“Which of these proved to be a neighbor?”: A Story from ESL Class

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Van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix

For about the last month, I could tell the ladies in my afternoon ESL class were up to something: notes kept being passed from one student to another, whispers were carefully protected behind cupped hands, sheepish glances were sent my way as plans were being made.  I pretty much knew what was going on since one lady asked me, about a week before all the secrecy began, when my birthday was. But I could not anticipate, when my birthday actually rolled around, the amount of time and effort they put into my party.  I was assuming they were getting me a birthday cake and that was it (which was more than enough, of course). You know – the way we Americans do it: get a birthday cake, sing happy birthday at the end of class, after all our business had been taken care of and then we’d go home…

Not these ladies and two gentlemen.  From the moment I walked in the room with their “Surprise!” it was a no work day.  They had plans that involved a lot more than just a cake.  There was all kinds of food: Ethiopian misir wat and tibs with injera, a Burmese noodle dish with chicken, fruit, and yes, a cake. But there were also gifts: a Burmese bag and robe for men of the Karen people and other clothes (yes, clothes).  These folks gave me their best and I could not have felt more valued and welcomed into their lives.

Fast forward to last week. After the Paris attacks, there’s been a lot in the news, and in the general public discourse, about refugees, and as I’m sure you are aware, not all of it has been good.  Lots of fears have been fanned into flame by the rhetoric of certain politicians and other public figures, even certain Christians, concerned about our borders and who we’re letting into our country.  While I understand the worries that the attacks in Paris create and don’t wish to minimize them, I can’t help be reminded of the kindness the refugees and immigrants, most of whom have very little money or possessions, showed me on my birthday.  There I was, the American, supposedly making them feel welcome and at home in this country, being outdone in kindness and love.  It was a humbling day.

I know there are evil people out there who want to do a lot of harm.  ISIS is a death cult and as satanic as they come.  But Christians have a clear call to show hospitality to the stranger and the exile.  My refugee students outdid me in love on my birthday because many of them come from cultures where they still value (and practice) community and neighborliness (and do so in a way that seems too inefficient and messy to us Westerners).  We in the West have largely lost that sense.  We’re too busy, too individualistic and fragmented. In fact, in this regard, a lot my students (and my Arab students in particular) come from cultures that still have a lot in common with first century Jewish culture, the culture that gave us the story of the good Samaritan.

When Jesus asks the lawyer at the end of his telling of that story which of the characters–the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan–proved to be a neighbor to the beaten man on the side of the road, we all answer with the lawyer, “the one who showed mercy.”  But can we still say that even with the fear of a death cult like ISIS roiling in our collective gut? Can we still embrace the stranger among us?  Can we let the politicians and pundits argue about policy and borders while we, encouraged (literally) by the God who has taken us in as one does a stranger, with great cost to himself, love those among us who are here because they were forcibly removed from their homes–a choice undoubtedly they would not have made on their own?  These people would rather be in Baghdad or Asmara or Kinshasa; they would rather be home–just like you and me if we were in the same position.  Can we not show mercy to them, seeking to imagine exactly what kind of homesickness they must feel, the kind of disorientation they must experience on a daily basis living in a place like the U.S.?

I hope we can.