Vocabulary for Real Life: Another Story from ESL Class

 “Guess – chures, guess – chures.”

“No, remember how we pronounced it: JEST-chures.”

“Ah, yes…”

Helping my level four students acquire a facility with new vocabulary is part of my work, and one of the words we had a couple of weeks ago was gestures, which we defined as “hand movements that have meaning.”

Most days, as we’re learning a new grammar skill or learning to write a paragraph, I let my students break into groups and help each other with their work. One day a couple of weeks ago, as I had my students writing sentences to practice a new grammar skill, I watched as two Ethiopian men who sit near the front of the room interacted as I answered a question for them.  I don’t remember what they had asked but I do remember what happened as I tried to clear up their confusion. As I helped them, one of the men, a younger guy close to my age who I’ll call Addisu, began to explain to the other, an older man in his late 60’s who I’ll call Temesgen, what I had said.  As Addisu spoke, I noticed his right arm extend across his chest and over to Temesgen’s paper (he was sitting close to the elder man’s right side) where he began to erase one of the mistakes Temesgen had made in one of his sentences. As I continued to explain what Temesgen’s mistake was, Addisu then noticed that the elder man had made the same mistake in each of his sentences.  Arm still extended across his chest as though he were about to embrace him, Addisu proceeded to erase each of the mistakes in Temesgen’s other sentences as well. All this time, the elder gentleman sat listening to the younger man, letting him use his eraser on his paper.  There was no shame or embarrassment (even for a proud man like Temesgen), either in having someone help him or in having someone else so close and in his space.

This easy-to-pass-over moment in what was an otherwise normal morning of teaching stopped me where I was. As I watched Addisu help a man who was probably old enough to be his dad learn his grammar, I caught sight of something profound: a gesture–a younger man helping an older man understand a grammar concept that he wasn’t getting, going out of his way to make sure an elder had what he needed before he tended to his own work.

We live in what Pope Francis has called a “throwaway culture,” where the insatiable appetite of consumerism, which we are all subject to, influences us to always be looking for the next thing, or the new and more interesting thing.  That which is no longer interesting or new is simply replaced and we move on, leaving the old and outdated behind.

What interests me most in working with people from places like Ethiopia, the Congo, and Iraq–all countries that are still largely uninfluenced by our consumeristic ways–is how I can learn from these cultures–and even how many of their cultural norms are more in line with what I believe as a Christian than what I see here in my own country.  In these communities, I see people devoted to neighborliness, graciousness, and hope. In their cultures, community is still prioritized: the good of the other is my good too.  It’s not a zero sum game.  And in most cases, what is new or more interesting is not more important than helping my neighbor.

And so there I was. That one small gesture by Addisu stopped me that day long enough to humble me into remembering that I have a lot to learn from my students.  They may come to me because they want to speak and read English, but I need them in my life to help crack open the hardened shell of individualism that has formed a protective layer around me from years of trying to get ahead and make a name for myself.  I’m thankful that I get to do this everyday and be a witness to their grace and generosity.


The Ministry of Accompaniment

Interior of a Farm with Two Figures March-April 1890

Interior of a Farm with Two Figures March-April 1890 by Van Gogh.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air–especially after the darkness of last week and the week before.  As Americans, we’re used to a high level of predictability in our lives, such as leaving for work each day assuming that we’re safe and will return home without harm.  This is a good thing and one whose value I do not seek to diminish but when certain high profile people call for a ban on Muslim immigration,  we need to take a step back–and by we, I mean Christians–take some deep breaths and remember where our hope lies: not with political parties or agendas, not with the state and its political and military power and not even with security and predictability (even though, again, both of those are good things).

Our hope, especially as we remember it during this Advent season, is with “God with Us,” Emmanuel.  He came to accompany us in our uncertainty and in our fear and suffering.  The problem is that, at least in my life, I have not had a lot of deep fears and suffering.  Sure, I’ve had my fair share of struggles but for the most part my life has been pretty uneventful and so have the times in which I live (except for a few major events, 9/11 being the foremost).  But the dark shadow of terrorism continues to lengthen over us (at home and abroad) and as Christians we must really work to develop the right frame of mind in order to participate in God’s mission in the world.  We’re not used to the uncertainty that terrorism brings with it and the unpredictability it can force upon us.  As a society, we’ve exerted a significant amount of control over our future for a number of generations now, shaping our imaginations and hearts in such deep ways that even being a Christian doesn’t make one immune from such an influence.  But when we’re seeking to be a part of God’s mission in the world, so much of our work is about learning how not to be in control.

