A guest post by Brenda Weatherly.
For the past two-and-a-half years, I have been actively involved in assisting refugees as they adjust to this strange new land, the United States. This is not always easy, especially when there is a language barrier. Most of the women I have met do not know English. How can I build a friendship with a woman who has endured horrific hardships when there are no words we can exchange?
Sometimes the silence is deafening. It is a silence created from grief, from loneliness, oftentimes desperation. The silence envelops me and washes over me as I sit on the couch next to a widowed Iraqi mother at her apartment. Her husband was killed working as an interpreter for our Army.
There are no words I can speak to comfort her as she cries. I do not know Arabic. She does not know English. But the blurry photo of the aged woman on her lap tells me everything. My Iraqi friend misses her mother, a mother on the other side of the world in a combat zone. As we shed tears together, she murmurs those two words over and over: ‘My mom.’ It is all she can say. I know there are mountains of words she would like to express, but they remain bottled inside of her.
The Gift of Presence
The silence spoke volumes on that brisk winter morning when a friend and I drove to the apartment of a Congolese single mother. I intended to introduce the two of them, to somehow explain that this new American friend would be her English tutor. As we arrived, the crumpled figure of this Congolese woman sat shivering on the edge of the sidewalk. She usually greeted me with a beautiful smile, but this time her teeth could not stop chattering. Her face appeared drained of all strength. It must have been 40 degrees outside and she had no jacket.
Finally, a fellow refugee arrived with a blanket and helped us figure out what had happened. For 2 hours, she had been locked out of her apartment. As she shook relentlessly, we hoisted her off the sidewalk and to her feet. I wanted to do more. I wanted to say more. I wanted to find out how she could have been left outside for 2 hours without anyone coming to her aid. Where was her son? But I was just there, a spectator, unable to offer more than my presence.
Yet offering my presence has been the key to breaking the silence. Sharing my life with a refugee takes patience because this requires a unique friendship, a friendship which extends beyond cultural and language barriers. It is a friendship built on trust. These foreigners that I share my life with are not the typical immigrant. They have been broken, they have been battered and bruised. And I have been given the privilege of meeting them at a time when hope begins anew. Can they trust that life will be better in this foreign land? Can they put their guard down and open their heart to me?
The widowed Iraqi mother knows she can trust me. I did not tell her those words in English. It is learned when we go to the market, learning new words as we shop together. It is learned when I hold the hand of her daughter on the little girls’ first dental visit, discovering that 12 of her 20 teeth are rotted. Trust is learned as my presence has endured the test of time. And where there is trust, fear cannot endure. Together we experience the gift: Shared silence brings healing.
Within five miles of my home in Knoxville, there are dozens of churches filled with people who will never know the intimacy of sharing their life with an “outsider.” I imagine that Christianity may have never spread beyond Israel if the early Christians discriminated against “undesirables” such as Romans, barbarians and Pharisees.
I am a busy mother to 7 children and 2 grandchildren and I, more than anyone, can give excuses as to why I have no time to befriend refugees. And yet, there is a fulfillment I experience by helping the helpless, defending the fatherless, caring for the widow. My Christian faith should look captivating to a crumbling world. Only because of Jesus’ teachings about love and radical hospitality have I chosen to do what I do. I want my children and my foreign friends to see my faith in action.
Whether I am assisting a Middle Eastern Muslim, an African Pentecostal or a Colombian Catholic, I do not differentiate my support based on nationality or religion or race. How could I, as a Christian, be the hands and feet of Jesus to only a select few? How can I share the love of Jesus only to those who already consider themselves to be Jesus Followers? I take great joy when I hear the simultaneous chatter of many different languages in my 8-passenger van: English, Kirundi, Swahili, Arabic. I asked my 6-year-old daughter, “Scarlet, which language does God speak?” And without hesitation, she answered, “God speaks every language.”
What Will I Do?
I, as a lone volunteer, cannot possibly care for every refugee. I have no control over the conflicts that produce refugees. They will continue coming to my country. What will I do about it once they arrive? I can turn a blind eye to their plight. I can pretend that they never experienced persecution. Or I can extend my hand and open my doors. I pray that more Christians will choose to do the same.
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
– Matthew 5:16
Brenda Weatherly is a Christian wife and mother to 7 children and 2 grandchildren. She loves learning about different countries and cultures, having visited 16 countries and 43 US States. Out of this love for culture, she began assisting refugees through Bridge Refugee Services, a resettlement agency based out of Knoxville, TN. On any given day, you may find her teaching English class, accompanying a refugee to a doctor’s appointment or sharing dinner with American and international friends.
Follow her blog at https://brendaweatherly.wordpress.com/.
Are you wrestling with the best way to respond to the refugee crisis yourself?
Read Brenda’s new book,
Refugee Resettlement: On the Front Lines–
Christian Compassion Meets Rugged Reality.
Not one to peddle easy answers, Brenda reveals the positives and negatives
of learning to live out Christ’s love with real, diverse people in crisis.