Superlatives, elementary kids, and elderly folks.

Our class is the best thing in the whole world.

My higher-level class and I spent a few days studying superlatives. This is when we say words like best, worst, highest, biggest, smallest, etc. Although they already knew the basic form of these words, I wanted to stretch them to use the words more naturally in conversation. Almost any student of English can sit and read out some words. But to be able to use the language orally, without the help of a paper or time to plan out what to say, is the crucial element of making the language useful.

Our method of speaking practice? A couple of dice with a different talking point on each side. For a good chunk of our class, we took our chances of not knowing which question that awaited us or if we’d know how to answer it. We’d hold our breath as the dice stopped on a question about the best song we’ve ever or the most embarrassing moment in our life. The paper somewhat caved into itself, but the blue washi tape held on as we tried again, again, and again.

It was a hard exercise. We had nothing to lean on but the skills we had been practicing and that bold, black and white question staring at us. But, we were there to encourage and cheer, to help our classmates and hope they would succeed.

As we worked, they came up with some great answers. They might seem simple, but we worked hard to craft them and repeat them. And the message communicated within them is beautiful. Here are a few (with my added commentary):

 

“’Thriller’ is the worst song I’ve ever heard.”

LOL.

 

“Home mortgages are the worst thing about living in America.”

Something I’ve only recently learned: the American money system is confusing. My refugee friends don’t come from lands of credit cards, utility bills, and monthly rent. They don’t know about debt that reaches into the thousands of dollars, and the role the bank plays in buying a house. Our system is confusing, full of ridiculous lingo, and oftentimes, unfair.

But some of my students—the ones who have been here for 4, 5 years—have worked hard enough to learn this crazy system. They’ve committed to working overtime just to purchase a home for their family. They’ve taken up that bill, and can now agree with the rest of us: this is a proud, but yet incredibly difficult, moment. And it’s the coolest act of self-sustainability for these once vulnerable people. What a victory that is, to say you bought a home, especially when you were once forced to leave yours.

 

“’Highway to Hell’ is the worst song I’ve ever heard.”

Considering this is coming from a conservative Christian man from a modest culture that doesn’t have the time to make light of real problems… Probably true.

 

“Shaming is the worst thing about learning English.”

In Asia, an important part of the culture is the idea of “saving face.” They value social standing and reputation and call it “face.” A big thing you don’t do is embarrass people when they’re wrong, or even call them out for it. You don’t cause a scene or draw attention to yourself or others in public. You don’t laugh at them or make them feel ashamed. And if do—you’ve caused that person to “lose face.”

I’ll be totally transparent: I’ve never thought about how much the American classroom can disrupt that mentality. Obviously, I don’t seek opportunities to embarrass my students, but this does make me wonder how gentle or appropriate I am in my interactions with them—whether it be in usual conversation or in error correcting during class. How often have I caused them to “lose face?” How many times have I furthered the gap between their learning American culture, and being overwhelmed by the huge differences? When learning English across culture, it’s not just a matter of learning the language. It’s a matter of learning an entire culture.  

 

“McDonald’s is the most expensive restaurant I’ve ever been to.”

The next time I’m tempted to believe I deserve more than I’ve earned, the next time I want what I can’t afford, the next time I want to believe that the things of this earth are the best I’ll ever experience—I’ll think back on this moment. And it’ll resonate so loudly: contentment, contentment, contentment.

 

– – –

 

Respect Your Elders

 

At the beginning of summer, I started helping with another branch of ministry at one of my jobs. This ministry specifically reaches out to the elderly refugees in our community. The people whose bodies have been worn from the years and move slowly, the people who are beyond the years for learning language quickly, the people who have gone their entire 60, 70, 80 years of life without ever belonging to a country that wanted them—these are the people the ministry reaches.

So, one morning a week, I pick these elderly Nepali refugees up from their homes and drive them to a class at the ministry’s office. They have a time to meet with others who often can’t leave home or are unable to drive. It’s designed to be a time of community and learning of basic skills for them. Honestly, this ministry is necessary and invaluable. I’m so glad that someone had the awareness to create it and the courage to follow through.

The last few weeks, our elders class has met at a church in the west side of town. This church generously donates art supplies, and opens up the doors for my elderly friends to come in and learn a new craft.

One class offered is painting. On the first day we arrived, the teacher had hoped to teach how to paint sunflowers in a vase, set on a linen-clothed table beside a glass of white wine in the natural window light from the background of the picture. Albeit it was beautiful, but it was not a picture my friends were interested in.

The reality: these people had never held a paintbrush before. Furthermore, most (if not all) are pre-literate. This means they can’t even read or write in their native language. And needless to say, they weren’t particularly interested in painting sunflowers next to wine.

We turned it into a time of free paint. Although we tried to teach them how to mix the paints to create more colors, they didn’t seem interested. And that’s okay. There was a peace in watching them learn how to move the brush in the direction they wanted, stroking color after color on their blank canvas.

I saw friends and mountains, gardens and skies. I watched as images of the farmlands of Nepal and the small homes they left behind were marked in messy brush strokes.

You could have looked at it and easily dismissed the crafts as mistakes or a mess. But I saw something more: I saw a people who have fought to survive their whole lives get the chance to do something that uses their imagination. I watched them get permission to dream and create. I witnessed the realization that they are allowed to do something for fun and pure joy, and not out of necessity. I got to encourage them that it’s okay to rest now. 

And if that’s not a picture of the joy for life and rest in our weariness that the Gospel offers, then I’ve never seen it. If that’s not an image of the messes of our life that God calls beautiful, then this blog is in vain.

The next week, we joined our friends at the church once more for another day of crafts. This time, I chose to take a break from painting. Instead, I headed over to the basket weaving station. I pulled the wet reed from the water bucket and pulled up a chair to the work table.

I had watched a few of the other men work on these baskets for a few weeks. They crafted beautiful, flawless baskets in record time. Their dark-skinned, aged hands worked intentionally. They made it look so easy, but when I gave it a try, I was in for a lesson of humility.

At the beginning, my goal was a small basket to hold some flowers on my porch. And then it turned into an American-girl sized mini basket for my sister. And then it became an even smaller ring dish for my husband. As hard as I tried to braid and weave, I couldn’t get the reed to bend like I wanted. My braids were failed, and after nearly two hours of furrowing my brow and collecting reed chips on my fingers, all I had was a mess that fit in the palm of my hand.

The elders across the table kept glancing at me and smiling. They knew the secret, what I didn’t know: this craft requires skill and careful attention. It’s difficult and can’t be done without practice and patience. And since we’re friends here, I’ll admit that this is lesson that the Lord is repeating to me over and over again this summer. I’ll never joke about basket-weaving again.

Honestly, I picked this up for fun. The craft was offered to these people for fun. But the truth is, these people have known what it means to weave baskets for survival. Before they came here, this skill was necessary for gathering their food, storing it, carrying items across a long distance. I know because one of the larger baskets had a handle on it that I hadn’t noticed before. One of the women said, “In Nepal,” and modeled carrying the funny-handled shaped basket behind her head. I had never seen a basket like that before. But then again, I’ve never had to carry crops and necessities down long trails and valleys.

I get the feeling there isn’t a Walmart in the mountains they farmed. They had to make what they needed. As it turns out, offering a basket-weaving “class” for these folks allowed them to pick up a familiar skill. One that they have spent countless hours of their life working on, and probably haven’t touched since they arrived in the land of buy-what-you-need-right-now some time ago.

I showed one of the women my “basket” after I tried. Translation: I showed her my pile of splintered sticks. She smiled, held it in her hand. “Good. Next time good,” she said in broken, but oh so kind, English. We chuckled, and I believed she was telling me to keep at it. To try again. And again. I believe there was a sense of pride of recognizing this “normal” skill is so difficult for others.

But, she encouraged me to keep going. She knows that at the end of this practice and intentional effort is a basket useful for helping carry the load. I have no doubt that she understands the power of persistence and waiting more than most. I believe her.

