In To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books, lawyer Atticus Finch gives his young daughter some advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
…climb in his skin
In the incarnation, Christ did exactly that, didn’t he? He climbed into humanity’s skin, walked around in it, and considered things from humanity’s point of view. He became well acquainted with all the emotions, all the temptations, and all the struggles that come part and parcel with human skin.
But it wasn’t just any old skin he put on. Christ chose a very specific skin, and he walked around in it and considered its very particular point of view for 33 years.
The skin he chose was bundled at birth into whatever cloths happened to be at hand.
Because Christ put on the skin of the poor.
It was nearly skewered when it was still infant soft.
Because Christ put on the skin of the powerless.
It was carried off into a foreign country.
Because Christ put on the skin of the refugee and immigrant.
It was shunned by the religious and those highly reputed.
Because Christ put on the skin of the illegitimate.
It grew rough and callused.
Because Christ put on the skin of the working poor.
It lay itself down on the ground and at times grew tight over ribs.
Because Christ put on the skin of the homeless.
It was bruised and torn by guards.
Because Christ put on the skin of prisoners.
It was naked in the sight of all.
Because Christ put on the skin of all those forced to expose themselves to others.
“Then the King (Jesus) will say to those at his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father: Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’
Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling you the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—
“(God) creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” Ephesian 2:9, The Message
I believe with all my heart that refugee care is good work. A few weeks ago I posted the news that the ESL classes at my local World Relief (WR) office are in jeopardy because they have not received federal funding. Last Tuesday I sat in a meeting with other WR volunteers and listened as the ESL director outlined a plan that will provide as many refugees and immigrants with regular classes while still cutting costs (and staff) dramatically. Despite the great stress she was under, Sue smiled at us and reminded us that God is at work. He will provide. He so clearly cares for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, and the foreigner. She said something like this: The decreased government funding gives the church a chance to step up and in with their money and their time. It pushes us to be more generous and creative.
At the bottom of this post, I have links to both the national and local (western suburbs of Chicago) World Relief websites as well as specific ways to support WR DuPage/Aurora.
But before I get to that, I have links to four articles: the first three specifically related to refugees, the third about cultivating a generous heart toward all those in need.
“5 Objects to Fuel Your Prayers,” is a great article about concrete ways to remember those in need. It’s specifically about refugees, but you could use the same techniques to remind you to pray for the poor, the persecuted church, victims of sex trafficking, those suffering from mental illness, orphans, etc.)
For those outside Chicago’s western suburbs: visit the international home page of World Relief and click on the “Get Involved” tab to see if WR has a location in your area.
For those IN Chicago’s western suburbs: The ESL arm of WR DuPage needs volunteers. If you have some morning hours free beginning in January or would like to tutor a refugee one-on-one, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can get you connected with the volunteer coordinator. You don’t need any experience or qualifications other than the ability to speak English, and it is truly a blessing.
If you’ll take a look at the poster I have pictured above, you’ll find information about items needed for Good Neighbor kits. The back side (with items needed) is the second picture. One of WR’s dropoff locations is at K’Tizo–my favorite tea/coffee shop. You can drop off items and get a yummy drink!
The third picture (sorry it’s so small) is a “Quick Guide to Fundraising for World Relief DuPage/Aurora.” If you live in another location but have a WR nearby, I’m sure you could use all the same techniques to fundraise for your area location.
Two weeks ago I walked into the Job class of World Relief’s ESL program and was immediately asked a question. “Hi Jen, we’re listing all the different ways people in our class say good morning in their languages. Can you add one?” I looked at the board. “Good Morning” was written there in English, Arabic, Burmese, Nepali, and Massalit.
“Buenos dias!” I said, and the teacher added the Spanish greeting to the list.
Four mornings a week, refugees and immigrants from all over the world gather for ESL classes in the basement of College Church in Wheaton, IL. Their preschool-aged children attend language enrichment classes while their parents study.
During break times a beautiful mix of different languages can be heard in the hallways. Refugees from Asian countries converse in halting English with Africans and Middle Easterners. The older women often huddle together, their clothing carrying the wonderful scents of cooking spices. News of babies born and jobs found is shared. Individual rejoicings turn into communal celebrations. When someone grieves, the others say little but their eyes speak a language of shared suffering.
I LOVE this place. I love what it stands for–a church that is giving of its space to those who need it and an organization, World Relief, that serves the most vulnerable. The teachers at World Relief are some of my heroes.
The students are my heroes.
They face odds I cannot imagine, and they do it with quiet bravery.
These basement classrooms are a sanctuary for them. They find and form community here. They meet Americans who welcome them to their new country, who tell them, “This can be your home. You are safe here.” Their children are nurtured and cared for.
