Smells of meat and rice interlaced with turmeric, coriander, and cumin wafted from the kitchen. Folding chairs lined the walls of the living room, save for a corner where a table of desserts covered the surface. Music with beats and tones that blended in the Middle East saturated the air we mingled in.
Travis and I had been invited to a feast, and the celebration would not be taken lightly.
Marking the end of a month of fasting, this feast would be a time to gather and make up for all the food missed out on over the weeks. Students of mine for nearly 2 years, the hosts – a Kurdish husband and wife duo – had invited their American friends to the party.
I should say, they only invited their American friends to the party.
When I slipped my shoes off just past the threshold of the front door, my eyes adjusted quickly to the realization that I was with white strangers. There were about a dozen Americans – adults and kids – occupying the seats and sitting cross-legged on the large area rug.
I would later learn that some of these folks had been invited by the other Americans in the room, and not our Kurdish hosts. Yet, it would take me most of the night to realize that these were most likely all the Americans my friends knew – even the ones they were only on meeting this night.
But honestly, a dozen American friends is more than most refugees and immigrants with limited English have.
Betty was one of these white women I met that night as we held foam plates nearly overflowing with food. She was older and reminded me of someone who had seen Nashville before it was what it is today. The lines on her face spoke of wisdom and her white hair boasted of a lifetime of work. This woman came over to the loveseat I sat on, asking to take the seat next to me.
All it took was a simple question about how I knew the hosts to start the words falling out of my mouth. I started from the beginning. Before I could even stop them from tumbling, I boasted in the sequence of events, leaving out no major detail of how I got to where I am now. It was the story of my cross-cultural work in the community; a familiar story I had heard myself say a hundred times.
I don’t know what I expected. Maybe a “Wow” or a “That’s amazing.” Some follow up questions. A lot of others respond like that. Instead, she just nodded. When she asked who I worked for, I told her. To which she replied, “Hm. Never heard of it.” I described the office location to her, and she asked about its founding. Despite the effort, her answer remained. Nope. Never heard of it.
Just when I didn’t want to admit that I think some part of me was expecting a pat on the back, a voice within me prodded me to ask more questions. Turn it away from me. This work isn’t about me. What can she teach me?
And all it took was a fleeting humble thought and a couple open-ended questions to learn about Betty.
Betty has worked for this people group all my life and then some. In her life, she’s done incredible things like purchase real estate and rent to families in need. She’s taught English, helped people get important documentation figured out, and been a friend and a helping hand. She described the Kurdish weddings she’s been to and picnics she’s been invited to. Her name means something to this community of displaced people. Her legacy shouts of love and kindness.
She told her story – one I’m sure she’s told over a thousand times – and I was enthralled. Every time there was pause in the conversation, I asked her another question. I wasn’t thinking of my own story anymore. Hers was captivating. Hers spoke encouragement over this work, wonder in my mind, and gratefulness in my heart for a God who does this for us.
As she and I talked together, she helped me to see some things in a different light. They were simple truths, but I needed them to bring me back to earth that night.
We are the faithful planters.
All her years of laboring on the field, she had never been there when someone made a decision to believe in the story of Jesus. I was honestly surprised. She had been doing this for so long, all for the goal of witnessing lives be glorified. Surely at least one person had seen the light of Christ in Betty? I asked her how that felt.
“Discouraging at times,” she said. Of course. What else?
But then she told me about the folks who called her months or years later. They reached out to her just to let her know that they’d discovered the Truth. They had decided to follow Jesus and wanted her to know. And even though she wasn’t there, she rejoiced with them.
“I realized how special it was that they felt it important to call me and tell me about their decision. I wasn’t there, and it took a long time, but they knew He was in my life. I got to help plant the seeds,” she described.
Where she could have felt sadness or felt that she missed those moments, she spoke this with joy and excitement. That’s when I realized she was genuinely doing this work for a purpose bigger than herself. That she knows this isn’t about her.
She had worked laboriously for months and years, thinking it might all be a bust. When the discouragement pressed in, she continued to show up for these people. Every day. What she thought was failure became a wellspring of hope. She came to the field knowing her weaknesses, and that was plenty. Yes, even that was plenty. Her shortcomings were enough.
Because in the end, just by being a familiar face to this community of people, she had given them a glimpse of something bigger than themselves. And without her being there in those early days, they might never have opened their eyes to the Truth of the world around them later.
We work together.
