By Peg Theobald, Treetops Volunteer
I have big dreams and hopes for my two sons. When I first held them in my arms, my heart swelled with love. Like any parent, I am completely smitten and biased toward my kids. I firmly believe they are amazing humans and I eagerly await to see all the ways they will impact the world for the better.
My husband and I recently saw Hamilton in Chicago (it is as incredible as you’ve heard). We were moved by the song “Dear Theodosia”, wherein Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr both are singing to their newborn children. They repeat over and again to their sweet, helpless babies, “And you’ll blow us all away...Someday, someday, yeah, you’ll blow us all away.”
Few people know the stories of these two babies and they are rarely mentioned in history books, but yet their fathers are convinced that their children will blow the world away with their unique talents and gifts. That sums up the heart of any caring parent, doesn’t it?
So, yes, I want my boys to grow up in a world full of security, promise and possibility. I want them to be able to shine and have every opportunity to “blow us all away.” As it turns out, the world is likely to welcome them with open arms. They are two healthy, smart, handsome boys cloaked in ivory white skin. To no merit of their own, they will be given the benefit of the doubt. People will likely assume the best of them in their intentions, their intellect and their abilities.
As a believer in Jesus and a follower of his teachings, I realize that providing a good childhood and a safe world for my children is simply not enough. About 2,000 years ago a man named Levi, also called Matthew, was a tax collector who ended up leaving his profession to follow this amazing Rabbi around named Jesus, who quietly claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah. In Matthew’s book (chapter 22, verses 37-39), he recorded Jesus saying, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Politics aside, the Bible is quite clear that we need to be good neighbors. We are urged to love everyone with selfless love and by everyone, God literally means everyone. It can be pretty easy, enjoyable even, to love people who look similar to us, were raised in a similar background, who worship the same way as we do, etc.
Things get messier and more difficult when the person we are trying to love is different from us, whether in appearance, ideology, theology, social customs, etc. These differences and the messiness become even more pronounced when a language barrier exists.
But, we were all the “other” at one point, weren’t we? My great-grandparents all immigrated to the United States and, at one point, were considered “foreigners.” If you, like me, are from a family tree that has been here in the United States now for many generations it can be easy to forget this, to feel perhaps overly comfortable here. I see it often--those whose relatives one time longed for welcome, now are territorial of this space and are anything but welcome.
Moses, the adopted prince of Egypt known for rescuing the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt, wrote in his book of Exodus (chapter 23 verse 9), "Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”
I first learned about the mission of Treetops Collective while attending a service at Mars Hill Bible Church. After the service I had a chance to meet Dana and Tarah and was able to offer some volunteer support with their social media. Shortly after that, we realized our family would be on our own for Thanksgiving this past year without extended family. I decided to ask Tarah if she knew of any local refugee families or individuals that might like to join us for Thanksgiving dinner.
Tarah connected us with Grace, a high school student involved with Treetops’ Teen Girls’ Group. Communication was a bit tricky and we weren’t actually sure if Grace and her mom, Kayiserege, and two younger sisters were actually coming for dinner.
My husband went to pick them up and waited a long time at their house before anyone came to the door. He almost left before, at last, Grace came to the door and her family of four loaded up in my husband’s car.
We didn’t know anything about Grace and her family before they arrived. I was hoping I would have enough food options in case they had certain religious or cultural dietary restrictions. I didn’t know if we would be able to communicate very well or what type of clothing they would be wearing.
My sons are ages 5 and 2, so before our guests arrived we told the boys we would be having very special visitors join us for Thanksgiving this year. I mentioned that our guests were from another country and might speak a different language or wear clothing that looked different from ours (to which I added that it is really neat to meet people who might speak or look differently from us). We did our best to explain to the boys how we want to celebrate our differences and be respectful to others.
It turned out that Kayiserege knew only a few words in English, but her three daughters all spoke varying degrees of English and were excellent translators between their mother and my family. The girls were full of life and so joyful. They loved playing with my sons, which was equally reciprocated.
Before dinner we asked if they would mind if my husband prayed. Kayiserege was happy for him to pray and we all bowed our heads together before the meal. Once we began to eat, we quickly discovered that our traditional American Thanksgiving food is far from the flavors they are used to eating. They were, however, so gracious and the youngest daughter was quite the adventurous eater. It hadn’t occurred to me before they came that simple (to me) dishes like mashed sweet potatoes and green bean casserole would be foreign to someone else and require some bravery to try!
After dinner, the younger girls played with my boys while we sat and talked to Kayiserege and Grace. Then, my husband taught them how to play the game “Trouble” and the pop-o-matic popping delighted to no end. When Kayiserege was ready to head home, she let us know through her daughters, but before they left she asked if we could pray together once more.
I asked if she would like to pray and her daughters looked confused. I added, we know it will be in her language, but if she is comfortable praying we would be happy for her to do so. To this, they shook their heads in understanding and their mom agreed to pray. She got to her knees, so we all followed suit and she proceed to pray a beautiful, long prayer. Her daughters occasionally replied “amen” in unison while she prayed. It was such a beautiful, holy moment and a wonderful reminder that the global church is full of people from a huge array of skin color, nationalities, and languages.
That Thanksgiving dinner was a step for my family to “spread welcome” and show love to others outside our typical comfort zone. To truly love my neighbor, like Kayiserege, it looks like hoping and dreaming of a future filled with promise and security for her children, just as I do for my own.