This past summer, as a way to help myself prepare for the work I would be doing with refugees, I wanted to continue to explore what it means to develop the imagination needed to work with those who live on the margins of society.  I had once read in Rowan Williams’ wonderful book, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment, about the “intelligence of the victim,” which is what we develop when we learn to look “at the world from the point of view of those excluded from its systems of power.”  The victim, as Williams points out, is an “abiding challenge” to any system that claims to be the one complete solution to the needs and problems of mankind, and when we stand with and advocate for the victim, we presume a “questioning stance towards such claims” (46). I wanted to explore that world more–of what it means to stand with the victim, or those on the margins, who have little to no voice in society.

One thing that I have been reminded of so far in working with refugees these past few months is that you can’t always “fix” their problems. When we lived in Ethiopia, this was an abundantly clear fact.  The poverty ran too deep, the corruption was too wide spread, and the system often seemed rigged so as to keep those with power in power.  At times, it was easy to be cynical about doing any good for anyone in the face of such overwhelming complexity.  And so often, all my ministry consisted of was being present to those who needed help.  In Ethiopia, that was children.  Now, it’s adult refugees and immigrants.

The only difference with my work now is that I’m doing it in the U.S. and so often, I feel I have a lot more control over what I can do for my Iraqi or Burmese or Eritrean friends. And this is true…most of the time.  Or maybe better put, this is true when it comes to practical matters: filling out paperwork, helping them register their kids for school, or referring them to a lawyer for legal help.

But what proves to be much more challenging–actually, impossible–is to make them feel at home.  When you begin to scratch beneath the surface a little, when you sit with a refugee long enough to really hear them (and often ask the right kinds of questions), you will hear the sorrow in their voices–the ache of having to leave their homes.  I never had to gather my family and run for our lives, but I do know what it feels like to live in a foreign land where I really don’t “get” how things work.  In fact, I know what it’s like to live in another country and know just enough about the place to realize that I don’t really understand the people and they don’t really understand me.  That’s what missionaries and international aid and development workers reckon with all the time (if they’re honest) when living overseas.  My wife, Jana, and I certainly dealt with it living in Ethiopia.

While the loss of one’s home can’t be taken away, what someone working with marginalized people can do is practice what Jean Vanier called “accompaniment,” or what I’ve heard others call the ministry of presence.  I can’t give my students their homes back.  I can’t make the wars in their countries stop.  I can’t remove the trauma that now resides in their bodies.  But I can give them my presence: I can help them bear the weight of loss and grief and the disorientation of living in a foreign land that, while relatively safe, can be very difficult to navigate, and I can do this without having to “fix” those problems (since I can’t really “fix” them anyway).  In doing so, I can help them feel, even though they are not at home, a sense of belonging. And in doing so, I know I follow in the footsteps of the God who, while not giving us answers for our why we suffer, decides instead to suffer with us and bear our grief and sorrow of our brokenness.

The problem for us as Americans, though, is that we like to fix things and it can be very difficult to provide a container, if you will, to hold the difficult experiences and feelings of those on the margins.  We’re too busy trying to find a solution. We want to do good: it’s in our blood.  We’re a nation of problem solvers, organizers, and efficiency experts.  To live out the ministry of accompaniment means we have to submit to doing “nothing” and when that happens, our Protestant-work-ethic-American-“we can do it”-guilt kicks in and Mammon, the god who always demands more of us while giving us fewer resources to make more happen, takes his seat on the throne of our hearts.

But it’s when we allow ourselves to do “nothing,” to be “disarmed” as Christine Pohl and Chris Heurtz call it, that we can allow the Spirit to work.  Pohl and Heurtz’s book, Friendship on the Margins, was one of the resources I turned to this past summer when I wanted to develop further “the intelligence of the victim,”or how to go about better embodying the ministry of presence with those on the margins. In that book, Pohl and Heurtz write:

When we allow ourselves to become disarmed, we become both vulnerable and strong.  The only weapons then at our disposal are those of the Spirit.  We choose the way of Jesus, laying aside all earthly resources that give us power–in order to be present to those we love….

In other words, when we give our presence to those we serve, rather than seeing them only for the problems they present to us for us to fix, we follow the “way of Jesus,” which is the way, as mentioned earlier, of God With Us, Emmanuel.  It is the way of the one who did not provide us with a theodicy, an explanation of how a good God can allow evil, but instead laid aside his power to feel what we feel when we suffer under the weight of brokenness and death.

