From The Rev. Gail Bernthal,
Church of the Saviour, Hanford
“I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
“And who is my neighbor?” a lawyer asked Jesus. (Luke 10:29) But, as Jesus has a way of doing, He turns the question around. He challenges the lawyer to focus not on who his neighbor is, but on what kind of neighbor he is to others.
Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan; a man is beaten, stripped and left half dead by robbers on the side of the road. A priest walking along the road saw the helpless man, but passed by and did not stop to help. A Levite saw the injured man, and also did not stop. But a Samaritan, a despised enemy of the Jews, was moved with compassion and showed mercy to the injured man. The man’s true neighbor, according to Jesus, was the one that everyone, including the helpless man, would have least expected. The man’s true neighbor was someone that, up until now, the helpless man would not have wanted anything to do with.
The man’s neighbor was the one who was not able to ignore the suffering of another human being. The Samaritan’s heart was touched because he recognized that his life and the life of the helpless man were connected as children of God. The Samaritan knew this bond was deeper and stronger than any cultural or political difference. If we define love as desiring what is best for another, the Samaritan was the only one of the three to show love to the helpless man. We are neighbors, according to Jesus, when we feel compassion, and transform that compassion into acts of mercy, when we expect nothing in return, and perhaps especially when those in need have nothing to give in return.
Sometimes, though, our hearts are moved by compassion, but we find there are language or cultural differences to navigate before we know how to show mercy.
I realized I wasn’t in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan anymore when the first PTA meeting I attended in Fresno in 1988 was translated into seven different languages. Craig, our two children, and I had moved from Michigan just two months earlier. It was an exciting, if sometimes disorienting time, moving across the country just in time for our eldest, Sarah, to begin kindergarten.
Being new to Fresno and to the school, I was looking forward to that first PTA meeting, to learning about the school and meeting other parents. Craig stayed home with Sarah and our three year old that evening while I set off for the meeting. I told Craig I didn’t think I’d be too long, maybe an hour or two at the most. After all, the school was right down the street.
When I arrived, it didn’t take long to realize most of the parents didn’t speak English. The majority of the group was Southeast Asian, including Hmong from the highlands of Laos, Lowland Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, but also people of Mexican and Armenian culture, and others. The principal began by telling us there was a great deal of information she needed to share, and to make sure everyone understood what they needed to know for their children to have a successful year, the meeting would be translated into seven languages. Seven languages! When I was in elementary school in Michigan, everyone spoke English, and most everyone was Caucasian. The Principal, Vice-Principal, PTA president, and classroom cultural aides spoke, and I listened to one language after another. For the first time ever, I heard the rhythms and tones of these remarkable languages. Hours later I went home thinking to myself that the people we would come to know in Fresno were going to be very different than our neighbors in Michigan.
I soon learned that about 85% of the children in Sarah’s kindergarten class were Hmong and spoke no English at the beginning of the school year. Their families were refugees of the Viet Nam War. Many of the children’s fathers and grandfathers had fought with American forces in the war. Following the war, their families had lived in camps and then been brought across the ocean to the United States to settle in Fresno.
I felt compassion for the Hmong children and their families, forced to leave their home in Laos and try to make their way in a culture that was so different from their own. I volunteered to help in Sarah’s classroom two days a week. I was amazed at how fast the children began to learn English. But I had much to learn also. I learned that it is considered disrespectful to touch the top of a Hmong child’s head because they believe the head is where the soul resides. I learned that making eye contact, or offering to shake a hand, especially with women, might be considered offensive. I learned that our tradition of having a birthday party for a child is something Hmong families knew nothing about. Our cultures were vastly different, and although the children were learning English, most of the parents were not; so getting to know the families was not going to happen the way I had expected it to happen. I would have to allow it to happen in its own way. We were connected as God’s children. Somehow we would figure out how to walk together, despite our cultural and religious differences.
I found that my compassion was demonstrated much of the time by just being with the children in the classroom. I sang songs with the children as the teacher played the piano, I helped them learn how to use scissors to cut paper, and I poured juice for them when they were thirsty on a hot day. I realized that often, just being present as the children learned about their new world was the best, perhaps the only way I could show mercy and be a neighbor to these children whose families had been through so much.
The Good Samaritan was right. When hearts meet, when compassion happens, mercy transcends differences, and we are blessed by being a neighbor.