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Stumbling into Holy Ground Moments Around the Table of Refugees

September 12, 2019 4 min read

Last week I was invited to a space I had no business being in. 

It was an honor.
It was a privilege. 
It was humbling. 

I made sure to take off my shoes before I walked into the friend of my friend’s home partly because of culture and partly because of that verse in Exodus. I still believe holy ground exists in things that seem completely mundane or simply different or quite possibly even extraordinary.  

On this night, my friends and I were completely and utterly stuffed after a dinner of curry and naan and rice pudding and sweet donuts soaked in syrup and oil. Each of us tried to stretch our pants a little before sitting on the floor around the family’s table. Kids seemed to come from out of nowhere in this Chicago one bedroom apartment. They crowded around the table with us, focusing on the cartoon playing on the iPad rather than the ragtag group in their living room. Their sweet mother and auntie disappeared into the kitchen despite our constant pleas. 

“Please come sit with us.”
“We don’t need any food.”
“Sit here.” 
“Oh, thank you for the noodles.”
“Please come sit with us.”
“We came to be with you.” 

It was hospitality at its finest, especially to our dear friends from Burma. They passed heaping plates of fried noodles and giant glasses of fruit punch around the table until we all had more than enough. We exhaled slowly, unsure of how another bite of food would fit into our bellies. But this family had given out of what they had, and we would try desperately to honor them. 

Only when we were all happily eating did the sweet mother sit with us—wrapping her beautifully colored skirt around her feet. We did not come to be served by her. We did not come for another meal. We did not come to take. 

We came to be with this family. We came to be with this sweet mother.

As chatter swirled around the room, I saw her fidgeting beside me, fumbling on her phone. I saw the picture then—her son, brand new and beautiful. She passed the phone over me to the friend she knew more than the stranger next to her. 

It was a sacred moment of pride and sorrow like how I imagine Moses’ mother must have felt when she floated him in a basket that she prayed would save him from the river’s current and the depths below. 

This boy—her brand new baby—did not come out crying. He did not come out breathing. This sweet mother pushed and cried through pain to give birth to a baby who wasn’t alive. They called him stillborn, but this was not his name. 

We did not come to be served. We did not come for another meal. We did not come to take. 
We came to be with sweet mother. 

In that sterile hospital room just weeks before, there were tears. There were cries. But it didn’t come from her baby. It came from sweet mother and sweet father—refugees in this strange land trying to build a home and life for their family. And in the weeks since this story-defining moment, there would be more tears—from the pain of recovering from childbirth, from the replaying of that moment in her mind, from the moments she could almost feel her son’s body in her arms only to look down and see nothing and no one. 

Often, I write about brave living—how it turns up in the most unexpected places. I’m not going to pretend that I was brave in that moment. I was speechless; I could only reach over and put my hand on sweet mother’s knee. The chatter and the cartoon playing in the background faded. It was a moment for my friend and sweet mother and me—the random stranger who was lucky enough for an invitation to the table. 

Brave living—in that moment—belonged to this sweet mother. Because she did not continue to serve us. She did not stay busy. She did not hide in the kitchen. She sat with her friend and a stranger. And she pulled out one of the only pictures she will ever have of her baby called stillborn. She passed him to us, one of the greatest treasures and sorrows of her heart.

And all we could say was, “He is so beautiful. He is cúndoijja.” 

We made sweet mother smile at the sound of our terrible pronunciation of this beautiful Rohingya word. Her smile, another act of bravery. 

I had no business being in this room, in this space with such a sweet mother—the kind who comforts her crying children, who finds refuge in a new country for their safety, who tries to teach them parts of their culture in a brand new place so different from the old. I had been invited to holy ground that was found in the sacred ordinary. I was surrounded by bravery and humbled by my place at the table. 

We did not come to be served. We did not come for another meal. We did not come to take. 

We came to be with sweet mother—the bravest one in the room. 

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