Learning from People Who Are Different from Us

October 2, 2016 No Comments »
Learning from People Who Are Different from Us

By Karen O’Connor

We need to develop a kind disposition, to be sensitive to others and truly desire their happiness. But sensitivity alone is not enough; the grace of goodness impels us to take action to meet those needs.

—Jerry Bridges, Christian author and speaker

For years I frequented a manicure salon near my home, operated by a family from Vietnam. Over the weeks and months of getting to know the owner and her daughter, I learned so much—more than I ever could have in a history book or on a television news report. These beautiful people had escaped their beloved homeland during the Vietnam War. It took every penny of their savings to pay for a boat ride in the middle of the night from the shores of their country to a safe haven and then to America. Mom, Dad, and their five children made it, though many other families did not.

Before long the mother had a solid customer base and the father opened an auto repair shop, all while learning English and looking after their children as they settled into public school. Eventually the family could afford to purchase their own home.

These couple of paragraphs, however, barely touch on the hardships they suffered along the way, but never once did I hear them complain. They were grateful for their new life in freedom and expressed their appreciation over and over. I often felt ashamed of my own petty worries as I listened to them. I knew nothing of the suffering they endured, yet I sometimes complained about the weather or a meal or a car breaking down in traffic. These dear friends taught me to turn my heart to gratitude and to stay there! I also experienced their hospitality over the holidays and enjoyed their native foods, including phoa bowl of light beef or chicken broth flavored with ginger and coriander, flat rice noodles, spring onions, and slivers of chicken, pork, or beef. Yum!

From Bondage to Freedom

Years later I had the pleasure of meeting a Kurdish family. They had escaped on a moment’s notice from their home in Kurdistan during the Gulf War; their village had been riddled with bullets and gas bombs one morning as they ate breakfast around their kitchen table. They literally got up, grabbed what little money they had plus their one horse, and headed for the river to hide from the military.

Like other families in their situation, they walked hundreds of miles over the next many months to a refugee camp in Turkey where they experienced persecution and starvation; finally they were able to escape to the United States when sponsored by a relative who had arrived before them. They often stood in line, sometimes in snow, for hours for a pot of water. Meals consisted of thin soup with one meatball and a few grains of rice. One of their children died during their four-year stay at the camp.

Once again I was humbled to the core, listening to their stories, dining with them, playing with their children, and eventually writing a book for young people about their plight. I remember one evening sitting around a large piece of oil cloth spread on the floor of their small apartment, eating homemade dolmas—grape leaves stuffed with delicious rice, vegetables, and spices—warm pita bread fresh from the oven, chicken simmered in tomato sauce, Kurdish sweets, and hot tea. They had little to share, but they shared what they had with joyful hearts and welcoming smiles.

Church Friends Become Family

And still many years after that I noticed a family from Africa in church one Sunday morning. I introduced myself, and from that point on we became good friends, sharing meals, laughter, stories of their life in Africa, and United States holidays. The children referred to my husband and me as their American grandparents. After my husband died, the father took his clothing to needy relatives in Africa. It is gratifying to me to think of my husband’s shirts and pants and shoes being put to good use.

Rebuilding National Pride

Recently my daughter Julie and I booked a cruise on the Danube River. During our day trips on shore we visited four countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and the Czech Republic and also enjoyed a walking tour of Prague—one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited and the only one not bombed during WWII. These countries were once part of the Eastern European bloc (now referred to as Central Europe).

The last vestiges of communism are still evident in the strident gray concrete buildings that hold small apartments for thousands of families. But not far away are vibrant and quaint little shops open to residents and tourists, bulging with lovely souvenirs of each setting. I bought a pair of earrings handmade from small stones in the Danube River. My daughter purchased a beautiful multicolored pashmina scarf and cozy boiled wool slippers.

We enjoyed sampling Hungarian goulash, brown bread soup, and apple strudel with whipped cream. Local residents performed traditional dances for us onboard one evening, and we also toured Salzburg on a snowy April morning and then returned to the ship on a sunny afternoon. The locals told us, “April does what it wants to do.” We experienced its fickle weather, requiring down jackets on the way to the city and stripping them off on the way back!

I share all this not as a travelogue as much as an experience of learning and growing that I would have missed had I not opened my eyes to those who are different from me. And in their eyes, no doubt they see me as different from them. What an opportunity it was and continues to be to embrace the differences and to share human similarities.

Kindness the World Over

Now when I think of all the individuals I’ve met and talked with, I smile, thinking about them, many now halfway across the world, living their lives as I live mine, going to work and school, rearing families, enjoying a day at the park, or a walk along the river conversing and laughing with friends.

We are not so different after all. Each of us has been made in the image and likeness of God and is equally precious and loved in his sight. These experiences changed my life and helped me to broaden my perspective as I got to know and exchange kindness with people who are different (and also the same) as I am.

To be kind and loving and understanding and grateful to others is available to every one of us every day, regardless of whom we meet and interact with. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12, English Standard Version).

Karen O’Connor lives and writes in Watsonville, California. She invites you to visit her website (karenoconnor.com).

Kindness Toward Others

God remembers what we do in his name.

For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. —Hebrews 6:10

Kindness is reward in itself. We don’t need to get credit for it.

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. — Luke 6:35

Throughout the Scriptures, we are reminded to practice kindness.

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. —Colossians 3:12

Let us always speak in kindness and truth regardless of the situation and no matter what the differences are between others and us.

Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart. —Proverbs 3:3

All Scriptures from the New American Standard Bible.

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