman’s niece (I really couldn’t hear her name in all the noise) if they thought that those who wanted homework help could stay after their church service ended around 4:00pm. It would be so much easier to get volunteers to come to a central place. If we had even three people there for a couple hours, how many kids could we help decipher instructions, understand complicated concepts, write with proper grammar?
Remember a week ago when I posted this little gem:
I wonder if you’ve ever had the same epiphany, that your life, energy, and efforts were too focused on yourself. Assuming the world doesn’t end in a few weeks, what are you going to do differently in 2013? Where will you put your efforts? Will you spend your time entertaining yourself and thinking of ways you can further your goals? Or will you conscientiously look for ways to serve? I want to look beyond myself and I pray for the passion and focus to do so. I want to be one lone oak leaf that, in dying to self, can live in such a way that my efforts ripple outward and touch every corner of my pond.
And on Sweet December I foolishly prayed for more service opportunities to present themselves. But I hope I’m not a big enough fool to ignore a very clear answer to prayer. Now I must trust that the God who answered that prayer will also give me success in finding volunteers to fill the need. So if you’re a praying person, maybe you’ll say a little prayer for me today.