Just this morning, one of our friends, a sweet lady from Mosul, Iraq, because of a passage of Scripture that had been read during our break time, began telling me about how ISIS killed all the Christians in her hometown or sent them into exile.  As she spoke, she began to weep quietly while saying, “I will never forget what they did. As long as I live.”

What can one do in a moment like that?  Promise that allied forces will soon destroy ISIS and return Mosul back to those to whom it belongs?  Such an answer would feel better–would feel like I’m “doing” something–but could very well be an empty hope given that we’re not called to trust in the power of the chariot or the horse (Psalm 20.7), nor in princes (Psalm 146.3).

We’re called to something different as Christians.  We’re called to suffer with the other–called to the “inaction,” if you will, of accompaniment. Such inaction feels like nothing and makes us feel powerless.  But when we’re in that place of powerlessness, then we can be sure we’re following the way of Jesus, who made himself nothing and, as we remember in this Advent season, came as a defenseless, powerless infant, born in a cattle stall.  When we accept such powerless, we follow in the way of Jesus and make way for the Spirit to work.  Dare we let go and watch what he does?

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

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.

Love the Stranger as Yourself: An Exhortation Written to an Imagined American Christian Audience Uninterested in, or even Hostile to, the Refugee and the Migrant


“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Lev. 19.34

“…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” – Matthew 25.35

Dear American Christian Uninterested in, or even Hostile to, Refugees and Migrants,

Did you hear that Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that the U.S. will increase the number of refugees it will take in over the next two years?  Currently we take in about 70,000 a year but by 2017, we will see 100,000 coming to the U.S. That’s a lot, right?

Well, on the other end of the spectrum, I heard on the radio not too long ago that Iceland’s government has agreed to take in fifty Syrian refugees (you read that correctly: fifty) as a way to help alleviate the burden of other European nations trying to help these migrants.  But what struck me as I listened to this story was not the small number of Syrians Iceland has decided to accept.  Instead, what caught my attention was the story of a group of private citizens of the small Scandanavian country that are offering their homes to refugees in order to do what the Icelandic government cannot, or will not, do, which, of course, is to provide hospitality to those who have been forcibly displaced.

I was moved and inspired as I listened to this story by the fact that, while governments may busy themselves with the business of governing and law making and debating policies, groups of people, outside the official channels of governance, regularly have to take it upon themselves to respond to the moral crises of the times and in this case, love these strangers as themselves. So while governments do what they do, ordinary people, without any official sanction, go about doing what governments are unable to do—in this case, give generously to those in need.

How much more should the church be involved in this kind of response to one of the great moral crises of our time? Of all the different communities in society, we are the ones who should “know the heart of the stranger” because we, of all people, should have the ability to empathize with others in their need.

When God was forming and shaping his people, the Israelites, he made it clear that they were not only to welcome the stranger but to treat him as though he were a “native.” But then, he took it a step further and told his people to “love him as yourself.” The stranger was not only to be considered “one of our kind.” God’s people were to treat him as they would want to be treated if they found themselves in the same position—a position, in fact, they once were in when they were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It should be no surprise then, that when God became man, at the core of Jesus’ message was the truth that with the measure one uses to judge others, that same measure will be used against him—that we were to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Jesus’ followers, God’s people, should be characterized by an ability to empathize and a courageous compassion that reaches out to the stranger because they have the ability to listen and be moved to action by the story of another in need. We have been loved much and out of the overflow, we are more than willing to love others—even when our politicians, and others around us, are worried they’ll be a drain on our resources or are clamoring for walls to be built or other drastic security measures to be taken.

In light of such political rhetoric, it’s important for Christians to consider that Jesus was once a refugee. In the first years of his life, Mary and Joseph had to flee their home with the Christ child to escape the wrath of Herod. They sojourned to Egypt where they lived for a time. This means that when God became man, he submitted himself to every experience imaginable in order to take on our humanity in all its fullness—even forced displacement. We’re familiar with his taking on sin and death, but how often do we think about his taking on our “less spiritual” conditions—such as being a refugee, in this case? What does this mean? That we worship a God who has made himself vulnerable to the full gamut of our experience? It means that we should follow suit by following Jesus in his identification with us.

In following Jesus, we adhere to the values and economics of God’s kingdom—a kingdom where the worthiness of those in need is not ours to judge. A kingdom where the concerns of the nation state—scarcity and plenty, threats and security–do not dictate our behavior. Why? Because there’s always enough in God’s economy (it’s the foundation of his economics) and the only threat to his kingdom is the threat of one’s love growing cold. When love’s potency becomes diluted by the cares of this world—the love of money, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life—then we can be sure we are acting not as the sojourning followers of the slaughtered lamb but rather as the conquered subjects of Caesar. We are to live as “resident aliens,” existing in the tension between “in and not of,” and resist the forces that seek to shape our hearts and imaginations to that of the will of this world.

