Although through most of my life and ministry I never felt called to missionary service myself, I was drawn to help young folks, perhaps having been an older brother to three siblings. I have tutored and mentored almost from college and then found myself teaching when other areas of service were not available. Surprisingly, people came to rely on me to help, not to translate as I’m not fluent in anything but English, but to clarify communication between native English speakers and English language learners. I guess I have a good ear, listen patiently, and speak carefully although sometimes I feel almost telepathic!
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until one summer, more than 10 years ago, that I stumbled into my first contact with refugees as a tutor. Since then, whether it was Sudanese or Guatemalan refugees, Korean students at a Christian school, or exchange students in a home or school, I have discovered a refinement to my pastoral calling and an added dimension to my commitment to Christian peacemaking. Shepherding young ESL students, mentoring these young men and women either without or separated from their families, teaching them English or assisting them with homework, or just being a trusted friend, I have committed myself to giving them the gift of communication and, by that, the three-fold peace it makes possible with others, with God, and within themselves.
You might say I’ve chosen to bless the lives of my students, but I’d rather share just how much they have blessed me. For example, I remember an apartment filled with happy Dinka, though most people know them as Sudanese “Lost Boys.” Knowing their story of persecution, war, and survival, I was stunned to hear their happy laughter, brightened by their native dialect, as the “cousins” gathered at my students’ apartment on weekends. Many of them Christians, despised by a radical government who hated their dark skin, their possession of rich grazing land under which was a wealth of oil, and their faith, they wanted nothing more than to get an education, see their home free and prosperous, and take care of whatever was left of their often devastated families. Yet, despite their obvious burdens, they seemed so happy and enjoyed life anyway.
Another one of those Sudanese was my best student, and his cousin who lived in the same foster home was no slouch either. We spent hours, every week, for two years, and they were delightful times. They were hard workers and had excellent English by graduation. Both have gone on to finish college and start careers; he is an accountant and she is a nurse. We keep in touch. He calls me his “favorite tutor.” It’s our inside joke, as I was his only tutor. He wants me to help him write a book…more good times ahead.
One of my guys lives in Canada now. I think we spent something like 4 years working together. He hardly spoke a word, at first; then his foster mom and I would say that once he started talking, he never stopped! He had a quiet sense of humor. As I would help a group of up to four in the same home, I’d have them reading off my laptop or writing sentences I’d dictate. I guess I was trying to be encouraging so I avoided saying they were wrong. Apparently, I got to saying, “Not quite,” rather often; and one day, he chimed in just before me, “Not quite.” It totally cracked me up. Sometimes, after we had worked really hard to prepare for a test, he’d come back afterward and say, proudly, “We got a B!” Had I been able, I would have adopted him. I still might.
One of my Afghani students came to Michigan without a word of English. I started teaching him even before funds from the sponsoring program were set up to pay me; I wasn’t going to go to the home and help other guys there and ignore him. We started doing words drills for pronunciation, while he was picking up day-to-day English in the household. He was a trouper, working steadily for up to 2 hours with never a hesitation or complaint (Later he admitted he’d get soooo sleepy). At the end of 6 months, he had finished an adult ed class, but when he showed me the certificate, he said, “You taught me English.” As time passed and we continued to work, he began to ask me questions, really challenging questions about respect or peace in the Middle East. At first, I worried that I might offend him as a Shiite Muslim, but he was far more mature than that. We simply had some amazing conversations.
He told me he asked a friend if he loved Jesus. I was stunned cause that can be a dangerous question with some Muslims. He told him that he should because the Koran says to. I’m pleased to report that, among my 8 or so Muslim students, none ever seemed to mind that I was a Christian, and they all knew it!
Talking about faith with ESL students generally must wait for them to gain proficiency in English; it’s just too difficult! I pray for them, and I pray my character and love will speak where words cannot, at least not at the beginning. I’ve given Bibles to two of my students, one who was trying to read a King James version, and another who was actively attending church on his own. I am able to do considerably more with students who attend a local Christian school.
The foster home with my Afghani student was home to another Muslim, 2 Latinos, and a Christian exchange student from Jordan. One Friday night, I stopped by to work with one of the boys on his math. The foster parents were going out for the evening, but the mom had dinner in the oven. She gave instructions to the “first boy” (informal), and as soon as they left, they started getting ready to eat, though it was still quite early. They insisted I join them, and then, to my amazement, the older Muslim student asked me to pray for dinner. I’m sure that was the custom when the parents were present, but I certainly didn’t expect him to ask (yes, he did know I was a Christian)!
