On Monday, I was assigned to take a dad and 4 of his children to register for school. Like most of my work with World Relief, I had never done this before. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I figured every other parent in Nashville can do it so I can too.
Also like most of my work with World Relief, even the most mundane, ordinary tasks become exciting when I’m on the clock. Working directly with refugees to help them become self-sustainable is exciting, and fills me with a deep sense of pride and hope for them. It’s so special to walk alongside with them, even on these “boring” assignments, I’ll gladly drive across to town if that’s what it takes to show them we care.
But, that doesn’t mean I always know what I’m doing. Actually, most times I don’t. And the most valuable lesson my sweet Ethiopian supervisor has taught me is that it’s okay. Have grace for yourself, learn as you go, and pray every single step of the way.
Those reminders are etched in my mind every time I set out, and this time was no different. I stopped at an apartment I’ve visited numerous times— it’s a Congolese family of 8 that traveled through Tanzania to get here. In fact, this was the first and last family I ever had the honor of picking up from the airport. They’ll probably never understand the significance that holds in my heart, but I treasure any chance when my roads lead back to them.
Today, they looked happy. Glowing. Well-rested. Like they finally are growing to love this new place called home. It was a far cry from the tired, jet-lagged eyes I first met back in January. This time, they are able to greet me in my language. It’s like hearing a baby say your name for the first time, and I’m encouraged by the sound of their voices and the smiles on their faces. And just like every other time I see them, I find myself wanting so desperately to hear them speak English or to hear myself speak Kiswahili just so I can talk to them and hear their story.
From there, we buckled up in the large van the office has named the “band van” and set out. All I had was a pastel green business card and a confidence that this wasn’t an impossible task. That it could be done. It had to be done, actually, because getting kids into school is the most popular concern of our refugee parents. I couldn’t let them down. I placed all my faith in a card and the sound of Siri’s voice that led us to Antioch, and as we neared the destination I recognized where we were. However, it was my so-called familiarity with the area that led me to surprise at the end of our drive: an empty mall.
Hickory Hollow Mall? The old, vacant one that closed years ago? I know there’s a community college campus here, but public school registration too? No way.
I wasn’t sure why Metro Nashville Public Schools would choose to have an office in this building, but according to my card, this was it. And let me tell you: if you think finding your way to a new place is difficult, try doing it with people who are looking to you to know. That’s where the confidence to walk blindly in plans and places I can’t see is my only comfort. The only option I could see what to pretend like I knew what I was doing as my friends and I made our way inside.
I clutched my folder with all the family’s documents and held the hand of the youngest girl. Her sister, brothers, and father followed us. I hadn’t thought about the possibility of being wrong, because there was no plan B. There was no turning back as we headed our way on the sidewalk and toward the front doors. There were no signs, or a grand welcoming party confirming we had arrived. Like most of my moments within the World Relief community, all I had was faith to accomplish what was laid before me.
What sat just beyond the front doors was a treasure. To the left was a large international market and restaurant, and just ahead of us was a large grocery. I glanced around and slowed my pace.
What is this place?
I stepped inside the grocery to ask where the suite on my business card was, and the Hispanic lady behind the counter directed me upstairs. We took the dusty, unmoving escalator upstairs only to find more shops. Most were closed, and even more vacant suites sat untouched. We didn’t pass a single person, and the entire building was quiet, but I was mesmerized—
Colorful patterns and clothes sat in window displays, and a long row of flags from all over the world hung above us. I grappled with the idea that even in our small corner called Nashville, there was a home to innumerable nations. It was remarkable—
I put my daydream on pause long enough to shift my focus back to the task at head. The only other people in this mall— a woman and a small boy— walked just ahead of us. I hoped this was a divine coincidence we were going to the same place, and decided to follow their path in the least creepy way possible. I could see no other open stores or people to ask for help, so this was going to be our way.
Sure enough, at the end of long hallway stood the doors to the enrollment office where the English Learners registration sat in the corner.
Just like my Ethiopian supervisor voices often, I said, “Thank You, Jesus.”