 

– – –

 

Follow Me

Back in the spring, I told you a lot about some of my middle school students in the after-school program. Jumping into the world of youth refugee work was everything, yet nothing, I expected and has been a necessary learning curve. The compassion and understanding I have for the families I work with has only been magnified.

What I didn’t know when I started with the youth program was that this summer, I would be given the choice to work with middle school students or elementary students. And ultimately, I would be asked to work with the elementary students.

And just like that, I work with middle-aged adults one-on-one most mornings and then serve a class of 14 Congolese students from Kindergarten to 4th grade in the afternoons. Now that, my friends, is a learning curve.

There are so many stories that I cannot wait to share with you about these students. But for today, I’ll start at the beginning: when I picked them up for the first time.

I pulled into the apartment complex, and a few dozen children waited under the shade of the trees off to the side. As soon as they saw our caravan of two white mini buses and that 12-passenger van, they sprinted toward us flooding the pathway. We crept along the road slowly, as the kids surrounded our vehicles.

Glancing in my mirrors constantly to make sure no one was in the line of my tires, I noticed that several of the kids had placed their hands on the side of the bus and were walking alongside us. As soon as the bus was in park, they were pushing and shoving to get on at the door. And as soon as I pulled the level to open the door, the flood gates were open. They came rushing in.

I assumed this would only happen the first few days. I was wrong. This is our daily routine, and I love how excited they are to see us every single day. Although part of me wants to believe they enjoy hanging out with their teachers, I think an even greater part of me believes they are just happy for a chance to get away from their apartment. For many of them, their families don’t have cars and most likely can’t afford a greater than a field trip than a walk to the Kroger in front of the complex.

No joke, one of the boys just asked me yesterday, “Ms. Brianna, can we go to Kroger?”

It’s a good reminder to show up and serve with a joyful heart. If they’re so eager to come with us just to practice their reading and English skills, how much more eager should I be to give it to them? And if they can show up to put in some hard work on their summer “vacation” and still be excited about it—I am too.

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Babies, immigration, prayer.

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I’ve held American babies– but never Asian babies.

Back in March, I asked friends to help gather baby items for a couple of my expecting students. I have more to say about that experience—but suffice to say for today: I was overwhelmed with help from some truly kind and genuine people.

In late April, when we learned that the expected twins would be coming sooner than we anticipated, we were able to deliver a load of things to one of the mothers, Leanne. We brought newborn diapers, teeny-tiny clothes, a beautiful wooden crib. We carried wash cloths, bottles, and paired socks inside the small apartment. A dear friend who took this project upon herself too showed us how to use a double-seated stroller.

It was an afternoon of joy and thankfulness as we helped a sister feel more prepared for this next season, and in return she gifted us sushi rolls her husband had prepared. She told me thank you so many times I lost count during those few weeks.

A few days later, just before the twins were expected to make their arrival, I stopped by the apartment to visit Leanne. Because I knew that I wouldn’t be in town to welcome the babies at the hospital, I wanted to set aside a time to pray over my friend. I had no clue how awkward it would feel, or if she’d appreciate the gesture. But it gnawed on my heart, and I wanted to do it.

On my commute from one job to the next, on what was my “lunch break,” I swung into that apartment complex on the hill. I had told her I wanted to stop by for a short visit, so I didn’t knock on the door to the home for very long before she answered.

I stepped inside, and asked how she was feeling. She told me about the last hospital where her toddler was born in Malaysia. “The doctors care in America. It’s very good,” she said, as I reassured her that the delivery in the Nashville hospital would be safe, clean, and nothing to worry about. A reassurance like that feels necessary knowing some of the places my students have been in. Health, cleanliness, accurate medical attention—these are luxuries of the first-world lifestyle that my third and second-world friends are not used to.

My friend is a believer. In fact, that’s why her tribe was forced to flee their home: they are refugees because they claim Christ when others tell them to change or leave. They choose to leave.

I’m on this earth for two reasons: to tell people about Jesus with love and kindness, and to take care of those who already know about Him. And as much as I love to show the love of Christ to those people in my circles who don’t know Him, I also love to love on my sisters who have met Him, loved Him, and sacrificed for Him.

When the conversation got quiet, I asked her, “Leanne, can I pray for you?” She nodded.  And there, with the woven rug beneath my feet and the images of these coming twins in my mind, I lifted this family. I asked that they come safely, and that Leanne would heal. I asked that He guide and love this family in special ways. And at the end, I thanked Him for guiding them here. For giving me the chance to know them. For keeping them safe.

I only stayed for about 20 minutes, but the “amen” we said together before we hugged goodbye assured me the time wasn’t wasted. My love for this student, and my hopes for her family were deepened in that moment. I left, and the only thing I could think was: I’m a fool for not doing this sooner.

I’ve stayed up late lesson planning, and I’ve woken up early to print lessons. I’ve driven across town to meet with students who weren’t ready for class that day, and knocked on doors that were never answered. I’ve taught, retaught, taught again. I’ve made sacrifices on the altar of a successful ESL experience for my students. But nothing the works of my own hands have made compare to getting to pray on behalf of them. Nothing is more important than getting to speak their names in prayer to a God who knows the wrongs that have been done to them, and longs to fill their voids with peace and hope. 

Thankfully, the babies did come. And on their second week of being on this planet, I got to meet them. I stepped into that same apartment, and held each of these sweet 5 pound babies. Their heads were full of thick hair, and their eyes closed as I rocked them. As we sat together in that living room with the woven rug beneath our feet, I thought about how many beautiful moments I don’t deserve—including this one.

Why would this woman allow me to hold her babies, pray over them, step into their home? Why should I be given the opportunity to witness such miracles of His hand?

I have no answer. But my God has filled my life with these beautiful moments, and it’s all I can do to love in them to the fullest.

– – –

Forgive them, they know not what they do (or ask.)

When I arrived at my Burmese student, Sarah’s, home there weren’t any cars in the driveway. This usually makes me nervous, because showing up at the door of a student who doesn’t want or isn’t able to have class that day is not unheard of. I knocked on the door, and waited. No one came. My worry increased. I texted Sarah, and just a moment later, the door opened and she invited me in.

She apologized. From what I gathered, her husband was out of town and she had overslept because the baby had kept her up all night. She got a glass of water, grabbed her English folder, and came to sit around the living room coffee table. God bless her for allowing me to be her alarm clock, and still being dedicated to English class.

About halfway through class, the phone rang. Her husband. Sarah answered, spoke some things in Burmese, and then passed me the phone. After the initial hello and greetings, he asked, “Today DirecTV is coming. In 15 minutes he will be there to set up the cable. Can you help my wife understand the questions since I’m not there?” I told him sure, no problem.

We hung up the phone, and continued on with class. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, the DirecTV van pulled up in the driveway. I greeted the technician at the door, and immediately explained the situation.  He seemed somewhat taken aback, but went on to inspect his work.

A few minutes later, he came to explain what would need to be done to make the cable hookup possible. At this point, I had answered as many questions as possible and pointed to every direction in the home. But this time, it involved holes in the wall, a wire in the garage, moving some things around. I told him it would be best to call the husband, just to make sure it was okay.

The technician called and explained the situation, and then passed the phone to Sarah so that she could learn about the situation in her language. While they talked in Burmese, I apologized to the technician.

“I’m sorry I can’t translate for you. I actually don’t speak their language, and I didn’t want to be the final judge for any big decisions,” I told him.

“Eh, it’s no problem,” he hesitated for a minute, and then continued, “So like—what do you do? Is this, like, real? Is this your job? Like what you get paid to do?”

Oh, the number of times I’ve laid this out. I smiled as I explained that I have a degree and certification to do this. I told him, yes, this is my job and yes, I do get paid. I explained that I work with a branch of nonprofits to make English class accessible.

“Oh, so do you teach, like, only Spanish people or what?” he asked more.

Honestly, you’d be surprised at the number of times I’ve answered this question too. I explained that I only teach one Spanish-speaking couple from Cuba. His jaw dropped, and I continued. All the others speak languages many have never heard of. I told him about my Congolese students that speak Swahili, and the Tanzanian students who speak French. I told him about my Iraqi students who speak Kurdish, and my Sudanese students who speak Arabic.

