I live in this beautifully diverse and densely populated neighborhood on the north side of Chicago where the government resettles refugees and immigrants make their new home. Chicagoans know it as Little India. When you walk the streets of my neighborhood, you don’t feel you’re in America. Maybe you’re in Burma or Malaysia or India. It’s a far cry from Michigan Avenue, and I love it.
Every day I encounter people from different cultures and languages and countries. I’ve actually grown accustomed to being the minority on my streets. The other day I saw two white American women walking on Devon Avenue, and I actually wondered if they got lost.
I wonder how many of my neighbors have the same reaction when they see me.
My team and I serve refugees and immigrants from all over the world—Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Congo, Somalia, Syria, Ethiopia, Burma, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and more. We try to meet felt needs like giving diapers and rice and oil or fans in the summer or blankets in the winter. My team teaches English and helps kids with homework. We step into homes and build relationships with people.
The Beautiful, Awkward Work
It’s a beautiful work, but it’s also incredibly awkward. No matter how many similarities we share as humans, we still speak totally different languages. We come from different backgrounds. We believe very different things, and although these differences are beautiful, they can make for some awkward moments.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited families in their homes only to endure 20 or 30 or 40 minutes of awkward and broken conversation. I ask a question. Someone gives a totally unrelated answer. I rephrase it. We sit in silence. Eventually, one of us gives up and sips quietly on our tea.
This work is beautiful, but it’s awkward.
Today, I sat with a friend from Afghanistan who has been in the States for seven years, but she still struggles to speak and understand English. Possibly my favorite moments are when she gives up on English completely and speaks to me in Uzbek. She nearly always raises her eyebrows as if to say, “It’s fun, right? Not knowing the language. Really fun.”
As I sat with my Afghani friend, I asked her a question, trying to understand more of her story. She gave me that look I’m coming to recognize and responded in Uzbek. Almost without thinking, I heard myself mumble, “Ok. That didn’t work.” I leaned forward and said, “Let’s try this again.”
Let’s Try Again
That didn’t work, but let’s try this again. I can’t tell you how many times each day I think that.
Yikes, that explanation didn’t work. Let’s try again.
That visit didn’t go well. Let’s try again.
Lord knows we’re speaking different languages, but let’s try again.
I still don’t understand you. Let’s try again.
You still don’t understand me. Can we try again?
Over the course of nearly two years in this neighborhood, this has become the unconscious beat of my heart. And I think it’s beautiful. What if our world had this posture? What if this is how we approached community and conversation?
Today, my friend and I stumbled through yet another awkward conversation together. We may not have fully understood the other, but we tried our best. We both leaned in. It didn’t work the first time. Honestly, it didn’t work the second or third, but we tried again and again and again.
We must Lean in and try Again
I’ve found that some of my most profound relationships with people in the neighborhood come from those I struggle the most to understand. As we stumble and fumble through our words and their meanings, we lean into each other. We slow down. We pause. And we laugh, because trying to understand someone who speaks another language is hilarious.
Friend, what could it look like for you to lean in, to say, “That didn’t work, so let’s try again”? Chances are, you may not interact with someone who speaks a different language, but you probably have people in your life you struggle to understand or who struggle to understand you. We must lean in and try again. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. It’s difficult, but I believe it’s a holy and sacred work.
So would you lean in with me?
Would you try again?
Who are some people in your life you struggle to understand or who struggle to understand you? How can you lean in?