These ESL classes are in jeopardy. Because the state of Illinois has not passed a budget, World Relief has had to operate its ESL classes since July without the federal and state funds it should have received. World Relief cannot continue this indefinitely, and plans are being made to cut the semester short and scale down the classes offered in the future.
If you are a reader in the DuPage area, please visit this link to World Relief DuPage’s Advocacy page and read more about this issue and action steps you can take. Pass it along to anyone else you know who might be interested.
And please pray.
Almighty and most merciful God, we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget: the homeless and destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. from The Book of Common Prayer
Re:new is one of my favorite non-profits! This small shop in the western suburbs of Chicago employs local refugee women to make beautiful items from cloth and leather. (Visit renewproject.org to learn more of the story and, hmm, maybe do a little give-back shopping!)
Re:new is eligible right now to win a $25,000 award from Wells Fargo Bank through Wells Fargo’s Works Project Contest. Among thousands of qualified entrants, Re:new made it through the first round of the contest. In the second round, supporters vote for the applicants of their choice, and those receiving the highest number of votes will advance to final judging by a private panel from within Wells Fargo.
Public voting closes Sunday, July 19. Follow this LINK to vote for Re:new. You can vote several times a day–please do! Share the link and/or this post with others on social media and through email to drum up more support.
p.s. The vast majority of refugees being settled in the western suburbs of Chicago are served by World Relief. I’ve worked with our local World Relief ESL program for three years now and think it is a fantastic ministry. Read more about it at the link above. If you think this is something you would like to be involved in, click HERE to check out the locations of their U.S. offices. You may have one near you.
They murmur, “Thank you,” as they leave the classroom. But instead of saying, “You’re welcome,” I tell them, “Thank you,” back.
I mean it. They have given me far more than I have given them.
Mondays I serve as an aide at the local World Relief ESL program, supporting Krista, who teaches the Job Class. The refugees in her class are recently arrived (some as “recently” as a week ago) and have only six weeks of preparation before joining the American workforce. Job Class, therefore, doesn’t mess with non-essentials.
Today we are learning the “doctor appointment” conversation:
A: This is Dr. ________’s office. How can I help you?
B. I need to make an appointment. My ________ hurts.
A. I’m sorry. How about _________ at ____:_____?
B. _______ at ____:_____? Yes. Thank you.
A. See you soon.
B. See you.
I teach the dialogue to the majority of the class while Krista works on travel directions with three students who’ve already learned the conversation. Then she and I switch groups. As Krista leads the large group in a fun practice session, I show the small group how to use Google Maps. I zoom in on the map of the world until northern Illinois covers the entire screen. “Where would you like to go?” I ask them. “The grocery? I can show you how to get directions from your apartment to the closest store.”
One of the women—she’s a “take-charge” gal!—has a different idea. She pulls a flyer out of her folder. “Free Computer and Literacy Classes,” it boldly proclaims. She reads the address to me. I type in her apartment address as the starting point and the other as the end point. “Do you have a car?” I ask her. She shakes her head. The two others, who live in the same apartment building as she, shake theirs, too.
I switch the default icon from “car” to “pedestrian,” and the time jumps from six minutes to forty. They laugh.
Soon it is time to work on applications. We fill out applications galore in this class—since, after all, getting hired is the ultimate point. The app they start with has two blanks: one for “name,” one for “country.” It simply determines if they can actually recognize those words. The final one, number 12, is a standard three-page application, with blanks for items like their social security number, their full address (including zip code), and work history.
Job counselors at World Relief help each refugee create a résumé. We use these to fill in addresses and former jobs on the application templates. I help a gentleman write “Family farmer” in the blank for his earliest job and then, in the space for his latest, we write “Kitchen worker,” the job he was able to get when he had to flee home and find temporary shelter in a neighboring country. It is the same for nearly all the refugees from his home. They began as farmers and now live far, far from their land.
I explain to another man that he does not have a maiden name, but his wife does—or perhaps not—names are cultural things, after all.
Back and forth they come and go from the table where I have organized all the applications. “Excuse me, I need help.” “Excuse me, I am finished.” I check their work. I remind some that Americans write on top of the blank line rather than across the middle of it. I refer to their intake sheets to check birthdates—months and days can be tricky. One man and I have the same birth year. We smile at each other with the commonality of age. Another man has circled “yes” next to “children?” and “no” next to “married?” Beneath the “no,” he has penciled in “widow.” I do not change it to “widower.” Should I have? Surely no one will point that out to him.