“This family,” I said, motioning to the living room we sat in, “is of a tribe from Myanmar. They speak a specific dialect of that language.”

His eyes filled with amazement. “That’s so cool. But, like, how can you do this?” he said.

“Honestly,” I continued, “I don’t need to know their language to teach them English. It’s actually better that I don’t, because it’s a full immersion experience for them. Language doesn’t translate too well anyway. I use a lot of pictures and hand motions, and use a proven lesson planning technique. But above all, I’m patient and speak slowly. That’s all my students really need: someone willing to have slow conversations with them.

Sarah came back with the phone at this point, and I was honestly disappointed because I think our conversation could have continued. I left a few minutes later, and the man told me thanks and to have a good one.

I was shocked the first time I had an encounter like this. My mind raced– People really think I only teach Spanish-speakers from Mexico? Are you unaware of the refugee crisis and where they come from? Come on. Have you ever even heard of Myanmar and Tanzania?

Now, I glory in them. I love when they come up. I love getting to tell people about the richness of the world around us, and broaden their understanding. These conversations are always well-received, and I love watching the look of amazement on the faces of those I get to speak with.

Sure, we have a lot more to learn. There’s a lot of things we should burdened by, and as you can probably gather, refugee and immigrant work is that burden for me. But, I don’t get discouraged or saddened by these conversations anymore; instead, I use them to show grace. After all, I had to start learning from somewhere too.

– – –

It’s her party, and she’ll bring an African dish if she wants to.

In honor of two new or expecting mothers in my group class, we had a celebration after class one day. I brought blue and green cupcakes and cookies, and my dear friend Rachel brought a cantaloupe. We set up our humble spread on a table at the front of the room, and realized we didn’t have proper serving utensils. We cleaned and used a toy cooking pot as a serving spoon, placed it in the fruit dish, and invited everyone to fill their plate. It was a scene that only my students would have the grace to accept.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but one of the mothers of honor brought a salad and an African dish to her own party. The salad was self-explanatory. The sauce or vinaigrette mixture tasted only of lemon juice and salt, but somehow, it worked. That second dish on the other hand…

I don’t know what it was or how to say it. But, it was sweet and it was so good. If ESL has taught me anything, it’s to try whatever is set before you. All the doubts and worries aside, step into the moments when you don’t have the answers. There’s something so beautiful about that kind of trust and excitement to die to self and self’s desires. She tried to explain the dish to me as I ate, but the only English she really knew to say was “sugar.” And there was definitely more than sugar in that dish.

She kept saying it in Arabic. She wrote it on the board, and spoke it into her translator app over and over. When the app said, “Free Parking,” her smile widened, thinking it had translated the dish perfectly. I simply chuckled and shook my head. It was a classic translation-is-harder-than-you-think moment. Some things just don’t translate—such as humor and African dishes.

I took photos of the dish and of the Arabic word. I promised to take it to the market across the street, and ask them what it is and how to make it. Although I cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the fullness of the culture of my students, I love trying. I love asking questions. I love taking pictures. I will keep failing because what they a have to offer is rich and invaluable. But I will keep trying.

On next week’s agenda: take a trip to the market.

– – –

Difficult, important, good.

My large group class and I have been talking about immigration services lately. We’re learning some of the basic words and process of getting green cards and eventually, U.S. citizenship. Although I worried it would be a dry subject, we’ve made it fun. We’ve asked questions, played games, talked about our memories from the past and our hopes for the future. They’re invested in this subject, and honestly, as a teacher there’s nothing sweeter than teaching your students something they care about knowing.

We started a discussion centered on this idea: is immigration in America difficult?

My students chuckled and looked around. As if they couldn’t believe I would ask such a question. “Yes, of course,” they all murmured in agreement.

“Why?” I smiled, hoping they knew that I believed in them to communicate even pieces of such a complex thought. To simply say yes or no is too easy. As I like to tell them in almost every class: we’re learning good English.

They all had something to say, but one stuck out to me the most. A Sudanese woman spoke up and said, “Citizenship is hard. But it’s good. This is important. Only good people can stay here.”

A humble observation of a messy topic summed in simple sentences by a person seeking refuge in America. It stuck to me because I’ve never been forced to make a home overseas. I’ve never known what it’s like to have innumerable documents that have typed in a box a country of citizenship that has only pushed me out, hated me, hurt me, tore my home away from me. I can’t imagine the longing and the desire to be a part of a place that welcomes and loves me, after I’ve run for so long.

And still, this is the reality of my refugee student, Sarah, and her refugee classmates. And what’s more, they don’t expect it to just be given to them. None of them have landed in Nashville, Tennessee, expecting to be given the elite title of American citizenship. They want it. But they know it’s a process. They know it might not happen for them.

Newsflash: we agree with refugees when it comes to our opinion of immigration matters. This simple statement spoken by my student– who waited nearly 5 years to be given the opportunity to come to America– affirmed that for me. We believe, or should believe, it’s a hard, rigorous process. In fact, refugees are the most vetted travelers to come to America. It’s difficult for them, and I hate that they even have to understand why it’s difficult. But they do.

We agree, or should agree, that it’s important to be thorough in immigration matters. They know how important it is to make sure only authentic, honest people are coming to live in America as immigrants. Even if a large chunk of native-born American citizens are not honest or people of “good moral character” – which is an actual phrase used when discussing Naturalization and Citizenship standards for immigrants— they understand why it’s important for the USCIS to probe and prod into their life and history before making a final decision. They won’t argue that. Even in the midst of all their waiting and hurting, they won’t argue it. What grace.

And finally: we agree, or should agree, that immigration is good. In a land that boasts of freedom and happiness, dreaming and working, helping and being a person of “good moral character,” we should agree that welcoming other cultures into our space is a good thing. Especially when those people have been forced to flee from their homes. They have no choice, and nowhere to go. So yes, it’s a good thing. Let them come.

 

Small victories, big victories, and everything in the middle.

Well, my friends, I haven’t written in weeks. And although I’m sorry that I haven’t been faithful in telling you about the latest refugee stories in our corner of Southeast Nashville, they have continued on regardless of whether or not I’ve been faithful to document them.

Honestly, that is one of the sweetest lessons I’ve learned about Jesus: He is faithful to continue His work, even when I’m not. He doesn’t need to stop and rest. He doesn’t need to learn how to better manage time. He doesn’t need me to accomplish His plans, but He invites me along. That’s a pretty sweet invitation.

There have been new students to meet, babies to prepare for, trips to take, paperwork to fill out, curriculum to design, and breaks to take. A lot has been happening in this direction, and I’m grateful that you’re here to read about what’s happened when I wasn’t writing.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much I enjoy living it.

 

The Zomi girls who like to braid my hair

Although last week was spring break for the middle school program, we offered to take the 5th graders on their field trip for the year. The plan was to go the Adventure Science Center. My task was pretty simple: pick up the girls in the mini bus, get them to the Negley Boulevard, and help them have fun.

Once we arrived at the building with an enormous pyramid on the top of it—the one that overlooks downtown from a huge hill—we counted and split into teams. I was excited when my supervisor paired me with two of the Zomi girls who like to braid my hair. We were a team, and our job was to stick together during the trip. They were excited, and I was eager for our time together. They ran ahead, and I tried to keep up. We climbed a tower, played games against life-sized germs, took pictures with a dinosaur,  and gazed at huge models of the solar system.

Near the end of the trip, we were given an extra 15 minutes to look at one more thing we might have missed on the trip. The girls told me they wanted to play the brain game, and we ran with fingers crossed that the line had died down.

Thankfully, there was no line. We only needed to wait for the two current players to finish. The girls didn’t want to wait, a trend that I had noticed from the moment we got on I-65 to head to the science center, and I tried to encourage them to wait just another minute.

Finally, it paid off and we were up. Basically, the point of the game was to see which player of the two could “out-relax” the other. Both players sat and wore a gadget on their head that measured the activity in their brains. The goal was to be so calm, relaxed, and focused, that there would be a nearly flat line to show your brain movement. The higher the waves on your screen were, the less relaxed you were, and the more likely you were to lose.

