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The Heart of Compassion: A Reflection by John Raines

September 30, 2014

I’m not great at compassion ministry. I’m not really sure the best way to gauge that, especially at a place like Parkside, where I live, but that’s how I feel. Do I measure it in the number of immigrants I know in my community? The depth of my relationships with them? The magnitude of the swell of love I feel in my heart when I am hailed across the courtyard by a Sudanese neighbor? I’m not sure, but all the standards I come up with generally make me shrug—on good days, with a chuckle, on bad days, with a sigh—and just admit it: I’m not that great at compassion ministry. The number I know is small. My relationships are not terribly deep. The love that swells is usually much too small.

God, I have found out, does not really mind that I have so little to offer. For whatever reason, in the unsearchable depths of his wisdom, in the warmth and turmoil that is his strong grace, he has given us to each other, myself and these people who live in the apartments that stand beside and stare into and touch my own. I can’t always see what he’s working at. Sometimes I get a glimpse, but I think that obedience happens before and around and sometimes without a glimpse of the plan.

One thing I have learned about obedience and myself is that the grander I imagine my ability to obey, the more trouble I have doing anything well. I once, after taking inventory of my personality and strengths, decided I would like to make a great impact in the Iraqi refugee community in the Western Suburbs. I felt equipped to do this—I spoke Arabic, I’d spent time in Arab culture, I was empathetic, I had English-teaching experience, I was educated in Scripture, I was armed with a sense of calling. I wasn’t sure what God was going to do, but I expected big things. I was ready. Ready to teach English to the masses. Ready to start a Bible study. Ready to inspire young Iraqi men to help their community cope with the realities of immigrant life. Ready to obey.

I thank God that he was not hindered by all my readiness—by all my “strengths”. In three years of working among that community, I drove a 15-passenger van to every corner of DuPage county, picking people up and taking them to grocery stores, public aid offices, and the Lutheran churches where a Lebanese pastor taught them the Bible and helped them make ends meet. So far as I can tell, I inspired no young men, taught no one English, and started no Bible studies. Out of a large community of immigrants, I formed a close relationship with just one family—Iranians, not Arabs, who spoke only Farsi, a language I could not list before God as one of my strengths. The youngest son of that family came to know Christ during that time less because I could answer his Scriptural and theological questions (I remember a particularly unenlightening conversation we had about the Trinity) than because some friends and I, people who were his neighbors at Parkside, spent time with him. I came to love and care for this young man not because I was compassionate—I am often not—but because God helped me grow and love and care in spite of how ready I believed I was.

Since that time, God has been slowly teaching me not to place so much value on having “strengths”. On being great at compassion ministry. I can remember a day that I greeted a Sudanese neighbor of mine in front of his apartment here at Parkside and asked him how he was doing. His gaze shifted up over my shoulder into the distance, and a gloss went over his eyes as they began to fill with tears. “It’s so hard to live here,” he said. “I miss my home, my family, I…,” and he lowered his chin to his chest and began to sob. I remember once, as a child, walking into our living room and finding my mother crying. I don’t know why she was crying, but it surprises me less now, as an adult, that she was for some reason or another. I went up to her, and I put my arms around her and gave her a hug. And that was what I did to this grown, African man in the middle of our courtyard. That day, God did not have use for any of the strengths I had gained since the age of ten.

Not everyone is called to give hugs to African men in American courtyards. But, if you’ve ever thought that compassion ministry was for someone with a different set of strengths than yours, my thought to that is, nuts. Please pray about coming by sometime and meeting some people here.

John Raines

Just a Poor College Student

July 20, 2014

We had 96 dollars left, and the list of supplies that we still needed to purchase seemed enormous in comparison. Many of the girls from the floor had given both donations of spare change and had bought supplies for the Good Neighbor Kit, but it still wasn’t enough.

We were also running out of time. It was late fall when the floor first started talking about putting together a World Relief Good Neighbor Kit for a refugee family. But by the time we met together to plan, collected supplies, went through the trainings, and collected more supplies, our projected delivery date for the Good Neighbor Kit had stretched into late April, coming dangerously close to finals week at Wheaton College. The problem wasn’t that the process of putting together the supplies was particularly time-consuming or difficult, but the scattered schedules and commitments among a floor of fifty college students had slowed us down.

One Saturday in April, I felt discouraged about whether or not we would actually be able to follow through. There were supplies to be bought, but I worried about having enough money to pay for everything and bemoaned my lack of a car. In the morning, I let the floor know that we absolutely had to get the supplies before the time that we had scheduled to deliver them. But I had no idea how everything would happen.

Later that afternoon, I received a text message from a student on the floor, Maddie, who had borrowed the car of another girl on the floor, Erin, to go shopping for the rest of the items. I saw her back at the dorm, where everyone that was around helped to bring in the supplies. Maddie gave me the checklist for the Good Neighbor Kit, along with all of the receipts, and I was amazed. There was still money left over.

That week, three of us—Sarah, Ashleigh, and myself—packed everything into one car and drove to the apartment that the family would live in. The father of the household, along with a contact that was assisting the family with their move, met us there. We got to know each other while moving the supplies into the empty apartment.

As the father shared about his family and talked about arriving in the United States, I realized that—while it had been stressful for us to gather everything together—it was undoubtedly even more stressful for the newly arrived family to find transportation, know where the best and most inexpensive places were to shop, and pull together payment, all while navigating a new culture and context. I saw that, even with disorganization and lack of transportation and college budgets, God had provided everything that we needed for the Good Neighbor Kit. And in bringing together the details for us, He was ultimately providing for this refugee family.

College students like to say that we are “poor college students.” We’re always searching for deals and opportunities for free food, and there are very real financial stresses and realities that students deal with. But at Wheaton, there are many of us that do have money to spare, money that we spend on movies and dinners out and clothing. And as Christians, we have a responsibility to be aware of the needs of our community and to share the resources we have.

At time putting together a Good Neighbor Kit was stressful and inconvenient. But I saw through this experience that God’s love for the vulnerable in our community is far greater than my concern or care. When we take the step to give a small piece of our time and resources, He is there to provide. With God, there is always enough.