By Beth Jarvis
“Ich rede. Ich rede.” I talk. I talk.
Asil was busy talking. We had just finished learning which preposition goes with which verb in German. In an attempt to get into conversation, I asked her what she thought about. “For example,” I said, “I think about my mother.”
Asil said, “I think about my mother.” Holding up three fingers, she said, “Three years. I saw her.”
There it was. A story revealed through prepositions. Asil doesn’t speak English. I don’t speak Arabic. She has children. I can’t. We’re both foreigners in Germany. She speaks Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, and now German. Each language represents part of her journey. She’s been looking for a home since her journey from Syria. Tübingen, Germany has become my home since I left the U.S. to start a campus ministry here. We are close in age but share very different stories. I often don’t know what to say to her. Our conversations are very slow. Yet in this moment, we connected. We think about our mothers. Here was our common ground.
Then someone else asked me a question and I had to jump up and help. Ten minutes later, I looked back. I asked Asil if she wanted to do the next German exercise. “I’m talking!” she said. She was so excited that practicing German finally meant being in conversations with people. Homework could wait. She was working the room.
Patience: the Choice to Wait
Whether I am helping a Syrian woman learn German or meeting with a college student or taking out the trash, patience is never the thing I want. I want answers and solutions. I want to not worry about money and budgets. I want this event to go well and want our team to enjoy working together and I want our students to be able to enjoy trusting God. I want the dishwasher to work and never break down again. I want that piece of chocolate my teammate left on her desk. (Do you think she’s coming back for it? Probably not.)
When we are honest, more patience is not what we pray for. That would just invite more frustration. Yet patience is often what I need the most as I go about my week.
In 2008, I helped start a campus ministry in Tübingen, Germany. The ministry is called Unterwegs, a German word that means “on the way.” We try to meet college students there, wherever “there” happens to be at the moment. We try to provide a space where we can all meet God in that moment. It’s a wonderful and diverse community that has, from time to time, tried my patience. Looking back, I know the slow moments are when I grew the most. They deepened my trust in God and in other people. Going slow often meant the inclusion of people who believed they were excluded. Now I am glad we went slow.
Choosing to wait. That’s patience. Choosing to wait is a powerful thing because of the unique way it builds trust. But no one can make that choice for you.
I remember wondering in that first year if I would ever break out of small talk. Like Asil, I too wanted to talk. I didn’t want to wait to learn German. I wanted to speak now. To connect. To find common ground. These were my objectives. I couldn’t bear to have another conversation about the weather or someone’s weekend plans. I wanted to be able to listen to people’s favorite music, talk about their childhoods, and laugh, really laugh, with them. I wanted to be able to share my faith and my doubt and together believe. At times this was a slow and lonely process. It was only after I learned German that the German people truly connected with my heart. Because when you learn someone else’s language, really learn it, you learn to love people.
That is not a fast process.
I Don’t Know
Last year Liam was the new guy at Unterwegs. This year when we were getting ready for the start of the semester, he asked me if he could help pass out cookies. “Because you know,” he said, “that is how I came to Unterwegs last year.”
I had completely forgotten how he came to be part of the group. He’s such a part of things, I can barely remember a day when he wasn’t sitting on the sofa reading a book or talking to someone.
“Of course you can help, Liam. That would be great.”
When Liam first started coming last year, he wanted to come to everything. Even though he was an atheist, he came to everything, every day. It was like he was trying to figure out just exactly what this Unterwegs place was. One night he even came to our small worship service, which meets weekly in the basement of the campus house. That night during the open prayer time, Liam, this lovable kid, prayed.
“I don’t know who you are,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m here. But I like this group.”
If there was ever an Unterwegs prayer, I think that would be it. That night has remained one of my favorite moments because it was in that moment of vulnerability that I knew God to be patient. It takes courage to say, “I don’t know—yet I am willing to wait.” I knew that God could accept that courage and God would patiently work in our lives. This is the endurance that hope is built on. Patient people are hope-filled people.
Sometimes I wonder if how I felt about learning German is how Liam feels about God. For so long, in the slow process, only the disconnect feels real and any thoughts of actual communication are just imagination. But somehow hope begins to connect with our heart. And, as Paul writes in Romans 8:25, we wait patiently: “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (New Revised Standard Version).
Today I don’t know how the refugee crisis will be solved for those like Asil in Germany or throughout the world. I don’t know if Liam will learn to whom he prays. Yet I am willing to wait to find out. I hope for a home for Asil and I hope Liam will learn why he prays. In the meantime there are prepositions to learn and cookies to pass out—and even these things are worth our time. How else can we learn to trust?
Asil has learned a few sentences in German. Only a few, but now she talks. “Ich rede. Ich rede.” Liam still comes to almost everything, but now he helps pass out cookies. He invites others to Unterwegs.
This, to me, is the life by the spirit that Paul wrote about (Galatians 5:22-25). Slowly we learn to speak love and peace to each other. We rejoice in our friendships and we hope for more to come. As I see patience lived out in Asil and Liam, I trust that we are the more that is to come. Slowly we realize the answers and solutions for what we could not see but dared to hope for.
Beth Jarvis works for Globalscope campus ministry, part of CMF International, in Tübingen, Germany.
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