I had watched the people before us. The waves on their screen had started off high, but eventually nearly evened out. Sure, there were mountains here and there, but on the whole—they were obviously calm.

I remembered that as I watched my refugee Zomi friends attempt to “out-relax” each other. Their brain waves were high and jumpy at first, and I was certain they would calm down.

They didn’t.

Throughout the entire 3 or so minute game, the girls sat. One sat with her hands cupped over her mouth, and the other closed her eyes. They looked somewhat relaxed and focused, but the waves on their screen proved otherwise.

“It’s broken,” I thought to myself about the machine. But then I was reminded of the traumatic psychology videos I had watched during my training. I realized, “It’s not broken. They are.”

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times: I’m not an expert. But, what I have learned is trauma impacts the entire wiring of a person’s brain. One of the effects is the forces the brain to surrender any still or calmness. The brain is always running on high, usually in an effort to be on guard in survival mode. Every time in the past that those girls thought, “I’m hungry. I’m scared. I’m cold,” and those needs were not met, contributed to the rewiring of their brains.

They came as refugees and a lineage persecuted for their faith. I’ll never know all they’ve seen or gone through.

They learned to be on guard, instead of receiving comfort. They learned to experience hurt and fear, when they should have been experiencing safety and love. They learned to always be on guard, when they should have been able to trust that they were safe. They learned how to uproot and resettle in a place they didn’t get to choose—Nashville, TN—when they should have been able to seek refuge and safety in the place of their ancestors.

But, the world isn’t perfect. And with that, I have to remember that sometimes my students act out not because they don’t want to be better, but because they literally don’t know how to. In steps the high, yet humble, task of the teacher: to teach the right way with grace and kindness.

 

– – –

 

Shelby

I pick the middle schoolers up from school 3 out of 4 times a week. Some days they’re ready to listen, and other times, it takes some time to get them settled. During the bus rides, I often hear a wide range of totally random comments.

On this particular day, there were some Congolese girls sitting behind my driver’s seat. I have no clue what they were saying or what they were discussing, but I tuned into the conversation just in time to hear my sweet, very small, student Shelby say:

“They might say you’re ugly, but you’re really just cute in your own way.”

Amen, sister.

 

– – –

 

The Burmese Women

Before spring break, I wanted to give my higher-level class an extra challenge. I wanted to teach them how to express frustration. To be honest, I was worried about the lesson. Not only did I worry it would be too difficult to grasp, but I also wondered how’d they respond to using English in a somewhat “negative” way. But, we went for it.

That day in class, I only had 5 of my Burmese students. They are all women, wives, mothers. We spent more time laughing and chatting and asking questions. And y’all, I used every second to cultivate a place of vulnerability and safety.

Although I would never want to lead my students down hateful or unkind roads, I know that being a wife is hard. I know that sometimes your husband, despite all his love and trying, can sometimes still forget to wash the dishes or take out the trash. I’ve also heard that parenting is difficult too. Sometimes the babies will cry, and cry, and cry. And all you want is for them to rest so you can rest too.

You know, that’s just part of being human. We frustrate each other, and things don’t always meet our expectations. Reality and what we want are often different. Usually during my classes, I like to learn about what my students like, and what inspires them. But during this class, I really sought to learn more about what frustrates them. Honestly, my ultimate goal was to show them that it’s okay to have feelings, even when they feel negative.

At first, it was difficult to talk about it. By the end of class thought, we were laughing and joking, and really being honest about these things. During one of our last activities, I wanted to find out what frustrates them. These are some of the things they said:

  • It bugs me when the schools asks for more money.
  • I can’t stand it when the house is dirty.
  • I hate traffic.
  • It bugs me when the grocery store is expensive.
  • I can’t stand it when I can’t talk to people.
  • I hate it when I can’t speak English.

It was a difficult lesson, and really stretched their language abilities. But, it was worth it. Just to be reminded that they get frustrated by the same things we do, was worth it.

I forget often that I work with living, feeling, thinking humans. Seriously, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of just viewing them as students who don’t understand. It’s my most earnest and passionate prayer that I would never become desensitized to their humanity. They feel things just as you and I do, and think about the world and life too. Just because they can’t always talk about it with us doesn’t make it any less valid.

My job is to empower them. My job is to step in, when everyone else just wants to point out all they’re doing wrong, and encourage them that they’re valuable people capable of learning a language, making a beautiful life in a foreign land, and acknowledging every single feeling and thought that comes with it. Because the reality is, for a long time they didn’t have the luxury of knowing their feelings were important. When they ran to refugee camps and were shoved out of their homelands, they didn’t have the liberty to trust that their life—including all their thoughts and feelings—were important enough to protect.

You’re mad they don’t know English? They are too.

You’re upset they won’t answer simple questions at the grocery store? They know.

You don’t think they’re trying to do well with the second chance they have in America? Wrong.

Have grace and patience, friends. The same people you might get frustrated by have thoughts, fears, hopes, feelings. They’re made in the image of the same God as you are.

In the words of Pocahontas (deep, I know),

“You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.”

 

– – –

 

Kyle

This semester has been a learning experience for me as a teacher. One of my biggest learning opportunities has been in dealing with some of my most difficult middle school students. Kyle, one that I’ve written about on this blog before, has had some really great days but also some really hard days. There’s usually no in between.

Something we’ve toyed with in our program is the use of a disciplinary checkmark system modeled after the public middle school the students attend, but tweaked to encourage better choices and second chances as opposed to simply repeating, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”

I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say it’s proven to be a pretty effective system. It is the most tangible way that I can hold my students accountable to making better choices, and having “evidence” to talk through solutions to our problems later.

My sweet student, Kyle, has gotten at least 1 checkmark each day. Usually for leaving class without asking, often times for talking at inappropriate times or not following instructions. However, he made some really great choices last week. I’m not sure if spring break and time to play was what he needed, but he came back ready to listen and work.

Monday passed, and he didn’t get any checks.

Tuesday passed, and still no checks.

To my shame, I hadn’t even realized how significant this was… until he came to me about it. He came to me frantically at the end of class with his checkmark sheet attached in his folder.

“Mrs. Brianna, checks! My checks!” he said, pointing to the paper.

Confused, I just nodded my head. I eyeballed the messy, inked up paper, and said, “Oh yeah, Kyle, these are your checks…”

“Mrs. Brianna, today my checks,” he said, still pointing.

I paused. Thought. And realized. “Ohhh, Kyle. You didn’t get any checks today! You didn’t get any yesterday either! You stayed in the classroom, you worked hard on Lexia, you were respectful of me and your classmates,” I explained.

He smiled from ear to ear.

“I good?” he said.

“Yes, Kyle. You’re good,” I told him.

He walked away, and the smile didn’t leave his face. I’ve thought about that so many times since then. It’s a victory to celebrate and he knows it too. And I’m grateful for the chance to get to encourage him every step of the way—even when he probably thinks I’m the difficult one for giving him the disciplinary checks in the first place.

 

– – –

 

Mrs. Brianna’s Class

We have an ongoing class competition at after school. We compete in attendance and minutes spent on our literacy program. Let me tell you about my class: they have consistently won in at least one category since December. In February, they really surprised us by taking the cake in BOTH categories. Then, I was amazed by the hard work they are dedicate to.

Last week, we found out that my class won in both categories. AGAIN. Of the 15 students multiplied by the 15 possible days of programming we had last month, there were only 8 absences. What? On top of that, they spent over 300 minutes on average improving their literacy. Again… what?

They could be doing a million other things after school. They could be playing soccer, babysitting, derping around on Facebook. But instead, they choose to continue learning. They choose to sit a little longer. They choose to work a little harder.

My sweet Shelby innocently asked me last week as we prepared to play a game of alphabet Bingo, “Mrs. Brianna, why do we always play games? We came here to learn!”

What she doesn’t realize is she and her classmates are. They are making huge strides of improvement, and it’s been an honor to play such a small role in that for them the last few months. I’m only a witness to the success stories that are being weaved in them. These are the kids that are going to make a positive difference, whether it be here in our Southeast corner of Nashville, or somewhere on the other side of the world.

