One night several years ago there were tears in my eyes as I left the English as a Second Language (ESL) class for which I volunteer as a teacher's assistant. It's not the first time someone in our eclectic weekly gatherings of immigrants and refugees has moved me to tears. And such moments are one of the many reasons I drive across town every Tuesday night to have sometimes creatively communicated conversations with Bosnians, Iraqis, and Colombians (oh my!).
A little more than a year before I answered a blurb in my church's bulletin calling for volunteers to help with local ESL classes led by Christian relief agency World Relief. There are many reasons I made the call: After years of living in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, I needed a dose of reality; after living alone for a year, I realized I needed to work in some regular people time; and as a single person, I desperately wanted to combat the common pitfall of selfishness.
Let's be honest, some of the things we cite as our favorite aspects of singleness—having sole control of the remote, being able to cook (or not cook) whatever we please, being free to decide at 4:25pm to go see a 5:10pm movie with coworkers without needing to call home and check if it's okay—can lead us to be a little too me-focused at times. Without anyone else's schedule, needs, opinions, or feelings to consider on a regular basis, it's easy for some key interpersonal skills and character qualities—such as compromise and compassion—to start atrophying.
With that in mind, I called World Relief's volunteer coordinator to sign up for a class, feeling a little daunted by the challenge of helping people brand new to the country learn enough English to thrive in their new surroundings, and not knowing how much I would learn from and be inspired by these people I was supposed to help.
First of all, I learned how well off I really am, despite the fact that people ten years younger than me live in huge new houses just blocks from my one-bedroom apartment. When Jose, a Colombian fork-lift operator at a local publishing company, learned that I live alone, he was astounded. "A whole apartment just for you?" he asked with wide eyes. Since many of the students work more than one job, including Ivan from Mexico who works at Olive Garden, IHOP, and McDonald's, I realize how fortunate I am to have only one—a truth I need to be reminded of when my alarm goes off on Monday mornings.
Despite their hardships, these students sometimes bring the other teacher and me gifts. In fact, one of my favorite gifts of the recent holiday season was from the two men I affectionately refer to as "the Georges" (pronounced Hore-hays). This father-son duo, George Sr. and George Jr., proudly presented me with a wrapped and beribboned box containing a small crystal dolphin figurine. The thought of these two sweet Colombian men, whose wife/mom and daughters/sisters are still back in their homeland, shopping for and selecting this gift with me in mind warmed my heart for days.
Laughter is abundant in our class—at the quirks of the English language, at Bibishan's mistaken notion that smoked turkey is something you use to get high instead of something you eat to get full, and at the constantly hilarious antics of Russian-born Uri, the oldest and spriest member of our crew, our resident class clown. When Uri played Jesus in the skit at our recent Christmas party with several other ESL classes, it was less a passion play and more a comedy.
But the meaningfulness of the season was brought back into perspective when one of the teachers asked each people group represented in our combined class to share how they say "Merry Christmas" in their native language. As Vietnamese, then Iranian, then Russian, and Bosnian students stood to say this festive phrase, I was struck by the magnificence of God's diverse creation and moved by the fact that God sent his Son into the world to live, die, and rise again for all of us—of every color, nation, creed, and language.
Overall, what moves me most about these students are their ever-present bright smiles that light up the basement room in which we meet. Several of these students have fled from political or religious persecution in their homelands, many haven't seen some of their immediate family members in years, and most are dog-tired from working two or three jobs. Yet they greet me with a cheery "Hi Teacher!" or some heavily accented attempt at my name. My petty problems disappear, my me-centered vision widens, and my sometimes-jaded heart melts and wraps around these people from such distant and diverse lands.
Whether it's a church youth group, people at the local senior center, a Sunday school class of four year olds, or a community homeless shelter, I think it's vital for every one of us to have a group and a place where we can serve and spread around some of the extra love we singles have to give. Others need our contribution, and we need to allow God to work in these interactions to teach, grow, and shape us into who he wants us to be. As for me, I know he's making me a softer-hearted, more grateful, and yes, less selfish human being.
Recently, as I exited the church building in which our class meets, I noticed Maryam, a 40something woman from Iran, waiting for her ride home. I decided to chat with her for a few moments so she wouldn't get left there all alone. Somehow the topic of religion came up, and she told me that both she and her husband became Christians while in Germany for a number of years before moving to the U.S. When I told her that I, too, am a Christian, her eyes lit up. Fascinated, I started to ask about the details of her conversion, but her ride pulled up to the curb and our conversation was cut short.
Her parting words to me as she opened the car door were an emphatic, "Praise Jesus!" As I watched this former Muslim who once could have been physically hurt for uttering such words in public, who works as a hotel maid and a White Castle cook, who always greets me with a shy but sincere smile, and who, I now realized, is a sister in Christ, I felt my eyes tear up and my faith swell with joy.
"Yes, Maryam," I whispered to the back of the car as they pulled away and then into the night sky, "Praise Jesus indeed!"
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