I stopped by the busy apartment complex where most of my students live. Kids chased each other through the grass, and mommas donning brightly colored patterns walked with babies on their hips.
Whether or not I knew them, I waved at them as I slowly
bumped over the humps and pot holes of the parking lot. I always do. As I
bumped and waved along, I tried to review what little Spanish I know. But I
barely made it past hola.
On a mission to speak to a set of Guatemalan parents, I kept
driving toward that apartment and trying to remember what came after hola.
It didn’t take me long to admit that there was no chance I was going to have a
successful conversation in Spanish without help. There was no way I was ready
to knock on that door.
And where else could I go but to the front door of a 4th
Making a quick pit stop, I pulled my car around to a different building in the complex. I knocked on the door, and was immediately greeted by two smiling girls that are new to my summer school program. I asked them to tag along to visit another family a couple of buildings down from them. You might call it a moment of humility, even desperation, but the excitement on their faces called it joy as they looked at each other with wide eyes.
“Let’s go ask!” they said, quickly turning and running to
their mom. Soon enough they were lacing up their shoes, and heading out to the
door to the day’s great adventure: helping Ms. Brianna talk.
The sun beat down as our strides shadowed the pavement
beneath us, every stride closer to our mission together. When we finally
reached the covered stairs to that Guatemalan family’s apartment, I lagged
behind the girls as they took the steps two at a time before me. And finally,
we arrived outside the home I had originally come to see.
Doublechecking the address, I began to knock on the door next to the box of mud-caked construction boots. We knocked again. No answer. Another time. And no answer.
In between knocks, the girls talked more. The girls hardly
noticed how their speedy, high pitched voices filled the silence in the
corridor. They didn’t hear how our knocks echoed past the door into an unmoving
room. They didn’t realize how many minutes passed as we waited outside the
door. No, they didn’t notice. There were too many other things to talk about.
Cartwheels and summer school, movies and Starbucks.
I had to announce the news.
“Well, girls. I don’t think they’re here. We better head
back home,” I told them. Their faces dropped when I told them it’d been nearly
5 minutes and the door remained closed. They really had no idea.
“Do you have anyone else we can visit?” they asked,
obviously not wanting to go back home. I shook my head no, and we turned around.
We retraced our steps back down the stairs toward their building again, still
chatting along the way. Lines and cracks on the pavement passed below us as we
followed the sidewalk past the homes of their neighbors.
“What’s your favorite subject in school?” I asked.
“English. I love to write,” one of the girls said. I told
her that was amazing and that I liked to write too (which she obviously thought
was the coolest thing ever). She went on about the other stories she has
written, and what she’s currently working on. She’s young, but already her
portfolio is growing.
She talked, and images of my childhood – long bus rides spent
gazing out the window, stretching myself across carpeted floor to read, journaling
every night – passed through my head. I thought I was the only 4th
grader who watched the world around me in pure wonder, and crafted moving lines
in my head as it passed. I think I’ve gone my whole life thinking I was the
weird one. Maybe this is how all writers are born.
I asked her about her writing and she told me about a poem
she’d been working on for 3 months, among other short stories. But that poem, she
was working on getting it just right and came back to it often.
“This girl has more discipline than I do. She’s years
younger than me, but she’s already figured it out. Writing, as is any good
thing worth pursuing, requires days and days of going back to the page, and
spilling words even when it’s hard. And she already knows that,” I
“That’s amazing. Keep working on it. I want to read it when
you finish,” was all I said.
“Okay! My friend reads it for me. She helps me,” she said, pulling the other girl in close for a sideways hug as we continued down the sidewalk. The quiet one smiled shyly, and I saw so much of myself in her too: the writer with a vision for the world, and the diligence to pen it and the encourager who wants to see people do amazing things, and will help people get there.
We talked on that sidewalk until I had only given myself
approximately 3 minutes to get to my next ESL class. It was hard to leave a
conversation when I felt like I was learning so much about these people – these
young, growing people. And, I was being pumped with inspiration in my own life
I gotta get back to the book tonight.
Need to make sure I wake up with my alarm to write in the morning.
I need a friend to read my work too.
Even when it sucks, I need to come back to it.
I can’t give up.
There are infinite beautiful things to share, and it can bring joy to someone.
And all that simply because my chatty 4th grade friend spoke up about her writing. She showed me how to speak of my craft with confidence and joy, and how to arrive to the paper with diligence often. I think this was the day that I believed, in real ways, that kids are capable too. Full of ideas and wonder, dreams and the ability to chase them down. They have voices, and you might be surprised at how life-giving and powerful they can be. We can learn from them.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.