A couple of the girls wrote me a note the last day before spring break. They said:

 

“Dear Ms.Brianna,

We say thank you for teaching us. We are really thankful for everything that you guys did for us. We have to thank to y’all for teaching us and we learn more and more from you guys. But if we did not be respect we say sorry. But you guys are the good teachers. We know that some time we didn’t be respectful to y’all. But all the human can not stay without do some mistake.

We will always loves you, Ms Brianna. The best teacher.”

 

Wherever they go, I believe in them. I’m so proud of the things they’ve already accomplished, and the things coming ahead.

Hair, trauma, and rumors that my husband looks like Jesus.

IMG_8771All student names have been changed in order to protect their safety. 

 

Middle Schoolers Say the Darndest Things

My husband has a pretty righteous beard. And there are two things none of my middle school students have: a husband or a beard. And for whatever reason, the trend this week was to talk about my husband and his beard.

I pulled my phone out at one point during class to text my supervisor a question. Two of the students I was helping were quick to notice the lock-screen photo of my husband and me at are wedding.

One pointed, and said, “Teacher, is that Jesus?” I chuckled and told her no, that it’s my husband. She simply said, “Oh,” as if she was disappointed and truly expected a different response.

The next day, I sat in the gym when a student from another class came to me. She said, “Miss, can I see a picture of your boyfriend?”

“Sure, but he’s not my boyfriend. He’s my husband,” I told her.

She paused and just stared at me for a moment before saying, “……Jesus…. Christ.”

I opened my mouth to respond to her, but she seemed less interested once I told her he wasn’t my boyfriend. That’s still a mystery to me.

And finally, when we got on the bus later, little Tim asked me about my husband too.

What color hair does he have?” Tim asked, and I told him brown.

What about the hair on his face?” he continued, and I told him like black.

What about his eyes?” he asked once more, and I told him blue-green.

I KNEW IT! He’s been at my school before! I saw him before,” little Tim stated so matter-of-factly.

And honestly, I just didn’t have the heart to tell him he was probably thinking of a different guy. So I just kept driving.

 

– – –

Chesa and Ming

This time 5 years ago, I was preparing to cut off 19 inches of my hair. I spent months in prayer over the event, and I wholeheartedly expected God to transform my heart in the process. Back then, cutting off my hair was a symbol of dying to self. It forced me to do something uncomfortable to help strangers, and manifested a spirit of eagerness to give everything within my grasp for the sake of growing in the Gospel and mirroring it.

My hair has grown out significantly since then. And these days, I often find myself sitting in a gym with middle schoolers as students play with my hair. This wasn’t part of my job description when I began working with the after school program, but I’ve gladly taken it. They braid it, take it down, and then French-braid it again. They put it in sleek buns and tie it on top of my hair. They brush it out, and chuckle as they tell their friends in their native language that I have some grays.

And all the while, we just sit and talk. I ask them about school and their families, and they ask about mine too. I ask them about their dreams, and pray for them every second they tell me more.

These are some Burmese girls I’ve really connected with this semester, Chesa and Ming. Our friendship started during my second week of class, when we sat outside and they played with my hair. This week, I learned that they want to live in Florida one day and that one of them wants to be a cosmetologist and the other says her parents want her to be a doctor. As we sat this week, the thought came to my mind: God knows what He’s doing even when I don’t. 

He gives us what we need at the right time. He teaches us the lessons we need and gives us the resources we need when we need it all. 5 years ago, as a new believer, I needed every hands-on lesson I could grasp in order to understand the magnitude of this life I had agreed to live for. I had to learn to not want to hold onto the things I loved, and I had to be willing to die to myself. I needed to cut my hair.

But now, to be honest, I don’t find identity in my physical appearance like I did in my early Christian days. Having long, silky hair isn’t a distraction or something I value as much now as I did then. Actually, I considered cutting it off again a couple months ago just because it gets in my way and causes a headache. As I sat with Chesa and Ming this night though, I realized that most of our friendship centers on our conversation that happens when they play with my hair nearly every week.

I thought cutting off my hair was a ministry some 5 years ago, but now I think it’s a ministry to keep it. Just to give me an easy reason to continue building relationships with my new middle school friends—it’s worth it to keep, despite all its headaches and annoyances.

We kept talking as they kept working, and I told Chesa and Ming, “You know, everyone has been saying my husband looks like Jesus.” I showed them a picture, and they doubled over laughing.

Yes, as annoying as it is, I think I’ll hold onto my hair a little longer.

 

– – –

 

Notes about Trauma

Although I interact everyday with people who have undergone immense trauma, let me be the first to say with complete confidence: I do not fully understand it. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not an immigration expert. I read and studied literary works in college, and wrote way too many papers about it. That’s the extent of my formal education. Everything else I have learned, I have witnessed on the field or in a few hours of job training.

While I’m not degrading my education or work experience, I do need to make it clear that there are a lot of days when the field I’m working in reflects a side of humanity that I didn’t realize I’d need to be prepared to deal with. There are damages to the human mind and soul that I don’t always know how to respond to.

What I know about trauma is that is completely rewires a person’s brain. The ideal environment for these people is shattered. The chemicals and big words I don’t understand within their body are restructured. It causes them to put up walls, build forts, and hide away in places. The only encouragement trauma offers the human body is the empty promise that all people are bad, every situation you’re in is evil, and you must always protect yourself.

I see the effects of trauma daily. This is why I work with the after-school program to teach our middle school refugees what is right and wrong, and that our team can be trusted. However, this week, I saw it in ways that startled me.

In our little circles, we call it shut-down. It’s when a student loses all self-regulation, and stops responding to reason, kind words, affirmation. It’s when they become seemingly empty. And at that point, teaching is impossible. The only thing you can do is help bring them back to their senses.

I’ve seen it in the Somali sisters I work with, even though I didn’t realize it until I went through training for my newest job at the start of the new year. For months, they have shown up late to class. They tell me they’re tired and busy. They tell me the work is hard, although according to the institution tests, their ability is far greater than they let on during class. They blatantly answer questions wrong and don’t listen. And they’ll wind up sitting in class, gazing off into space. Even as I say their name, there’s a blankness in their eyes. They don’t look up immediately.

And then there’s times when they come to class focus and full of energy. They’re on time, and far surpass my expectations with their reading and writing. They are engaged, and I believe them when they tell me they’re happy about English class.

I, like you’re probably thinking now, have wondered before if they are just lazy students and I’m a bad teacher. I’ve wondered if they just need more rest and easier work. But to be honest, I believe I’m dealing with deeply traumatized sisters who don’t always know how to process what they’ve been through or what they’re going through now. Call it a lie, but I truly believe they “shut-down” in class. I think the broken make-up of their brains makes them give up, stop, and completely stop responding to all reason or affirmation. I have no other reasonable explanation for the depths of sorrow and void I see on their faces in these moments.

I saw it in my middle schooler Maddie this week. When she put her head on the table, and when she lifted her head up long enough to let me talk to her, her expression was empty. Her eyes were blank. She didn’t want to hear or respond to a single thing I said.

When I asked her later if she wanted to choose her prize from the prize box for the week she shook her head no, and when I offered her prize tickets she had worked hard to earn, she turned away. Usually, no matter how upset a student is with me, there is no debate about whether or not they will choose their prize. They always, always do.

But Maddie didn’t.

Later, when I finally convinced her to stand up and walk over to the prize box, I wanted to celebrate. I felt like we were finally taking a successful step in the right direction. Literally and figuratively. And for a few seconds, she looked through the box. But almost suddenly, less than 30-seconds, the blank expression returned. I watched the transformation happen right before my eyes, and it shook me.

Here, on the cold tile of a brightly lit room in a church, sat Maddie. At some point in the past, she sat for days at a refugee camp in Tanzania, but today, she sat in a safe place with a box of candy, toys, makeup, and other gadgets in front of her. The only response she could do muster was to sit motionless and expressionless.

