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The hush under the Dallas bridge overpass was almost overwhelming. High overhead I could faintly hear traffic, but standing in the shadow down below felt almost eerie.
But we were not alone.
I held to my mom’s pant leg tightly as she filled Styrofoam cups with sweet tea and set them in rows on the folding table. Next to me, a grandmotherly lady from church laid a sandwich on the plate in her hand and then passed it to her husband who added a small bag of chips. He looked up and smiled as he handed the plate to a gaunt man standing at the front of the line.
I had never been face to face with the homeless before.
I’d see them pushing a shopping cart piled high with bags on the sidewalk, headed apparently nowhere in particular. I’d stare as long as my eyes could see them through the car window. They looked rumpled and tired, like someone who hadn’t showered or eaten a proper meal in weeks. When a couple from church started a “Feed the Hungry” project under one of Dallas’ massive overpasses, my mom jumped at the chance and brought us along. I finally got my first face to face look at one of these mysterious people.
His eyebrows were bushy, nearly covered by a worn beanie. A frayed backpack was slung over his shoulder, but he reached gratefully for the paper plate. He winked at me as he took his cup and I stared as he made his way over to a pile of bags and sat down on a heap of folded cardboard boxes. He unwrapped his sandwich and crunched his way through the chips, just like I would do.
Suddenly the glass wall between me and the homeless melted away. They were normal people, just like me.
My mom was a brave woman. With my dad working long shifts and being on call most of the time, she solo parented a lot. With a row of young children, she had every excuse to stay home and just survive.
But she pushed past her comfort zone and piled us along on Bible studies and took elderly women grocery shopping. She helped my older sister organize a “Gloves for the homeless” project after we saw how cold their hands were in the winter while we fed them under the bridge. Perhaps none of those people remember the gloves today, but that experience left a mark on my young mind. I saw first hand that children can make a difference, but not if they are kept hidden away in a bubble of comfort.
I smile now at the thought of those early stretching moments,
because that was just a teeny culture experience, yet it felt huge to ten year old me.
Little did I know that someday I would daily walk a muddy trail in Guatemala, wearing a local woven corte skirt, or that someday I would be standing on the marble floors of the Taj Mahal in India, dressed in a shalwar kameez.
Little did I know that someday, I would be speaking the language this Mexican mother had whispered to her children as we stood in her apartment.
I had no idea that many many times, I would be the “immigrant” visiting a new country, getting page after page of my passport stamped.
My mother did a beautiful job of intentionally exposing us to new cultures and embracing people of all colors. She read aloud “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and we wept through the pain and love in those pages. She impersonated each character with a unique and fitting accent. I remember watching black and white documentaries of Martin Luther and hearing his speech. One of the bleakest spots in history in my little mind was that of slavery. No one should be sold or viewed as property.
The story of slavery here in America has always been part of our family conversation. Sometimes it happens when we read “Henry’s Freedom Box” to our children. I’ve told them about the small but powerful woman named Harriet Tubman who courageously forged 13 trips through the woods and rivers in the dark, avoiding the hunting dog’s noses and search teams, and eventually rescued around 70 people.
“Unspoken” is an alluring story, told without words, as a girl discovers someone hiding in her shed. You watch, holding your breath, as she courageously makes the right, but terrifying choice to save his life. These books are a really good way to open difficult subjects and be real and honest about the ugly things that have happened here in our own country, and around the world.
Some of my childhood playmates at church were from very different cultures than mine- African American and Asian, but it felt completely normal and right to me. Aaris, my African American friend, was so comfortable in her skin. She was tall and lanky and outspoken and commanded an air of confidence. Katherine, my tiny Taiwanese friend, was motherly to her little brothers, always hilarious and played the violin well. I borrowed a violin and practiced with my eyes closed, dreaming that I would someday play as well as she did.
Today is fraught with new racism battles and people pitting against each other. I have felt so confused at the shame I felt of my skin color after hearing rants against whites. But the issue is deeper than skin. When skin color and race arguments take predominance over individuals and stories, my heart aches.
Today, far too many people are chanting and picketing, burning cars and breaking glass. Tomorrow will not be changed by vandalism or whispered slurs. My children need to know that ALL people are created equal, and worthy of love.
I want my children to grow up in a world where all people are celebrated: black or white, police officer or homeless or surgeon or immigrant. I want families grown by adoption to be safe, and I want my friend’s child from China to never doubt our acceptance of her. I long to see the day when racism is truly a thing of the past.
Sin is ugly, no matter what color skin it wears.
God’s love is lavish, and knows no partiality.
Hope knows no color.
God loves the beauty in diversity. Instead of focusing on points of conflict, let’s embrace the strengths and cultures around us. All are sinners, all need Jesus, all need love.
In the timeless words of Martin Luther King, Jr.,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Obviously, the opportunity to take your children over the border into another culture is priceless. Traveling with children is far from easy, but it will always be worth the sacrifice as their little minds embrace first hand the stunning beauty of diverse cultures.
But we have to be intentional.
We need to provide opportunities for our children to experience and embrace diverse cultures. To help these little ones see the beauty in every one of God’s people.
Clearly, international travel is not possible for everyone. But I would guess you have international grocery stores in a city near you, international restaurants that offer mouth-watering curries or tandoori chicken and naan bread, or pad thai or bubble tea.
