Have you ever been in a season of life where what you needed most was a friend? Someone o hold your baby while you make dinner or take an important phone call? Someone to stand beside you as you navigate a new reality? I think we all have, but I want to share about a particular season of my own that has played into one of the most significant offerings of Treetops - our Cross-Cultural Partnership Program.
When I was a new mom, I left the nonprofit sector to stay home with my baby Lincoln. I didn’t have family in town. I was fairly new to West Michigan. Affordable childcare was hard to find and wouldn’t make sense in light of our incomes. I adored being a mother, but I also felt completely disconnected. I was craving relationship, connection, and purpose outside the walls of my home because I always had jobs that were focused on building partnerships and community change.
One day a friend who I got my master’s with encouraged me to come to Steelcase for lunch to meet a co-worker of hers whose passions she thought aligned with mine. This woman and her husband were doing welcoming work in Kentwood and had ignited part of their church to take part. She knew a woman that was about to have a baby that she wanted to introduce me to. So on a snowy February day six years ago, with my 5-month-old in tow, I walked up the steps of a home just about a mile from mine and began a new friendship. Veronique had two darling little girls, another due any day, and had arrived just a few months prior from Rwanda where her extended family still lived. Her husband was also there but happened to be out of the country looking for work when she received the once in a lifetime opportunity to be resettled with the UNHCR. So she bravely took it. I will never understand the immense determination and resilience this decision required.
As a new mom, I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to navigate this new place alone, the complexities of transportation and the medical system, unresponsive landlords whose rentals have leaks and incessantly beeping smoke detectors, the frigid polar vortex temps of that winter after living in East Africa––and to do it all without English, even though Veronique had learned and navigated four other languages in her lifetime. She was vibrant, witty, so full of enthusiasm and light and we immediately hit it off with no shared language, except for the one that is communicated simply by smiles, lots of hand gestures and shared humanity.
Over the next year, we met multiple times a week, visiting coffee shops with an Oxford Picture Dictionary in tow, staying home with children playing while we drank tea, swam in Lake Michigan, visited grocery stores and the library, and she learned how to drive and bought a car. I was reminded of the beauty of a culture of hospitality, sharing and community that so many places in the world offer, and that I had found while living in Paraguay, the kind of warmth that my heart still longs for in the midst of our hurried, often isolated lives. I had so much to glean from my new friend and was eager to listen and learn. Likewise, I had skills to offer that was simple and free, like time and an understanding of how to get things done in Grand Rapids within the systems and organizations that exist here. And English is my first (except for some rusty Spanish) and only language, unlike my brilliant friend.
I don’t think Treetop's cross-cultural partnership for Sister Circles has a single origin story as it is embedded in our fabric - to extend welcome - to seek connection amongst women - to walk with each other with respect and mutuality. But I do think this experience in my life was foundational in my recognition that amidst the global refugee crisis, there is something we can all do right where we find ourselves. And that what we can do is be a friend. Seeking opportunities to connect cross-culturally is actually what our community as a whole needs most as we learn to navigate how to listen and learn from those with different life experiences and worldviews. Our nation and our cities are so divided, people are lonely and disconnected. Maybe what we all need is each other. We are so much better together.
The community has been responding to our call for 45 new partners and we are down to needing just 9 more women to step up, to join our team in becoming allies for New American women and teen girls. To encourage, learn from, and be a friend. Saying yes will change your life, shape your family and conversations, and impact this community.
This is an election year, and I will never downplay the importance of advocacy and democracy, BUT this is something you can do TODAY to live out your convictions. If you truly believe that Grand Rapids should be a place where those who have been resettled as refugees deserve to thrive and not simply live on the margins, this is your time to get involved either as a weekly cross-cultural partner, a monthly volunteer driving and watching children during our workshops, sharing about our mission with your business, ordering custom work from our social enterprise, or becoming a consistent monthly donor through Cultivator’s Club (or if you are an overachiever, all of the above ;) ) Now’s the time to say yes! You are needed. You are welcome. We want you to feel a sense of belonging in this Collective just as much as we want to extend that spirit to our New American neighbors. Where we belong, we flourish.