But if talk of our status as “resident aliens” and being “in but not of” is too spiritual and abstract, then we should consider whether our inability to identify with the stranger is borne out of a drive to always make sure we’re an insider and rarely, if ever, an outsider. Perhaps we’ve never been in a position where we didn’t have control or privilege—where we didn’t really have to listen to the “other” because we still held a position of power. We’ve always moved easily from one community to the next because of the connections we had or because of who we knew. What if those connections were lost? What if we gave them up willingly? To let go of such privilege and power—and in this case, in a small way—is to practice the kind of kenosis (“emptying”) we see in Jesus as the Son of God, and to practice such self-emptying is to practice conversion—the conversion from following Jesus as business as usual (Jesus as the rubber-stamper of our ideological platform, for example) to following Jesus as exactly that: a follower—one who has given up control to another to go where the other leads. Such self-emptying, arguably, is the core of the gospel. Jesus lays aside his privileges and prerogatives and enters our experience and suffers every aspect of it. Such identifying with “the other,” then, is at the heart of God’s mission in the world and we are called to follow suit.

In the climactic scene of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the greedy, vengeful Shylock, when persisting in his demand for pay back, has no ears to hear Portia’s wise words directed at his desire for justice on his own terms: “We do pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us all to render to the deeds of mercy.” Shakespeare understood that we all want mercy—especially when we feel vulnerable or in need. But how often do we feel that need? How often do we find ourselves in a position to feel the need for someone’s unearned attention and help? Those who have suffered have felt this way, and that is why, while not good in and of itself, suffering is often one of the prerequisites for empathizing with those in need—especially when that person is someone from another country forcibly displaced by war or persecution.

But we are used to insulating our lives, insuring it against all manner of setbacks and potential disasters, and that version of the good life—the accumulation of wealth and property and the insuring its protection—has hardened our hearts to the way God’s kingdom operates. Sure, we all reap what we sow, but in the final analysis, love is what keeps this world going and love will have the final say. Not the kind of love conservative people imagine when liberals or progressives talk about love—not that idea. It’s the kind of deathly serious thing that led God to identify with the other (us) and to submit himself to our every experience, including death, so that he could fully love his creation. Yes, he could have loved the world without the incarnation, I suppose, but that god would be more like the god of the Deists than the God imaged in Jesus.

So if we are to follow this God, our hardened hearts must be broken and remade. And this remaking happens when we practice the conversion that comes by learning to die daily to what we think we need to be secure and in control of our lives and instead learning to follow the economics of God’s rule, best elucidated in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus says there, if we only love those who love us how are we any different than the “tax collectors” and “Gentiles” (5:46-48)? Likewise, if the church in our time only welcomes those who can give us something in return (a sense of felt security because they don’t look different from us, for example), how are we any different from the Icelands of the world—or any other nation whose interests are ultimately ruled by Mammon? How are we any different from those who are concerned with storing up “treasures on earth,” as Jesus speaks of later in the Sermon?

The church, more than any other group, should have the courage to welcome the stranger because the church, more than any other group, should know how to hold on lightly to “treasures on earth.” When God called his people into being, he commanded them to love the stranger among them. When Jesus laid out what Stanley Hauerwas has called the “constitution” of Kingdom of God in the Sermon on the Mount, he reaffirmed this same kind of love for those different from ourselves (even enemies!).

Though we don’t see within our own borders the crisis Europe is currently experiencing with refugees pouring into its member states, each year, the U.S. takes in the most refugees of any country in the world. And that will probably not change any time in the near future. With that in mind, the church has a clear duty to seek out the refugee and migrant, not as a problem to be solved with our American ingenuity and know-how, but as strangers to be befriended, people to be loved as we would want to be loved if we were in the same position. We should go to those hidden corners of our cities and forgotten areas of town where refugees and migrants live and seek for opportunities to serve and volunteer with organizations that have been quietly living and working in those communities since well before refugees became the top story in the news cycle.

The refugee crisis that is happening in the world today is not a problem; it’s an opportunity. Governments may argue and debate about numbers and security issues, but God’s people have a clear chance to do what has always been part of their mission.  Let the politicians debate and argue, but may we Christians follow our God who suffers with us.

Peace of Christ,

Michael Funderburk