Friends, I don’t know how to explain it. My words fall short, but the image of her sitting there remains in my mind and it breaks my heart. Everything I’ll never understand as she does was there in her eyes. There was sorrow, isolation, painful memories, a confusing present. There was an emptiness that, for a second, made me feel hopeless.

The next day, Maddie told me at the end of class, “Miss, I didn’t get to pick my prize yet. Can I choose now?”

I was taken aback. It was like she had forgotten about the entire incident. It was like she didn’t even remember sitting in front of the box yesterday, after denying nearly a dozen offers of me encouraging her to choose her prize.

Honestly, it scared me. It scared me to see how a person—endowed with a soul and purpose made special in the hands of an Almighty God—could sit with so much void and darkness hiding within them. Not that she is evil, but the things that have been done to her are. I could call it nothing but the evil work of the enemy, and I hated him for that in that moment.

 

– – –

 

Sara and Milad

As usual, Sara greeted me early on Monday morning with a smile. Her nearly 2-year old, Helen, smiled bashfully before running to the other room. Helen has gotten used to me. In the past she would run in the other direction without even waving hi or bye. But now, she will stay. And if she doesn’t stay, she is quick to come back. She looks at me with an expression that I can only explain as a shy fascination. She doesn’t bolt away from me anymore than any other toddler I’ve ever met would. And sometimes, she even shakes my hand. Her eyes never leave me and neither does her smile.

Although building a relationship with my students is my first priority, it means so much if I can learn about their families too. Each and every person I interact with is uniquely different—different ethnicity, different story, different family– and it is a huge expression of trust that my students will let me greet their little ones and hold their babies.

The more I learn about the families of my students, the more that I realize: there are so many people to meet. There are friends to be made and strangers to greet—so many of which live in my neighborhood and community.

This week, during out short break during class, Sara served me chocolate cake, lemon cake, and a single strawberry paired with a cup of coffee. As Milad and I waited for Sara to return to the classroom we had spread across the coffee table, we began to talk. In nearly all of our conversations, there is something to be learned, even when it’s communicated in a somewhat broken, mispronounced, incorrect English. Honestly, this is usually the motivation I need to continue going because I’m so eager for the day when we can communicate in full, complete English sentences.

As Milad and I talked, we got on the subject of phones. I always love to hear my students reactions to American culture and lifestyle. Although they speak with the highest respect and kindness toward this new land they are in, I hear it in their voice: this place is different and unlike the home they once knew.

That’s not necessarily good or bad. But it is true.

This time, Milad described to me the people he sees always on their phone. He told me about the people he sees in public, and how their phones never leave their hands. They stare at it, and forget that there are real people standing around them. They choose the photos and typed words on a phone screen before they choose to look up and see the image before the photo is taken and the story in the flesh before its words are typed.

“Their phone is their friend. All the time on it. Too much no good, huh?” he said.

I simply nodded and, against all my training on speaking in complete sentences, agreed, “Too much no good.”

The stories of my friends, neighbors, and students.

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I’ve introduced myself to a lot of new people lately– the hiring manager I never heard back from in December, the Senator I contacted this morning, the Asian doctor who prescribed me antibiotics last week.

Hi, my name is Brianna Persinger and I’m an ESL teacher in Nashville,” I tell them, give or a take a different word or two.

It’s a pretty simple greeting, but it usually sparks a further conversation. I’m finding that people usually have a lot of questions about my job. Especially when I tell them I teach English to adult refugees and immigrants from 9 different countries.

Here’s the rundown:

My students cannot afford English class because the vast majority of them came to the States as refugees. Some have been here for a few years, but many of them have been here around 12 months. I’m employed through the same institute I received my TESL certification from last summer, and my entire paycheck comes out of grant and donor support. The branch I teach in is the only entirely nonprofit branch of the institute.

I teach one large group class that usually sees 8-12, depending on the day, at a local apartment complex. However, most of my teaching is in small groups. I go to 4 different homes in Southeast Nashville, where I meet with couples, sisters, and cousins. They invite me to their living room, offer me coffee and water, and we practice English.

It’s hard work, honestly. I have to keep up with a timesheet in order to get paid, and I have to work untraditional hours. Sometimes I leave class smelling like food I can’t even pronounce, and I have to carry my entire classroom around in the same Patagonia backpack I carried to Hong Kong. Even beyond that, a lot of unpaid studying and planning goes into this field. Sometimes I have to brush up on my own grammar or study out the reasons why we Americans say some of the stuff we do. Other times I need to learn more about the countries my students are from and the difficulties they’ve faced.

And all of the time, it’s a process of learning how to be a more effective teacher for my students and a more compassionate friend. There’s no way a teacher ends up in the line of work without a deep passion for people and a willingness to die to self in order to serve others.

Last week, I started a new job with a local agency that helps refugees and immigrants become generationally self-sufficient. When it’s time for the resettlement agency to step away from a newly arrived refugee, this agency steps in to continue the work of building a life of sustainability. A lot of the work of this group centers on adults.

However, there is one program for middle schoolers. And for whatever reason of my Father’s leading, that is where I have landed. Now, I have a class of 12 6th-8th grade refugees. One of them is from Sudan, and the rest are from Tanzania or Democratic Republic of Congo. They have all been here for around a year. Although they’ve quickly picked up English in their schools, they still have a long way to go. On top of learning a new culture, country, and language, these students also are dealing with the effects of trauma. You know, because a child doesn’t spend their life living in “temporary” tents and camps, with no definite end in sight and true protection from war, without leaving unscarred.

And as if that wasn’t enough, they still have to endure the painful awkwardness of growing into an adult body.

And for whatever reason, I found myself meeting these students for the first time this week at an after-school program designed to help them with homework, literacy skills, and community building. Half of my job is to simply drive a mini bus to and from their school in order to get to our program, and to and from their home when it’s over every night. The other half of my job is to serve as a lead Youth Success Coach, our fancy word for teacher, and lead them in classroom activities. And every part of this job deals with classroom management and proving to the kids that I am on their side, eager to see them thrive in this city they had probably never heard of until they learned they were being given a chance to move to America.

 

– – –   

 

The idea:

I’m leading a life I never dreamt of leading.

I never thought I’d be bold enough to step into the home of a stranger—not just one time, but day after day.

I never thought I’d be thoughtful enough to take my shoes off at the door of my host, and I never thought I’d be humble enough to accept gifts and meals I didn’t ask for.

I never thought I could love a person I had never met or care about wars in places I’ve barely even seen picture of.

I never thought there was more to learning and teaching English than just a few words.

I never thought I could hear the word “refugee” and feel a deep need to stand up in defense.

But I do now. For the past year a half, my heart has been broken and restored. Every. Single. Day. The things my students do and the conversations we share leave me in awe. I get to witness details about humanity. And every day, I grow in love for the people I work with, the stories they bear, and the God who brought us together.

Let me be quick to say that I’m not bragging. I don’t believe I’m in some higher position than you. Honestly, my position is low. If we’re talking about the wealth, power, and prestige our culture craves, I’m very low. Refugee and immigrant advocates don’t get that kind of money. ESL teachers don’t get that kind of fame.

Even so, there’s a passion moving in my heart, and I’ve never felt compassion and unconditional love the way I am learning today. Most assuredly, these are the plans of a God who knows the name of every student and knows every step they’ve taken on this earth. Undoubtedly, if I care for them a lot, He cares for them infinitely more.

Although I’m speaking from a place that is aware of my lowly title, it is also unique. It is counter-cultural, working against much of what our nation desires and confusing many people who don’t understand.  And I have never felt more eager to tell you the stories of my students.

I want to start a conversation. Too much is at stake in millions of refugee and immigrant lives around the world—thousands of which live in my sweet city of Nashville—to remain silent. The problem is I haven’t found a good way to do it. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are tools, but they’re not enough. These stories deserve something bigger.

Here’s my promise: I’m going to turn my field notes into short stories to post on this blog. Every. Single. Week.

Some will be only a few sentences, other might be paragraphs. Whatever is in the store for the weeks ahead, I’m open to it. I’m eager to share it. I’m willing to put in the work to do it. And I’m hopeful that you’ll join the journey with us.

