I love the words to “Silent Night”, but I don’t really believe them. The night of Jesus’ birth was probably anything but silent—with a town full of travelers, a barn full of animals, a sky full of angels, and the eruption of shepherds running down the dusty streets.
I imagine that night to be a bit more like the World Relief ESL Christmas party I attended today. Celebratory!
I follow brightly dressed South Asian women bearing plastic bags of food up the old church steps. Inside, I’m greeted warmly and pointed past a room crowded with aromas.
After meeting a table of Congolese, I find an empty seat with smiling Syrians. I ask what food they brought to today’s party, and one uses her phone to show me photo after photo of fabulous Syrian dishes. Chicken, rice, lamb, cucumbers, tomatoes—all wrapped in various shapes—and piled onto platters. I can tell these are gifted cooks, and I picked a good group to eat with!
I gaze around me, absorbing the noise and the warmth. Many of the people are wearing their ethnic dress, covered by coats and winter hats to keep out the December chill. They sit by class but also by country, laughing and talking loudly in a multitude of languages. Two little girls wearing dresses of pink and lace sit on the table across from me, watched over by their mothers.
The room is bright and warm with color, smell, noise, and welcome. This is Christmas, and this is how it should be. Anything but silent.
The short program begins with the pre-literate class presenting a video of their walk to a new park. We chuckle over photos of them on the playground—grown men and women on slides, spinners, and swings—all the while listening to a few narrate their actions. I marvel at the English they have learned already—this brave group of people who arrived here likely without the gift of ever attending school.
Next, my table’s teacher leads a lesson in “Jingle Bells”. We see the words and images for “sleigh”, “horse”, “snow”, and “jingle”. We practice each, combining them into phrases. She shows a video clip of two dappled grays trotting through the snow pulling a sleigh, then we all sing the song together line by line. Finally, we sing it in full, the Syrian women from my table singing the chorus for us.
The time it takes for the song isn’t wasted. It is valuable learning and I love it. I see the giftedness and patience of their teacher and the friendships between her students.
A handful of small children appear on the stage holding jingle bells. They wave their arms and sing to us, one little boy with bells in each fist staring at the floor. Finally he gains confidence and joins in near the end, waving and jingling wildly even after the others are done. I think of how like him the adults must feel in this new culture—initially shy, increasing in confidence. Today I’m seeing them in the bell-ringing mood—one of joy. This is where they are loved and valued.
Hand drums are produced and drummers are welcomed to the front. An Iraqi man and woman volunteer. The man wears a t-shirt plastered with the American flag which reads, “Made in America 2016”, and the woman wears a hand knit scarf and matching hat of yellow. Their drumming is exuberant and life-giving. A third man joins them, this one quieter but no less talented. I wonder where they learned their skill and how often they have time or instruments to use it in America. Everyone is invited to return to the church on Saturdays to use the drums, and I’m thankful for a church that opens its doors and its heart for the use of these gifts.
After the time of music, we shuffle to the other room to fill small paper plates with food. I try some yellow rice, shawarma, and creamy salad made with apples and chicken. A tiny Asian lady scoops a giant portion of noodles onto my already full plate, and I smile at her. I love and share her joy of feeding others.
I return to my table and speak with an older Syrian woman. She tells me of her eight children, now spread between Egypt, Holland, Jordan, and America. They have borne her seventeen grandchildren, only two of which live here. She sees the others only on her phone. Her own siblings—two sisters and four brothers—reside in Holland, France, and Germany. I ask if they all once lived together in Syria, and she says yes. I ask how many they all made when together, and she laughs and says, “Many, many!”
I cannot imagine her sadness over the oceans between them now. The daughter in Jordan she hasn’t seen for two years and nine months. That is a long time to be separated from family, especially if you don’t know when you may see them again.
A younger Syrian woman on my other side tells me of her four children and one on the way. I ask if this baby will be the first born to her in America, and she smiles and tells me how here she has to see the doctor all the time but it wasn’t that way in Syria. “Doctor, doctor, doctor,” she says, “Baby good, me good, blood pressure, sugar test…always appointments in America.” I wonder at the other differences between our two countries, and I laugh with her over our fussy healthcare.
I think of these beautiful women—sojourners. I think of the one carrying a child, and how she is so far from family and all that is familiar. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus.
I listen to the melodies of drums, of voices, of laughter, and I imagine that first night of Jesus’ birth, that small stable filled with shepherds and animals, townspeople and smells. What was it like?
It wasn’t silent, and neither was this party. I praise God for sending his Son to dwell among us, a sojourner himself like the friends I made today. I praise him for the noise of love and welcome, the noise of Christmas.
Written by World Relief volunteer, Cheryce Berg