I find myself noticing their shoes—actually, their socks. It’s been a cold winter, and Monday after Monday I’ve shivered when I noticed women in plastic slides—no socks—and men in dress shoes—no socks. It’s not that World Relief doesn’t provide them with socks. They have them, but many come from homelands where they never before had to wear anything but sandals on their feet.
It must feel strange.
This day, though, I see lots of socks, and, oddly, it makes me glad.
Near the end of class, Krista assigns the homework. A few still linger at my table, wanting me to check their corrections, wanting—ultimately—to learn, to understand, to “make it” in this new, strange country.
Please, God, smooth their paths, I pray. They’ve already traveled such hard, treacherous roads. Bring kind people to them when they need aid. Protect them from prejudice and hate. Let them meet You in gentle eyes, in helping hands, in mouths that share Your Name gracefully, truthfully.
I slide the blank applications into the correct folders, ready for another day of practice, and leave with a strange mix of sorrow and joy and great gratitude.
“Thank you,” I say again to a few who are still waiting in the vestibule for their ride to arrive.
I write so often about feeling overwhelmed, I wonder if people think it’s my constant condition.
Well, it’s not 24/7, at least not most days.
But daily, at some point, by one thing or another?
Last Monday I was overwhelmed by my schedule, by the keeping up with this and that. As I drove the kids to school that morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the teetering tower of papers on the corner of my desk at home. These were “school papers”–all the ones my kids kept bringing home from school and others I’d been handed during back-to-school night two weeks before. I’d put off dealing with “the tower” because I knew I would discover several forms I needed to fill out, many new dates to put in my calendar, and–at this point–a couple of deadlines I’d already missed.
Though “the tower” was on my mind, I couldn’t do anything about it right then, because from 10:30-12:30 on Mondays, I help out in an ESL class run by World Relief (worldrelief.org). I started doing this last year, but I was in the “bridge” class then, which “bridged the gap” for refugees whose English was almost proficient enough for them to take college courses. This year I’m pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum, helping with the lower section of the “Job Class.” Students in this class are the primary breadwinners for their families. They need jobs quickly, and this class is a crash course in conversational English and American work culture. Last week we worked on giving/receiving firm handshakes and pronouncing numbers, particularly dollar amounts. After a student completes 60 hours of training, a World Relief job counselor begins working with him/her to find a job.
I often ask these students, “When did you come to the U.S.?” and the answers range from “last week” to “six weeks ago.” After only 60 hours of class, they will enter a work environment with bosses and coworkers who speak a language they are not proficient in, in a culture very, very different from their own.
I panic for them just thinking about all that.
So back to last Monday morning. Since the World Relief class is closer to my kids’ school than it is my house, I go to a Dunkin Donuts after I drop them off and write from there until it’s time for me to go to World Relief. So there I sat, feeling overwhelmed with my own life and wondering how on earth I was going to be of any use in the job class when I was such a wreck myself. I opened BibleGateway.com to look at the “verse of the day,” trying to change my focus.
It was James 3:13 in the New Living Translation, and the second part jumped out at me: “…doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom.”
Now, I don’t claim to have wisdom (being regularly overwhelmed quickly cures me of feeling I do), but this morning I was certainly feeling humble. I was amazed by the refugees’ pluck and determination.
Suddenly my overwhelmed-ness didn’t seem so negative. God had put me in exactly the right frame of mind to honor the people I would work with that morning. My humility sure didn’t come from my own wisdom but from God’s. He had put a task in front of me and then equipped me to do it in the way He wanted me to.
I stopped thinking of the leaning Tower of Papers on my desk and settled into work, and then I went off to class where I shook the hands of men who have never encountered a female boss before and need to be prepared to do just that. I helped a woman say the breathy form of “th” and we laughed and laughed together at all my antics (because it can be really funny when you stick the tip of your tongue between your teeth and hold a piece of paper in front of your mouth so it moves when you say “think” and “three.”) I listened to a man practice the difference between $3,146 and $31.46.
Maybe being overwhelmed isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it simply makes us aware we’re human.
This morning I subbed as an aide for one of the World Relief English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) classes that meet in Wheaton. Refugees from well over a dozen countries come together with a single goal: to improve the language skills that will enable them to assimilate more into U.S. culture. Some want to go to college for the first time. Others hope to validate degrees they earned in their home countries that carry no weight here. Mothers come hoping to be able to communicate with their children’s teachers or even simply to talk with the clerk at the grocery store.
They all have stories; the U.N. doesn’t label just anyone a “refugee,” and it doesn’t relocate most —far from it—across the globe. There have to be reasons, good ones, considering that, if given a viable choice between returning home or going to the United States, almost all of these refugees would choose their homeland. But home—and the family still there—is not a realistic option.
