This year, on Mother’s Day, a new family sat nervously among the more familiar ones at the early worship service at the church.
Afterward, the father introduced himself in halting English, relying on gestures to translate what was otherwise too difficult to communicate. They were refugees originally from a country at the intersection of the Middle East and South Asia, he explained.
His family had been settled near the church, and he was trying to make connections. Their prior address was the floor of a one-room garage in their temporary host country where they had languished for three and a half years. The mother struggled to walk but was trying to get around. Their young daughter was enrolled in kindergarten and beginning first grade in the fall.
Since that first encounter, much has unfolded between this family and the church.
A daughter of the church, a kindergartner also at the young girl’s school, accompanies the girl to class every day. Early on, it was hand-in-hand with protective words of reassurance. Supported by many adults who tutor and assist with homework, she is thriving in her studies, making friends and already translating the ways and language of their new homeland for her parents.
One church member, a surgeon, noted the mother’s pronounced limp at a picnic over the summer. He gently asked to examine her leg and noted immediately the severity of her condition. The limp resulted from poorly-healed injuries sustained in a persecutory attack that nearly took her life. He has guided her through the complexities of the healthcare system. She is slowly healing, taking English classes in the church and offers any guest a plateful of delicious foods from her part of the world.
Others have invested in the father’s assimilation, helping him to understand how to manage rent payments, insurance, locating and keeping work, and even loaning a vehicle for driving lessons. He is steadily employed as a painter, though his trade had previously been in sewing. A retiree gave him her sewing machine so he could supplement his income. Another need has recently emerged for him: new work gloves. During the recent cold weather, he noticed one of his gloveless fellow workers and gave him one of his, so each could have at least one warm hand. Some new ones are waiting under the tree.
There are other stories to tell, but they all show how these new neighbors have become a part of a neighborhood they did not choose, and yet are communities made better by their presence. Being neighborly illuminates the ageless proverb that “it is better to give than to receive,” even these days when daylight is so scarce. In this time of gift-giving, the best things to give remain yourself – your time, your care and your hospitality.
The traditional Christmas story tells of a family forced to relocate even while the mother is ready to deliver her first child. The child Jesus is born in dislocation. Later, while the young child is still a toddler, his parents must flee with him in the face of deadly political violence at home. They abandon home, livelihood, and support network overnight and land in faraway place.
This time of year is an opportunity to consider, among other things,what it is like to live like that in a faraway land with strange language and strange ways. The U.N. High Council on Refugees reports 28,300 people are forcibly displaced every day from their homes, currently totaling 65.6 million worldwide. Of these, 22.5 million are refugees.
Ninety-nine percent are still waiting in camps and garage floors for a place of permanent settlement.
Now it is Christmastime, and at least one family is preparing to celebrate it for the first time in the U.S. There is much to celebrate, and consider, in the year to come.
Christopher Ingram is senior pastor of Yates Baptist Church in Durham.