I’ve been haunted for a few weeks now by an interaction I had with my friend, Hung. One evening towards the end of the summer, I went to our community garden by myself to hang up some square boards that the kids in the community had painted pictures on the week prior. I was thinking about the symbolism behind “hanging up art” in a new home or in the community: Would this garden and its impact be here to stay?
While I was zip-tying the painted boards to the fence around the garden, Hung approached me. Hung is a middle-aged father of four (ages 1 to 13); his family lives a few blocks from Alicia and I. Hung is also a refugee from Burma, where he was once a nationally known athlete, playing soccer and throwing javelins and shot-puts with the best in his country. What you need to know about Hung, though, is that he is a worker. You’d have a hard time finding a stronger, harder-working man in his forties. Labor is his identity. When Alicia and I plan work days in the garden, we often focus on the food and social interactions (it’s not really about the vegetables). But Hung’s focus is on the work. “Let’s eat after we work,” he says. If we refuse, he will be the one standing behind the table serving everyone. Even when the other Burmese men are playing Chin-Lon (an awesome sport from south-central Asia, like a mix between volleyball and soccer), this former athlete is in the garden, toiling in soil. Alicia and I scarcely are able to work on our own garden plot without him coming over and taking over for us and doing whatever we were doing to a much higher degree of efficiency and skill.
When I’ve put up the kids’ art around the garden in the past, Hung would see me carrying the boards to the outside of the fence, then quickly grab a stack of boards twice as high as mine and start hanging them twice as fast as I was. It’s what he does. Not on this late-summer day, however; Hung didn’t offer me a single hand of assistance. Instead, he gave me a welcoming hug and then leaned his firm, stalky body against the fence as I worked. Never would something seem stranger to a friend of Hung.
I didn’t mind that he didn’t help me though. It gave me a sense of peace not to have to try (in vain) to keep up with the guy. I liked that Hung started to chat with me about life instead of working. As we talked in our broken English about the weather, the plants in the garden, and the state of our compost pile, Hung began to lean lower and lower forcing the fence to bear more and more of his strong frame. Finally, Hung blurted out what was really on his mind.
“I need to make more money!” he said.
I replied, “Why do you need more money? You have just started working again after being without work for weeks, why do you need more stuff?” What those words might not convey is the sarcasm with which I answered his exclamation. I’m pretty good with sarcasm. See, Hung’s words surprised me. Hung has only been living in the U.S. for a couple of years. I was surprised to hear that our addiction to consumption and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses had already corrupted this man. After all, he escaped Burma with his life and a few clothes by walking for five days through a jungle and floating for two days on the open sea aboard an overcrowded fishing vessel to relative safety in Malaysia.
Often, I am inspired by the beauty and faith with which former refugees view the world. They exhibit gratitude for what they have that I’ve never felt because I’ve never had my faith and courage tested like that; I haven’t had to endure as they have. With seeming ease, they live with contentment in their dingy apartments on East Colfax because they don’t have to hide from soldiers in the jungle to get a good night’s sleep. It’s a perspective that doesn’t exist in mainstream America. Had Hung already become “American” in the worst way possible? The thought made me queasy as I questioned my hope in mankind.
But Hung’s response to my sarcasm was convicting. He talked about his parents and the rest of his family who still live in Burma, in poverty that makes Hung’s poverty seem like the luxuries of a king. He explained that his family doesn’t know if they will eat anything more than a small bowl of rice on a given day. He pointed to the garden that was in front of us and how there is food on the plants. He said his family could only be so lucky to have a garden like ours, where fresh food was right at hand. Their material poverty didn’t begin to account for the fear that they lived in each day. Hung neared a rare display of emotion as he talked about how he can only talk to his family on the phone once ever four to five weeks because they live in a remote village in northwestern Burma. Each time he calls, he doesn’t know if his family will be there, alive and well, picking up the phone on the other end. He wants to be with his loved ones. He said his desire to send more money to them was just because it was all he could do. His deepest desire is to live in community with his loved ones, but he can’t.
Hung told me that he didn’t know how to explain the full extent of his feelings with words, so we played charades. He placed me standing in one spot (I had long forgotten about the work I was doing) and he took two steps away from me. He strained to reach out and touch me with his hand but he couldn’t quite grab hold of me. He repeated the gesture again, leaning even further towards me, trying to touch my shoulder. Again, he failed to reach me by inches. He made the gesture over and over until his helplessness and anguish really sank into my heart. My throat swelled up as I slowly began to comprehend a sliver of the emotional nightmare that he and many refugees like him endure daily.
The apostle Paul once wrote to his people in Rome, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (See Romans 1:8-17.) Circumstances had kept Paul from making the journey to share life with those he loved in Rome. Try as he might, Paul could not reach his brethren in Rome. Circumstances that kept Paul from Rome included shipwrecks, imprisonments, lack of finances, and beatings. A few of the circumstances that refugees know all too well in their separation from family.
We see in the Book of Acts, that by a sick twist of plot Paul’s circumstances change and he is shipped to Rome free of charge by the Romans themselves to await trial before Caesar. He is at long last united with his loved ones in the capitol. That reunion is the last we hear of Paul’s story in the Scriptures, but history tells us that the legacy he left in Rome cannot be understated.
For Hung, his agonizing desire to earn more money wasn’t about obtaining more material things. This was about reaching the unreachable. This man, doesn’t long for more money so he can have a bigger home or a nicer car. He wants money to mask the pain and guilt he feels towards the rest of his family who couldn’t escape. He wants to pour himself out for them and that’s the only way he can come even close to reaching them right now. He wants to alleviate their suffering a little while he cannot be with them—his family that is just outside of his outstretched arms.
I’m praying that circumstances will change one day where Hung can see his family again, so he can live life with them, mutually strengthening each other as it was for Paul and the Romans. What a gift that would be! In the meantime, Alicia and I resolve to enter into life with people who long to be with their families but who have been separated from them for some reason (e.g., through death, persecution, war or disaster). If they can’t strengthen their loved ones and be strengthened by them; we’ll throw our inadequate bodies into the fray and try our best to strengthen them. I know they will strengthen us; hopefully, we will strengthen each other. I’m praying that you will commit to trying to do the same in your context—filling the void left when families longed for remain just out of reach. (Revelation 3:2.)