Today, during the small chapel break that splits the class into two halves, several aides acted out the story of Joseph. I stood next to a young mother of two. We chatted before the skit began, and I learned her young boys’ names and ages. Her husband, who was a photographer at home, is now working part-time construction, hoping to get full-time, hoping, somehow, to return to the work he really enjoys.
The skit began and we watched as Joseph was thrown into the well and sold into slavery and his father was given the news of his death. “Joseph had many troubles in Egypt” was used to fast-forward the narrative to his interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams and his promotion to being the second in command. Then his brothers came looking for grain. Joseph had to turn aside to weep, but he did not tell them who he was. Then the brothers came again, this time bringing Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, the only other child of Joseph’s beloved mother Rachel. Joseph hugged him and cried. He forgave his other brothers. The audience, filled with the small sounds of tea drinking and softly murmured comments before, was completely still now.
The woman who narrated the story looked out at the audience. “You have all been through hard times. Many of you are going through difficult times now. Remember that there is a God who is good. Hold onto what Joseph said: ‘You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.’ He is a good God. You can cling to that. He can work good out of what you are going through.”
Next to me I could hear the young mother crying. I’m sure many faces in front of me were wet as well.
I hugged the young mother, and we filed back to classes far more quietly than we had come in. One of the teachers and I made eye contact. “Somehow means a lot more in this context, doesn’t it?” she said.
Joseph Stalin reportedly said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” and there’s a lot of truth to that statement. In the last week I’ve been reminded of a lot of numbers. I’m going to spout a few of them at you in the next couple of paragraphs but please know that the numbers are not the focus.
On Saturday I attended a training seminar at our local World Relief center (http://worldrelief.org/). Did you know there are 43.7 MILLION refugees in the world? Eighty percent of them are women and children.
On Saturday night—and again on Sunday—I spent time with Wilfred Rugumba, who is very special to our family. Wilfred is the director of the orphanage where Patrick, our youngest, lived before becoming an Underwood (http://www.mercychildcare.org/). Wilfred reminded me that there are between 143 and 210 million orphans in the world. The number of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa is greater than the total number of children in Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Canada, and Sweden.
Those are overwhelming statistics! Obviously they overlap—a lot. Many of those refugees are also orphans. Many orphans are the ones abducted into the slave trade. But regardless of how you slice and dice it, it adds up to a lot of people. A lot of hurting people.
Sometimes I can forget these numbers. I can go for a few days, a week, maybe two without actively remembering that every minute people are being abused, sold, orphaned, displaced, and widowed. There have been other times in my life, though, when I have felt paralyzed by the thought of the vicious evil being done in any given moment.
It is in those moments when I have been reminded that God NEVER forgets. I CAN forget. I can get wrapped up in my days that are filled with activity. But God never forgets. If He knows the number of hairs on my head, He certainly knows the numbers of those being abused and exploited. He knows exactly how many stomachs are hungry. He knows how many children are wailing or dazed with grief over dead parents. And they are not just numbers to Him. They are faces, hearts, and souls to Him! And He is present in their pain. He is there when the young girl or boy is sold for sex. He is there when the widow watches her child grow listless and blank-eyed because hunger has dulled everything. He sees every village that is marauded for political or ethnic reasons.
He was there during the Armenian massacres, and there during the Holocaust and there during the Rwandan and Cambodian and Bosnian genocides and others we don’t even know about. He is in Darfur today.
And He is not untouched.
My God, what a heart You must have! We cannot blame you for these atrocities—though we try. These are crimes we commit against each other, crimes we allow because we are too concerned with our own safety and status quo to be bothered. But You are bothered. I know that with our present-day, developed-world mentality, we tend to ask questions like, “How could a loving God judge our world? How could a loving God hold us to account when we cannot see Him?” But even if God did not hold us guilty for how we have forgotten and disrespected HIM, we would stand condemned for how we have disrespected and abused and ignored His image that is seen so clearly in the children of the world. In fact, some moments, when I read about atrocities done to children and defenseless women and oppressed people groups, I think, “How do you hold back, God? How do you keep from not just wiping us completely off the face of the earth?” Even with the Western, rights-focused bent that I must fight for the rest of my life, I am more amazed by His mercy in those moments than offended by His judgment.
Yet He has not wiped out. He has given grace. He continues to love His Western, privileged church even when we fail miserably at being His hands and feet to the oppressed. He allows me to approach Him daily, hourly with my comparatively small frustrations and complaints.
I am amazed by this God. I am humbled by this God.
And I pray that these two attitudes—amazement and humility—will lead my heart and my hands and my feet into becoming more and more like His.