Beatriz* came to our church with a little boy trailing behind her, a child from a brief relationship she’d had soon after coming to the U.S. Pregnant with another little boy, she walked hesitantly into Christian suburbia. Though she’d been in the U.S. for five or six years, this was a completely different world than the city she had called home.
Suburbia has different rules and a language all its own, on top of the usual barriers immigrants encounter.
She spoke English better than she believed but worse than employers wanted. I spoke a small smattering of Spanish — enough to pretend I knew what I was doing when I had no idea. Despite the barriers of language, lifestyle, and age, I liked her cautious smile and her humor-infused eyes, and I thought maybe we could find common ground.
I am not good at making friends. I don’t approach people. I don’t know how to start a conversation. I don’t engage first. When that conversation has to happen partly in charades, I’m ready to bow out and let someone more intrepid than I give it a try.
But those eyes told me she could be a friend. They also told me she needed one.
She and her soon-to-be husband began attending, and her son and my daughters bonded quickly. Aren’t children great facilitators of friendship when adults feel awkward?
Soon, Beatriz and I were meeting at the park, communicating early friendship across language and culture, watching our kids not care about those things. I helped her fill out employment applications. She showed me how to cook habaneros (a feat I had tried once for my spice-loving husband which had resulted in an apartment evacuation). I brought her to doctor’s appointments and tried to translate medical English to normal-people English. We laughed over our kids’ antics and cried over our kids’ heartaches.
Something happened while I helped Beatriz learn to navigate American suburbia. She showed me that it takes so much more than knowing a language or having a college degree to learn to thrive in a world not designed for a foreign citizen.
She showed me it takes grit and guts — both of which she had in abundance behind those mischievous eyes and tentative smile. She needed me to be her friend and interpret a hostile, confusing world at times. But she did not need me to make her way for her. She had known what it was to be a stranger in a strange place for years before she met me.
Together, we journeyed through what can be, after all, a hostile, foreign land for all who swear allegiance to the One who told us that in this world we would have trouble.
I am not a citizen of this world. I am a foreigner, born and bred by God for another land, and I don’t speak the language of this one as well as I would like. Yet I am part of this country that lives in its not-yet tension and has a language that needs interpreting and redeeming. It’s going to take grit on my part to run against a wind that blows away from grace, welcome, kindness, and purity.
It’s going to take guts to reach across lines of difference to interpret love.
Beatriz has taught me those things.
A few years into our unlikely friendship, Beatriz gave me the greatest honor I believe I’ve ever received. She invited me to her citizenship ceremony, the only person other than her husband who would stand by her side that day as she promised to “support and defend the Constitution” and “bear true allegiance to the same.” She held the naturalization certificate as if it was a Golden Ticket, ready to take her on journeys to places she had never imagined, or if she had, she had believed them open only to those born in more fortunate circumstances.
I was one of those so fortunately born. Before Beatriz, the lives of those who were not so fortunate were invisible to me, part of the unseen fabric woven into the underside of my pleasant suburb, not the side people showed.
Now, in part because of Beatriz, I teach ESL to refugees. I pick them up at the airport and savor the looks in their eyes — looks similar to the one I saw in her eyes when she held that piece of paper making her a citizen. Knowing Beatriz helped me to recognize their astounding resourcefulness, their ability to adapt and create independence that I am blessed to guide but am hardly the author of because I watched her grit and determination.
We all live in a world that needs interpreting every now and then. When we find a friend who helps us do that, it doesn’t matter what language she speaks. We’re all helping one another navigate a world that is strange yet home.
*My friend’s name has been changed for her privacy. Beatriz means “voyager.”