Since I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., I always imagined the "least of these," those people Jesus instructed us to look after during our time here on earth, lived very far away. I thought observing this command required herculean effort, such as joining a missions trip to Zimbabwe or seeking out a soup kitchen in rougher city neighborhoods.
But the day I answered an ad in my church bulletin, all that changed.
The ad was a call for volunteers to help with the free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes World Relief offers to immigrants and refugees in our corner of suburban Chicago. I've always loved talking with people from other cultures, so I dialed the phone number listed. Soon I was spending my Wednesday evenings in a church basement with people from around the globe.
At first it was intimidating to explain kitchen terms, past participles, and the countless exceptions of the English language to people from Iraq, Somalia, Mexico, and the Ukraine. But I loved the conversations we had during the break in the middle of class. Over instant coffee, I asked students about their jobs, families, and homelands.
I was amazed at how many of the students worked more than one job—often as busboys or cooks, factory workers, or housekeepers for local hotels or cleaning services. They all seemed hungry to talk about their exhausted lives and to ask questions about the complexities of American culture. The latter brought much laughter, such as the time we helped a Somali woman realize smoked turkey is a sandwich ingredient, not an inhaled narcotic!1