I signed them in and we found a corner to sit in. The office worker came over to get the necessary papers from my folder, and I set up a temporary desk on the floor as I separated and organized and made sense of the four different applications, I-94s, health records, and proof of addresses I had come with. But, by grace alone, we had everything we needed. We got all the paperwork turned in, got the necessary signatures, and then sat long enough to breathe a sigh of relief. I checked the clock, and realized I had enough time to sit for a few minutes and spend time with my friends.
They speak fluent Kiswahili. I speak English. Communication is difficult for us, and requires effort. It’s not easy, but the determination to not let a language barrier come between us is worth it. But here’s the beautiful truth about interacting with other cultures: sometimes you don’t need understood words to show someone you care about them.
I noticed the two brothers were watching everything happening on my phone screen. Like any millennial would do, I scrolled over to Instagram and thought, “Okay, what can I show them?”
First, I showed them pictures of my friends in Hong Kong. “My friends,” I told them, as I pointed to beautiful Asian faces that I think about everyday. I picked up the globe on the shelf beside us and showed them the distance between Hong Kong and America. My eyes got teary, and I had to put the globe back on the shelf.
Then, I took them to Travis’ profile. “My friend!” I told them again. They giggled at him, and I think his beard probably looked a little funny to them. When I got to the picture of a deer he had posted over a year ago, my friends said, “Ooooh!”
We might speak a different language, but there some things that are understood no matter your tongue. Jackpot.
I went to the Radnor Lake location, and scrolled through the pictures of strangers just to show my friends turtles, owls, geese, birds, and more deer. They giggled as they listened to me say turtle, and when they repeated after me, it was my turn to giggle. As we repeated pictures, they’d look off in the distance trying to remember the words we had just said. I’d repeat the word, and they’d say it with me. I don’t know how long we sat there, but they moved closer to me. The oldest brother, who is 11 but small for his age, put his head on my shoulder and rested his hand on my arm. The youngest brother sat curled next to him. And for only a few minutes, we spent time together.
When I got up to leave, I shook their hands like I always do and promised I’d see them again soon. I left the pick-up case worker’s phone number with the lady in the office, and then headed back out to the band van to make the trek back to the office to drop off the keys and then back home to Joelton.
As I drove, I reflected on how it’s just like God to make a mundane experience, such as signing students up for school, something truly extraordinary. With each of these assignments, he bends my heart and shows me something new.
Take eagerness, for example. I see how eager my friends are to start school and continue their life here. I can’t imagine how proud their parents are to see their children receive an American education and have the opportunity to learn English— both of which look much different overseas for refugees. It’s amazing to consider that this family was so willing to get to school that they trusted me, someone who actually had no clue where we were going, to take them there. It seemed to be their only way, and they were glad for it.
How much more eagerness could I have in my life for the little gifts given to me, and the limitless possibility placed in my hands?
Or, what about the hidden treasures that sit in front of our blinded eyes? Even in seemingly vacant and run-down places, there are good works happening just inside. We don’t seek them or even notice they are here, but that doesn’t hinder their work. They are moving quickly under the current, and it fills me with grace and hope to know that even in quaint Nashville, Tennessee there is a corner of international culture that is fighting, surviving, and seeking to make this place home. It’s a community that proudly waves dozens of flags among the American flag, and this moves me.
It moves me to love more people who don’t look like me, and to hear their stories. It moves me to call them my neighbor. It moves me to learn more. It moves me to take more time to scroll through pictures, just to hear them speak. It moves me to see them glowing and making a home here. It moves me to see them as Jesus did.
Those flags don’t just represent places; they represent people who have come from a vast array of places. Their stories are different than mine and yours, but that’s what is so precious about the reality of it. We have a special call to love the nations, and it’s just like God in His grace to bring them to us.
Later, I learned that I had stepped inside the EL Global Mall at the Crossings. It was a manifestation of the vision that our sweet city could be home to people from all over the world. I didn’t count the number of flags hanging from the ceiling, but they were beautiful. And I can’t help but wonder how many more treasures I overlook day in and day out.
Step into a new place sometime this week, friends. I promise: even quaint Nashville isn’t so small that it can’t house innumerable treasures represented by colorful flags, international markets, and beautiful children enrolling in school.
It’s just like God to make an ordinary moment something extraordinary. What a treasure we have been given.