I recently took my crew into a large international store, and as we stepped in the doors, all the smells of an open market greeted us warmly.
Lakelyn curled up her nose, “Stinks, Mom!” I laughed and slowly pushed my cart past dried fish and odd looking greens and rows of glass bottled sauces with labels printed in characters I couldn’t even read.
The internet is FULL of great recipes featuring other cultures. It can often be done on a budget as well since many people around the world eat on low budgets. Beans, rice, corn tortillas with some fresh pico de gallo (salsa) on the side and fresh lime and cilantro as a garnish is a long time favorite around here. Perhaps avocados are on sale this week, and your meal just jumped another level!
One way to equip your children is to provide culturally rich literature. Over the years I have collected children’s books that paint vivid pictures of children in other cultures, eating other foods, speaking other languages. This is part of weaving into these little hearts the power and intention of embracing the beauty of diversity.
Ahmed’s Secret was an instant favorite as we turned the pages and heard the sounds and tasted the flavors Ahmed described. It was as if he invited us to spend the day with him, and watch over his shoulder as he goes about his day. In the end, we are drawn into the delight of his secret that has been burning a hole in his pocket. We felt his triumph and delight and smiled with him.
When my brother in law married his lovely wife from Taiwan, we all got to experience her culture. They took us into a bustling food court in Flushing, New York City. It felt like we were indeed in China, far away from McDonalds and Panera Bread. My toes tingled with excitement and my mouth watered at the unusual smells hanging in the air. I stood mesmerized as noodles were tossed, stretched and twisted. And just as I had guessed, the food was amazing, with the exception of the tiny little pepper bombs that would explode in your mouth and leave you gripping the edge of the table. That must be an acquired taste, we learned. Because of our own Mimi, we have learned to love dumpling, bubble tea, hot pot, and vinegar potatoes -which is now a staple dish at our Thanksgiving meal.
Years ago, we were given the story “How My Parents Learned to Eat,” and it felt so true to life. This is the adorable story of a little girl whose American father and Japanese mother met, fell in love and then faced the perplexity of different styles of food and how to eat them. If you are at all like us, you will want this book to be a permanent resident on your bookshelf. You will find your children begging to use chopsticks at every reasonable, and sometimes unreasonable time.
My sister recently gave us this instant winner book called “This is How We Do It” and for days my children were lost in the wonder of these lovely illustrated pages. The story opens with a world map and introduces you to seven children from around the globe. You see on one page the seven houses, clothing, food, school, and transportation. You follow along as they play and work and sleep. The illustrations are lovely, and the wording is simply beautiful. If you love cultures and want a gentle way to open up some wide contrasts, this book could be just what you need. Within the first few weeks of owning it, the cover became ragged. At first, I cringed, but then I sighed and smiled. It meant my children were pouring over these pages, and that is really what I wanted anyway. I want to open their world perspectives wide.
Suddenly, when our children ask questions like, “Are we RICH?” we pause.
Because no, not in American standards.
But from a global perspective, yes, we are ever so rich.
We never have to worry that there will be food today, or that we will be able to afford 3rd-grade education. We don’t depend on public transportation, we don’t haul water to drink or bathe in. When we open our children’s perspective wider than what they see every day, we invest in a much broader world.
Maybe you cannot travel, but want to connect your child with another culture. Or maybe you are a grandparent, wanting to give your grandchildren something more than a lego set. Consider a sponsorship with Compassion international.
My ten and eight year old were given a sponsorship to a child of their choice, and we helped them find a child their gender and close to their age. Weston’s friend even loves soccer as he does, and both of my children tear into their letters with delight. They have heard about school and family on the other side of the world. We dream of being able to take Tirzah to meet her friend in Ethiopia and Weston to meet his in Rwanda… Until then, we delight in the stories my sister Gretta told when she got to meet her dear little
Wubalem in Ethiopia, and we poured over her pictures and stories. Suddenly the scrawling childish handwriting gave way to a tiny little hand with perfect little fingers and that face with big, chocolate eyes.
You can teach your children how to give to children on the other side of the world by filling a shoebox or giving a gift, like a pair of chickens, ducks or even goats, that helps people provide for themselves.
Jesus got practical.
He ate with us, he knelt in the sand and got his hands dirty.
He wiped blind eyes and ate with people that others felt were too low class.
He sees beyond what human eyes see.
He sees the heart.
God gave us so much when our child took his first breath.
Suddenly, we were not just two “honeymooners.” We were parents.
Choices we made would now affect our children.
How we live and spend and even eat would shape in our children’s minds what is acceptable.
We will make mistakes as we push beyond our own comfort zones. We will uncover ugliness in our own hearts or fear of a culture we don’t understand. But even this is a beautiful moment of teaching our need to our children.
So here’s an invitation to push beyond your comfort zone and engage in other cultures. Place in your child’s hands books that paint the beautiful picture of culture, stir up fragrant recipes and help them write letters to sponsor children or take them overseas to experience it firsthand.
You might just find yourself learning from them as they delight and absorb the delights of peoples and culture.
Give them the gift of seeing the world, and culture,
for what it is- beautiful in God’s eyes.
“And may the Lord make you increase
and abound in love for one another and for all…”
1 Thessalonians 3:12