A Bench, a Bag, and a Smile

An immigrant family learns first-hand what it's like to be loved as a neighbor—no matter what language you speak.

When my family moved from Goiás, Brazil, to Massachusetts, I experienced the true meaning of “climate change.” Back home, sweat had been a part of daily life because we had no air conditioning. There, the air was humid, and even when it was cool, I would come inside from playing with my hair sticking to my neck.

In Boston, there was no sweat. The air was often dry and bitterly cold. Rather than linger in the sky the way it had back home, the sun showed up late and left quickly. We stayed inside when we could, holding off the frost with our heater, pressing the backs of our hands against a windowpane to feel the cold outside.

In addition to adapting to the weather, we also had to adjust to new identities. People hesitated when pronouncing my name during roll call. I had to check “Hispanic” when taking standardized tests, yet I was not a Spanish speaker. Though I hadn’t changed, the way people saw me had, and it affected my perspective. I started looking at my family and myself differently. My inability to speak English made me feel stupid, and I often cried over school assignments—my mother sitting beside me, frustrated because she could no longer help me with homework. But I was seven, and mine were not adult-sized problems.

My parents weren’t learning the language as fast as I was, so I ordered their food and translated at stores. Sometimes we’d run into unkind people who would bellow at them or, even worse, treat them like children. Seeing your parents disrespected changes something inside you. Did speaking English make someone superior to my parents because they didn’t know the language? I’d ask myself. Was I smarter than my mother and father because I was learning faster? Though I’d struggle with the role reversal well into adolescence, I learned early that intelligence can’t be measured by which language someone speaks. And after enough interactions with abrasive people, we become numb.

During His last meal, Jesus issued a new commandment: “Love one another, even as I have loved you.”

Too often, I witness encounters like these involving Christians. Time and again, I see rude Facebook posts by church friends and bad behavior on the road by people who drive cars displaying shiny Ichthys symbols. As believers, shouldn’t we be identified by our love (John 13:35)? Maybe we’re not blatantly callous, but we may be hiding behind complacency and inaction.

During His last meal, Jesus issued a new commandment: “Love one another, even as I have loved you” (v. 34). His disciples, with feet still fresh from Jesus’ humble scrubbing, must have recalled Him touching the sick, feeding the hungry, and walking with outcasts. This is the love He spoke of—the love that should set us apart.

Loving like Jesus doesn’t have to be a spectacular accomplishment. I experienced this firsthand as a child. We were on our way to the pizzeria where my uncle and father worked. It was summertime—the season we’d come out of heated shelters and interact physically with the world again—and the sidewalk was filled with people. I scrambled to keep up with my family, and when we reached the curb, I fell, scraping my hands, knees, and feet. I started to cry, and an elderly American lady rushed over from the bench where she’d been sitting.

My family couldn’t speak English, so she switched from words to gestures, guiding me back to the bench and the large handbag sitting there. My tears ceased as she put my dirty feet in her lap and brushed away the pebbles dimpling my legs. She pulled wipes out of her purse and, saying soothing words I couldn’t understand, dabbed at the blood. Then she got out an array of Band-Aids, matching them to each scrape. After she finished, she beamed and held out her hands to my mother, who was holding my sandals. The lady brushed them off with her thin fingers and put them back on my feet. We made all the gestures we could think of to show our gratitude. And I hugged her—despite my parents’ warnings about showing affection to strangers.

In school, or at work, or on a bench by a pizzeria—wherever we are, we can “love [our] neighbor” (Mark 12:31). That summer afternoon, we were the Band-Aid lady’s neighbors. And she, with her well-stocked purse, made the “climate change” easier to bear.

Related Topics:  Kindness

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34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.

35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

31 The second is this, `YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

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