Even if you say, “No. I don’t care what you have to say about refugees.” That’s fine. It sucks, but I get it. This is a hard topic that has caused a lot of division.

However, I would implore you to step into the divide alone and seek out the truth of these people in other reliable places. Find the real stories. Listen to the truthful voices, not the loud ones. Find conversations that are uncomfortable. Let them stretch you. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Go into a new place with an open heart. Consider the way of Jesus. I dare you to try and make your life fit with the words He gave us.

Even if it’s not on my blog, I pray you would do something good and loving that matters in the world.

For me, I have found the most reliable and good work has been in my neighborhood of Southeast Nashville where I make a living and meet awesome people. I spend hours a day pouring into their lives, and leave fulfilled because they pour kindness and hope right back to me.

These are the stories of my friends, neighbors, and students. I believe in them, and I hope you will too.

Change: part 3

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I stood in Dillard’s on November 8th, 2017. I perused through the sale jewelry, scanning for rose gold ear rings. The final days of wedding planning were coming to an end quickly, and I was in full-speed to keep up. As popular as the rose gold trend is, finding a pair I liked was surprisingly hard. And when I did find a pair, I’d pick them up, hold them to my ear, and stare at my reflection, pretending I was already standing in that lace, ivory dress.

 

None of them worked. They were too dangly, too casual, too fancy. None of them worked.

 

I was looking through a small, rotating rack when an older, shorter woman came beside me. I couldn’t quite pinpoint where she was from, but as we talked, I could tell English wasn’t her first language. She was looking for Kate Spade, and when she realized I had already found it, she told me to take my time.

 

“Oh, I’m looking for my wedding jewelry. You don’t want me to take my time,” I told her, grinning and stepping away.

 

Her face lit up. “When is your wedding?”

 

“It’s next week. Friday, actually,” I told her. She raised her eyebrows and I could only imagine what she must be thinking: “Who waits until the week before their wedding to find jewelry????”

 

I continued, “Honestly, I’m getting married with or without these ear rings. No matter what, there will be a wedding, and it will be awesome,” I told her.

 

She laughed, doubled over and told me I was the funniest person she had ever met.

 

“You’re like my daughter,” she said. “My daughter said the same thing. She told me, ‘Mom, the wedding is one day only. After the wedding is forever. That is what matters most. That is most important. Our love and promise are most important,’” the woman explained in her accented English.

 

We shopped beside each other for a few minutes. She’d offer a suggestion, and I’d get her opinion on another set- although, it didn’t take us long to realize we had exhausted the options. She wished me the best of luck and happiness, and then we turned our separate ways as I left the store, deciding I’d worry with it the next day.

 

:: :: ::

 

That was one month ago. I was in the final days of wedding planning, and could go from feeling like everything was finished to nothing at all within seconds. I was exhausted, I was excited, I was anxious, and I was ready. The waiting was nearly over as the celebration and tasting of the fruits of my labor neared.

 

Two months ago I was in the thick of a workload that was too heavy to carry. I’d spend an hour commuting into Nashville, lesson plan and teach all morning into the afternoon, and then go to work at Gap all afternoon into the night. I’d get in my car to make that 45 minute drive back home at 10 PM, knowing that my bedtime app was set to wake me up just after 5 AM. There was no time with friends, and barely time to sit and eat full meals. I snapped at coworkers, and yawned throughout my entire shift. I felt distant and tired at home. I missed reading and writing. And somehow, I still found the time to tie up the loose ends on the lessons and wedding I hadn’t quite finished.

 

Four months ago I helped Travis move to Nashville. I cried when we left his parents’ home in the Midwest, because I realized how much they must trust me to let him leave. Watching your son leave for a girl over 300 miles away has never been an easy task, and I felt selfish asking them to do that. But, we did it. We made the trek down I-65 on the day of the Eclipse and made it to the parking lot at our apartment one minute before totality. And then we talked about perfect timing every second after that.

 

Five months ago I picked up my first teaching job. I met a class of 3 students in a small, outdated classroom in the lower level of an apartment complex. This was my first class on the field. I was bright eyed and bushy-tailed. I felt dreams coming true, and if this was the only class I ever got to teach, I wanted to know I had given them my all.

 

That class and I met daily for a few weeks, with the hopes of continuing to meet a couple days a week after that. I knew the class would only get to continue on grant-support if students continued showing interest. I also knew that at the end of the initial 4 weeks—if the class did continue– my paid 18 hours of the class would drop drastically and be replaced with only 6 because of the change in the schedule. The amount of worry and uncertainty woven in that was difficult to accept, but I did it with as much grace as I could because I had been called.

 

And you can’t argue with a calling if you want to get somewhere.

 

:: :: ::

 

At some point in my Christian walk, I learned that faithfulness isn’t always a big, grand step leading to an earth-shaking decision. More often than not, it’s small. Quiet. And it leads to other small, quiet steps.

 

I’m a dreamer– an impatient, eager, anxious dreamer at that. Woven in my core are big hopes, and world-changing desires that I want today. Waiting until tomorrow or the next day isn’t an option. I’m the one who wants faithfulness to look like that big, grand, earth-shaking step. I want to see it right now.

 

But God is wiser than that. Faithfulness would be too easy if we only had to take one big step and finish. We would glory in the work of our hands, and create messes even bigger and grander than the ones we already do.

 

It’s the small, quiet steps that require us to continue coming back day after day. Those are the difficult ones, because they’re the ones that require us to move slower than we want. But, it’s in those little steps that we’re transformed. It’s here—as we put one foot in front of the other, day after day– that our strength learns to depend on Him and our desires rooted in faithfulness are conformed to His. And boy, does He move and work. His plans move thick, sweet, and slow like honey from the comb. I bet I could find a Bible verse about that too.

 

That’s what faithfulness actually looks like: a continuation of focused, intentional decisions followed through with action. This the transforming, difficult task of showing up day in and day out.

 

:: :: ::

 

God, in His kindness that transcends my understanding, has allowed me to live in a season of faithfulness even when I felt unfaithful and worn thin.

 

Six months ago, I published my last blog post. It was about change and not knowing what’s coming next. Since we’re being transparent here, I’ll admit to you that post will remain in every season for the rest of my life. Now that I realize faithfulness comes in small, quiet, and quite frankly, often unexciting steps, I can accept change in the same way.

 

The last season has been busy and stressful, but still woven with a confidence that the right, good things were happening. Day after day, I looked at what had been placed in my hands and decided to do something with it. And my God, did He do miraculous things with it.

 

Since then, that first class I took on has grown. What started as 3 now averages at 10-12 students every class, simply because they told their friends about English class. What’s more, I’ve been offered numerous opportunities to take on tutoring-like classes that meet with students in their home. Now, I meet with 4 different families to teach them English at their kitchen table. My students are from Myanmar, Sudan, Cuba, Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, and even on the most difficult days, they are worth it. We show each other grace and fight to learn an entirely new culture, language, and land.

 

And wouldn’t you know, I have more paid teaching hours now than what I began with 5 months ago. Teaching has never been about the money, but realistically speaking, paid work is necessary. And I’m grateful to have been provided for. What’s sweeter is the collection of conversations and memories I have with my students, when I learned about their life as refugees and about the homes they left behind. Worry number one. Gone.

 

Since then I’ve also moved my entire life to center on the most kind, loving guy I’ve ever met. Travis and I spent the fall scrambling to begin paying bills, while also working to pay for a wedding. The numbers were scary, but it happened. And on November 17th, in a pair of pearl earrings my mother had given me years ago, we promised to love each other first for the rest of our days on this earth. We watched as friends and family both near and far traveled to celebrate with us at a lodge in the woods. We drank coffee together, and we worshipped with the entire congregation, giving praise to God for all He had done.

 

We celebrated our first week of married life hiking mountains and following trails, and when we came back home to Nashville, we were thrilled to remember we have an entire life ahead of us to build. My commutes to work and classes are about 10 minutes now, and we have an adorable Christmas tree in our home. Although we’re now in the middle of learning our routine together, we’re grateful that we have a collection of memories of our perfect wedding day in place of the planning that once overtook us.