A Latino student in another home was a sophomore or junior in high school when we started. I had tutored a Sudanese in the same home, and I vaguely remembered when this boy moved in. I just hadn’t been asked to help him for a year or two. On only the second or third visit, he asked me if we could “talk sometimes,” obviously other than the talking around our studying. I said, “Sure!” As he began to explain in his still somewhat broken English, I realized he was looking for a man to discuss “man stuff” with, because he lived in a house with a foster mom and three foster sisters.
Some time later, as we discussed his plans for the future, he told, “When you’re old, I’m gonna take care of you.” I’d tell him that he’d move on and forget about me; that’s just how things are. He’d say it again on other occasions. Once, he said that even if he moved back to Guatemala, he’d take care of me there, and I could “teach the little childs English.” Allowing for a bit of time for him to get settled, I asked him if he thought when I was an old man I’d still be teaching English. He looked at me, paused for a heartbeat, and then said, quietly but firmly, “Yes.” Assuming I’m not senile, he’s probably right.
I have so many stories…the Somali girl with the sweet giggle when I showed her her math mistake and who shared her native holiday treats with me, the Korean boy who called me “Wilson, Mr. Wilson” and was always making me laugh, the Liberian who played soccer, the Sudanese who wanted to become a professional basketball player (then later it was football), a Korean girl who like to shop, an Iranian of the Baha’i faith whose family was driven from home by their Muslim neighbors, another African who played soccer on his country’s national team, a Korean boy who liked to ask me questions about philosophy and philosophers I’d never studied, the exchange student from Columbia who was only with us for a couple of months but has remained my friend, another from Brazil who became a Christian and returned for his senior year and now continues at MSU…
I have so many great memories and almost no problems. Were all these young men and women exceptional? In one way I’d say yes, but they are just kids, normal kids. We’ve dealt with a few challenges and a couple of characters, but mostly it has been great.
I have to mention a Spanish student who claimed to be “stupid in math.” His English was good, but he was an unmotivated student. When he finally asked for help (he started out rather cool to me, his latest tutor), I quickly noted that he picked up whatever math technique I showed him almost immediately and then quickly did his assignment. As I continued to hear the same refrain, “I’m stupid in math,” I finally told him, “You’re not stupid in math; you’re just lazy.” First, he tried to avoid any extra effort on the math and would then forget what he’d so easily done. Second, he worked so hard to avoid work that he failed classes, which he then made up in the summer (back in Spain). I suggested that his strategy for a lazy guy was bad. I told him that if he worked just a little harder during classes and passed them, then he’d have his whole summer to himself. After a second semester, he returned for a year, did chemistry without my help, and bragged that he passed math tests, later in the year, without help from me! He was one of the characters! I chat with him occasionally back in Spain where today he is studying law.
Do you know the verses from I John 4:18, “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear,” or I Peter 4:8, “Love covers a multitude of sins?” Mentor, tutor, teacher—whatever my role, I love my students. The most difficult have generally been Americans, but I find I’m drawn to the difficult ones. I am determined to love them regardless, and I don’t give up.
I don’t say that to boast. I say it to you so you will know: you can do this. You can tutor. You can bring a refugee or exchange student into your home. You can love a person from a faraway place and make a difference in that person’s life. Remember, we believers are strangers and aliens in this world, and that should make us all the more eager to reach out in love to others, especially young people who are far from their homes, families, culture, and even language. I believe the possibilities of what the love of Christ can do, through you, through us his people, is limitless. What a unique perspective we can bring. What a blessing to see that his “peace that passes all understanding” will guard the “hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7) of these strangers among us, strangers whom I believe will, in the end, bless us even more!
Note: I have chosen not to say much about the hardships these young people have endured, especially the refugee kids. Those are stories worth telling thought they are not really mine to tell. The telling would serve a different purpose that the one I’ve chosen here. I may write that, another time; perhaps, I will ask as many as I can to help me tell those stories. The problems were not all back in their home lands, many were here, hurdles some of us Americans erected. I want you to be challenged to be a blessing and not a curse and to build bridges not barriers. That’s what I believe our Lord and Savior desires, and that’s what I believe will be best for our neighborhoods and nation.
Post Script: Sadly, we live in a time and place where a title that began, “Loving young strangers…” would probably be grossly misunderstood by some. As a teacher/tutor and Christian pastor, I love my kids, just as Christ loves me…unconditionally, compassionately, to an extent parentally, spiritually. I am passionately concerned for their welfare and their future, especially the refugees here without families. Even those who come here for school, for a semester, a year, or through high school and college face the challenge of learning English, being separated from family and culture, and the loneliness that we can aggravate or lessen. Even as I seek to become their loving friend, I discover, as I’ve written here, that I receive as much or more than I give. That’s the blessing that comes from generously caring for others.