Betty’s work caused people to wonder about life. The Light and the Love she carried with her every day sparked questions within the deepest parts of the people she served. And when they left Nashville or moved out of her rentals, the questions and wonderings her work began in them was completed by other believers.
She didn’t get to see the transformation of a person’s life; she only caught a glimpse of it over a phone call. The believers who got to witness it came to answer the questions that had started being asked, and they got to see the reward. They came to finish the work Betty had started. And they succeeded.
Church, we are a team of imperfect people knowing we’re going to let each other down but come together anyways. We’re a group of people that forgive until we’ve forgotten the number of times we’ve forgiven. We come alongside people who are difficult and hurtful because we know they’re loved. Tremendously.
We can only handle so much before we tap out though. We can only keep up with our routines in this neighborhood at this job and with this exact circle of friends for so long. Our assignments are temporary. Eventually, things will change. Who will be there to tap us out when we’re worn thin? Who will come along to continue loving the difficult and the hurtful when it’s time for us to head toward the next place? Who will meet the ones we serve when they suddenly pack up and move states away?
I can’t always follow, and I can’t always stay. If I’m at this alone, I’m never going to make it. I need the church to help me. I need a community to fill in my weaknesses, serving and helping others in ways I can’t offer them.
I’m not responsible for saving the world. I’m barely responsible enough to save a single person. Maybe this is why we are called to live in community, and to labor alongside the likeminded. Because we pick up each other’s work. We work together, by whatever means necessary, to see a single soul purchased for heaven. Humbly, I admit that this is not up to me; it’s up to the work of God through His people. We can achieve far greater rewards together than we can in isolation.
We don’t give up.
I get bogged down when I don’t see progress in the day to day. Our modern-day culture has taught me to always feel satisfied, comfortable, happy. I’m expected to always feel like I’m getting something or going somewhere. If I’m not, I’m failing.
But what Betty’s story told me is that even when we feel like nothing is happening, we stay. We stick around. We’re faithful to the task ahead of us. It’s not always going to be easy or fun, but we stay. We have dinner with that family on our mind, knowing they won’t ask a single question about Jesus that night. We offer up our home to a woman in need, knowing she can’t pay it back what we think it’s worth. We do this all, and even more, walking in the confidence that God has brought us here and that changes everything.
This is called discipline.
As long as God has assigned you to a place, the knowledge of having been called is all you need to keep going. It’s going to feel boring and sometimes you’re going to wonder if you’re making a difference; stay anyways. What we perceive as failure is often what God uses to changes lives. Don’t leave yet. If anything within your bones tells you to stay, listen. He’s still at work. And you can’t even put a number on the people you’re going to help by choosing to stick around.
I’m really not as impressive as I think.
Here’s a humiliating thought: I’m not that impressive.
I’m going to type it one more time, because I really need this: I’m not that impressive.
When I’m tempted to think that I’ve made it and have it figured out, or that I’ve reached all that God has for me, I’m going to remember Betty. I’m going to remember the laborers I’m working alongside who have left more, sacrificed more, given more for the sake of our refugee friends. I’m going to hear their stories of leaving home, buying a home, doing something truly radical in order to make the gospel real to refugees in Nashville.
As long as there are people to help, my job is not finished. As long as I’m on this side of heaven, I’ve still got room for improvement. I believe this most when I meet people like Betty. It humbles me to realize that there are ideas and opportunities that I’ve not yet discovered and people I’ve not yet met. Slowing down now because I’ve “worked so hard to get here” would be detrimental to the completion of this task.
So, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get back out there. There’s still work to be done.
As Betty and I looked away, staring at the Kurdish music video on the TV and our eyes seeing but not really watching, a flicker of hope came across me. My eyes scanned the room and a question whispered within me: do my Kurdish friends realize every person they invited here tonight is a believer?
Betty’s words were still ringing throughout my body, seeping their way deep down into the quietest parts of my soul. As I realized that I didn’t fight the battle for my hosts’ hearts alone, a burden was lifted. Burdens that told me everything was up to me and what I accomplished seemed less believable. Lies that told me I worked alone were called out. In the place came a joy that my team was here – even here in this room – and that they hadn’t given up. It wasn’t time for me to either.
When I’m down, I’m going to remember the faces that made that large living room feel more cozy last week. We’re a team of people, planting seeds with a stubbornness that refuses to give up. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, I’m going to choose to believe that everything I can give to my hosts while I’m here might actually make a difference.