 

And just like that, all the other worries subsided too.

 

:: :: ::

 

That lady in Dillard’s was right. The wedding day was important, but the marriage after that continues far past one day.

 

Taking on that first class was important, but desiring to serve my students months later continues.

 

Moving to Nashville was important, but building a home and building a relationship with this community continues.

 

Making one decision to follow that sweet, heavenly Voice was important, but walking more of these quiet, baby steps continues. Faithfulness would be cheap if it were anything less than those quiet, baby steps.

A Lesson Learned: volume 2

Being at the heart of a Good and Perfect will doesn’t mean you won’t miss the things you know most.

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Leaving home is always hard for me. Something about saying goodbye, and leaving my place of comfort and safety hits me in the feels. And when I left for Hong Kong back in June, I did so knowing I would miss out on weeks of life at home.

It’s not that Joelton, Tennessee is anything the significant, but the people there are the ones who have rooted me and helped me grow. And I left knowing that I wouldn’t be there to grow with them in those few weeks. I wouldn’t be able to laugh with them. Swap the stories over coffee. Wrap my arms around their necks when I missed them.

Leaving Joelton meant leaving all of that, and trading it for some 8,000 miles and limited phone service. This probably should have been hard lesson number one.

:: :: ::

On my second morning of teaching in Hong Kong, I woke up before my alarm rang and saw a text from Kay announcing the birth of Han’s baby.

With crusty eyes and a sleepy hand, I turned the screen away from me and said, “What?” before rolling over and falling back asleep. When I woke up again later, this time in tune with my alarm, my first thought ran through my head like a dream I had almost forgotten: Han had her baby. Han had her baby. Baby Rhonan is finally, finally here.

The thought repeated as I got dressed, washed my face, and brushed my teeth. And as I began my routine commute on the MTR toward Tai Wai, and then to Kowloon Tong and Choi Hung where we left to get on the mini bus, the thought ran relentlessly through my head.

While I had been sleeping in the night, my best friend had welcomed a new piece of life— created for wonderful and mighty purposes— into the world, knowing that he would impact every life around him and change the world in his own ways. Although I knew he would come while I was overseas and far from home, it hadn’t quite hit me that I would miss it.

But, they sent me pictures. Gave me a brief summary of the labor story. Told me how much he weighed. Assured me he was a cute baby. As I read and tried to piece it together as best I could, I came back to this thought: I wasn’t there. I missed it.

And when all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around my sweet Han and her baby boy, my heart hurt, knowing it would be another 4 weeks before our triumphal greeting.

:: :: ::

Just a couple days later, and it was our first Friday of teaching. This meant I had survived 5 full days in a foreign classroom, and my journal pages had lines of written memories and prayers to prove it.

After the first part of our lesson, during our brief mid-morning break, I reached for my phone hidden in my desk to check the time. Before my eyes even saw the clock, I saw the missed FaceTime calls from Kay. “Wow, she must really want to say hey,” I thought. I looked at the phone for a few seconds before I knew how, or if, I should respond during the class day.

I had a few more minutes of break, and although long phone calls from Kay are expected, several in a row are not. Hoping everything was okay, I told myself, “Just 5 minutes. Just a 5 minute call.” I stood by the window, listened for those high pitched FaceTime beeps, and waited for the call to connect. When it finally did, I saw my best friend’s smiling face for the first time in two weeks. We said hey and hi, and some of my students gathered around to wave hey and hi too.

As sweet as this moment was, it was short lived. We couldn’t see a thing past the “Low Connection” message and a black screen. I had forgotten to warn her that my service in Hong Kong was not what it is back home. Even if I couldn’t see her moving in perfect time, it was so good to hear her voice in a place so far from home and my familiar places.

In the midst of the chaos of pleading with the service to pick up our call, I turned around in time to see my team leader walking in the room. Just when I thought the timing for everything happening in those few moments couldn’t be worse, the girl who is responsible for my actions in the school and for my place on the team walked in to hear my students loudly enjoying their break time, their teacher trying to pick up a phone call, and absolutely no order or structure to hold it all together.

As Kay continued to get my attention and sync up our words, I quickly told her, “I can’t talk, gotta go, bye, love you!” and hung up. I can’t say that went in the journals as my most graceful moment.

As we left break time and moved into our second portion of teaching for the morning, I checked the time once more on my phone. And again, I didn’t see the clock. Instead, I saw the notifications from Kay and this time, she had sent me pictures.

I didn’t even open them. It dawned on me what the purpose of our call had been. Even though my heart stopped and every thought in my head froze, I knew I needed to keep going. There was a classroom of 23 students looking to me for the next hour and 40 minutes. I couldn’t think about or look at the photos that waited for me on the other side of that lock screen.

But as soon as class was over, I reached for my phone. And sure enough, my predictions proved correct.

Kay was engaged to marry the man of her dreams. With a ring on her finger and a smile on her face, this was my announcement to the moment that we had dreamt up for years now. My head raced around and around.

Yes!

It finally happened!

How! Is this real life!

What!

I’m so happy!

She has a ring!

We can wedding plan!

Oh, I know she’s so happy!

Jordan did real good!

How did I not guess this?!

AHHHH!

Even though these thoughts, and so many more took over every thought I had, at the center was that raw feeling of knowing I missed it. I missed probably the sweetest day of my best friend’s life. And again: my heart hurt knowing that all I wanted was to squeal and hear the entire story, but it would be another 4 weeks until I could be there to rejoice with her.

:: :: ::

One day this all hit me. Somewhere under the sky of Hong Kong, it hit me. I don’t think it was that day, or even the next day. But at some point, I cried and confessed, “Yup, this is hard. This is the hardest thing that could be happening in my world right now, and I have no clue what to do with it.”

I wanted to believe I was rejoicing from the other side of the world — and some moments, I did believe that. But I remember much more vividly crying out and telling my Father about how unfair it felt to miss so many sweet moments from home. How crummy it felt to not sit beside Han and cradle her baby boy, or how weird it felt to not be there to high-five Jordan and gawk over Kay’s hand. Oh, how disappointed I was to not be there for the most life-transformational moments my friends had been hoping and waiting for.

But at some point during over the coming days, He reminded me: being in the heart of My good and perfect will doesn’t mean you won’t miss the things you know and love most.

It doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel like you let people down. It doesn’t mean you won’t attempt to carry that guilt. It doesn’t mean you won’t sacrifice some things. It doesn’t mean you won’t miss home. But My child, you have to make a choice: are you going to believe the enemy or Me?

I brought baby Rhonan into the world.

I allowed Kay and Jordan’s relationship to grow to this place.

I called you to be here in Hong Kong.

In My perfect and purposeful sovereignty, I crafted each of these moments for such a time as this. I’m writing every story here in Hong Kong, and every story in Tennessee too. Do you believe me when I promise to be in the middle of each and every one, even when you can’t be?

:: :: ::

I chose to believe Him. I chose to believe that He was at work in more ways that I could pen in my tattered journal, and that the moments He was asking me to give up were nothing compared to the chapters He had coming ahead of us.

Even though my homesickness was heavy those following days, His words resounded in my mind as I remembered how completely, wonderfully, unexplainably special it was that my best friends and I were all called to different places this summer. And in all of our uniqueness and different seasons, He had made these wonderful plans for us.

When I left for Hong Kong, Han was pregnant and raising a sweet girl with her husband. Kay was waiting for a ring, and preparing for her own trip to Jamaica. And I was asking for a life calling and for a greater love for the boy who holds my hand. By the time I hugged their necks in Tennessee again, 6 weeks later, Han was the mother to a sweet girl and and a sweet boy. Kay had a beautiful ring on her finger and had beautiful stories to share. And I had risen to a calling I never thought I would hear, and longed for that boy to be by my side during it all.

And when we sat in the Mexican restaurant for nearly 4 hours, catching up on everything we had experienced apart, I knew it was worth it. Every sacrifice, every tear, every time I had said, “I’m rejoicing from the other side of the world, but longing to be with you!” was worth it.

Choosing to believe it was my Heavenly Father had hand-written each story was worth it.