Last Sunday, I introduced myself to some new comers at our church. I asked them my standard ‘meet and greet’ questions. First, their names. But, my American ears found their words too difficult to discern.
“Where are you from?,” I asked. The man said the name of his homeland in a thick African accent. “I’m from Rwanda,” he said. In an instant, he had told me volumes about himself, tucked away in a three syllable word. And though, i did not get the particulars of their journey that brought them to where they were at that moment, i knew enough about where they had come from to know it must have been a long road.
After i learned that they had only been in town one week, our small conversational window closed. It was time to move on in our worship service. But, I thought of them often while working at camp this past week. I saw their dark, beautiful faces in my mind. Faces that carried the weight of being unknown in a foreign land where their need and vulnerability were so obvious to any who took the time to observe.
It got me thinking about all the words we carry that whisper a larger story. We may be in a place where we know the language perfectly, and our appearance may allow us to blend seamlessly into the fabric of our lives, going unnoticed. But, we are no less vulnerable, or in need of help and compassion when the words part from our lips.
Words like cancer, neglect, abuse, divorce, bankruptcy, in debt, lonely, single, difficult marriage, anxious, depressed, loss of a child, infertile, addiction, suicide, confused, lost….
What do we do with these words that we are afraid to utter?
What do we do when we hear them from those we love or from strangers?
Mostly, i ignore them. Or i hide them.
But, I remember one evening last year, when i listened.
I had been working on a seminar i was going to give on “how to care for wounded women”. While getting some dinner, I was standing in line at a burrito place behind a person wearing an over sized, black hoodie and baggy basketball shorts. The person had very short hair and a stocky build. She opened up her mouth to order her meal, and I heard a soft feminine voice. I was shocked. She had me completely fooled that she was a female from behind. This young woman was wearing her “words” with her demeanor and her dress.
I wondered how she got to where she was at that moment.
After we both ordered, they moved us down the assembly line and went to wait on the other customers. Our meals were paired together on the same tray. i looked at her, then down at our burritos and joked, “i guess that means you are paying for us both.” She was startled at first and then laughed. We struck up a casual conversation for a couple of minutes while we waited.
Then an amazing thing happened. As they totaled up her order, she said to the guy behind the register, “I’m paying for her as well.” She looked at me and said, “Thank you for taking the time to talk to me and for making me laugh.” Embarrassed by her own gesture, she hurried out, leaving me to accept her graciousness alone.
I hope i can remember to slow down more often in order to listen to the words that speak volumes.