Small Things with Love

A heart for refugees in San Diego


“Do small things with great love.” It’s a line many of us have heard, from a statement made by Mother Teresa.

And yet we live in a society that idealizes big: big houses, big cars, big spending, big careers—even big churches. I too have engaged in the “big,” from obtaining a master’s degree in anthropology from a big university to working with one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations in South Asia. I want to have big impact and see my big dreams come true.

Still, God is gently teaching me the value of doing small things with great love. In 2010 I joined a small Alliance church, where I met my husband; then I worked in small jobs. Finally, I found myself mentoring a refugee family in San Diego County.

With my dreams of being involved in humanitarian work in places such as Haiti or Cameroon and my husband’s desire to one day be a missionary, it seemed limiting to “just” try to serve in our own U.S. city. How can that be living missionally or serving the “greater” good? And yet—small things, small things.

In 2010, through a refugee resettlement nonprofit, we were introduced to a Christian Karen family of 11 that had recently arrived from Myanmar. The Karen are a hill tribe whose members have been killed and tortured, burned and pushed out of their Burmese villages. (The Karen typically call their country by its former name of Burma.) Many live in refugee camps in Thailand for years, and some eventually receive permission to emigrate.

For two and a half years we shared life with this Karen family, beginning with English lessons. This soon moved into a deeper connection as we shared Bible stories and life skills while the children navigated tough schools in difficult neighborhoods. We counseled the family through challenging issues such as adjusting to American life while attempting to retain cultural values and respect, improving health and nutrition, learning to befriend those of different ethnicities in school, not retaliating when provoked and learning how to help others. Also, we brought medicine when little ones suffered from high fevers, played with them in the park and pulled seeds out of pumpkins in the fall.

Additionally, we explained who the alternative groups were that knocked on their doors and presented a religion different from their own. These groups are quickly engaging the areas where immigrants settle, and it would be wonderful to see more Christ followers mentoring refugees.

It was with a broken heart that we took the family to the San Diego International Airport in 2012 as they were seeking better job opportunities in the East. I still remember the cartloads of luggage and the patience of the children as we tried to maintain order during a crowded and busy day at the airport.

Blinking away tears, we waved good-bye, staying as long as we could until they disappeared into the security checkpoint. Will we hear from them again? I wondered.

The following week we arrived at the home of new Karen refugees, the next-door neighbors of the family we had originally mentored. The second Karen family consists of a father, mother and five children: four girls and one baby boy. In the living room is a Buddhist altar, on which the girls periodically set water and food. The father is a gentle and soft-spoken man who keeps a protective rein on his children, despite working 70 hours per week to support them.

Adapting to the new family felt awkward at first, and I had a deep sense of loss as I looked into the window of the empty apartment next door. Soon though, my husband and I became more comfortable and experienced the tremendous blessing of visiting a home each week and having bubbly girls run up to us for hugs as they posed the proverbial question: “Can you help me with my homework?” Also, we offered life skills lessons through a “Peace Club” involving other neighborhood children—a great teaching opportunity because the various ethnic groups do not always intermingle or understand one another.

I refer to the girls as the “four princesses,” for they have hearts of gold and are eager to learn and to experience life. The baby boy tumbles around and constantly seeks attention from the “teachers.” His perpetual baldness is a source of giggles for us all as the family compares his head to my husband’s shaved one!

It is our prayer that we can thoughtfully show this family the love and care that God has for them. The family understands that we are Christians as we discuss praying to Jesus for them when they are going through problems, and we introduce biblical concepts whenever possible through stories and conversation.

We keep in touch with the original Karen family that moved away. One of the eldest daughters regularly texts or chats via Internet, and we call each other every month. She is involved in her church choir and is desperately trying to keep up with her studies, as English is still a challenge. We continue to encourage her and pray for the family.

Since we have begun working with the refugees in San Diego, our hope has been to see others come alongside us and cultivate a desire to serve as well—be it with refugees or any other group or people to which they feel called. Our small missions outreach is now a staple at our church, and we visit refugee families weekly. There have been several international students in our church, from South Korea to India to Denmark, who have worked with us by assisting in teaching English, playing games with the children and helping with homework. When they return home, we know they have been moved by these experiences of loving and caring for others.

I am learning to be content with small things. We are currently mentoring two refugee families (one from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in addition to the Karen family). While we attempt to be a blessing to them, we often come away blessed and humbled by the families’ strength. It’s not always easy—but with God’s help and the support of our church, we can show great love.

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