This week began the next phase of “Formation”, which is an exciting project that involves working with the Refugee Network, a program of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego. The Refugee Network has been supporting people who have relocated to San Diego from refugee camps in various parts of the world.
Most recently, various tribes of the Sudan and Burma, Bhutanese and Iraqi refugees, have received assistance via the Network. The program assists the new and recently arrived populations in their resettlement in our community. These beautiful people have been forced from their homelands due to racial, religious, and economic persecution.
At my first meeting with the Refugee Network’s Executive Director, it became clear that the organization needs assistance in areas of tutoring, social services support and physical labor, which is required to execute the pickup and distribution of food and household affects. I was perfectly comfortable listening during this initial meeting, as I carefully noted the business needs of the organization.
The next day, I reported to my first tutoring opportunity and felt growing anxiety.
What will it be like?
What value will I be able to provide??
…and how will I relate to children???
My ministry experience has focused predominantly upon on bringing the Word of God to brothers, and occasionally sisters, incarcerated in state and county prisons. A new phase of my journey was to begin! I needed to center myself and find inner peace so that I could be truly present and not at all anxious. I prayed on the drive to the church and tried to relax.
On arrival, I met with the head “Tutor Coordinator” who gave me a quick tour of the study area, supplies available and an overview of how the next few hours would go. My prayers were answered: God gave me twin brothers from the Karen tribe of the Burma (Myanmar). I’ll call them Peter and Paul. Each weighing a lot less than a sack of potatoes and standing just a bit taller than my waistline, they were as cute as you could imagine.
My assignment was to help them with basic linguistics, letter forming, word pronunciation, colors, and math. We had a brief get to know one another chat, but it was obvious that the boys wanted to get at their work! It became apparent that they both needed help in forming their letters, staying within the lines and having some sense of proportion. We had some fun – or I should say the boys got a real tickle when they associated my name, Tom, with the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry. They decided that I was named after the cat in the cartoon, so I became Mr. Cat and we all had a laugh.
When I asked Peter how old he was he said, “I am 11”, and Paul jumped in saying, “I am 19”. Needless to say I was more confused than normal, so I asked the driver – who picks up the students from their school and takes them home after the session – “How old are they?” She in turn asked the boys, in their native language, and was told that they were five or seven.
Peter and Paul both tried hard on the assignments we were doing and they maybe even struggled a bit, but at snack time, when I passed out a packet of goldfish, a container of cheese and crackers, and two tangerines, their faces lit up like the North Star. They didn’t dig right into their treasure. No, they both saved their packaged snacks and fruit and placed these items carefully in their backpacks.
I found out later that they always bring some of their snacks home for their families. God’s Love shone brightly in that small tutoring center with 42 children and 12 volunteers. The boys made progress with some of the letters and numbers. I realized that I had never spent that kind of time with my own children, so God is giving me another chance, just like He always does!
The next two days of tutoring were similar. I spent time helping a young girl from the Dinka tribe of Sudan who is 10 years old and has been in San Diego a couple of years. I’ll call her Mary. Mary’s homework was to write a paper about a special thing she did in school that day, then to read for a half hour. Her penmanship, punctuation and ability to record her thoughts on paper were exceptional for her age. She read to me for over half an hour, and when I suggested that she had satisfied her requirement, she said, “Mr. Tom, I would like to finish the chapter”. I was so impressed and agreed. Once she was satisfied, she closed her book and returned her homework and proceeded to enjoy her snacks.
The following day, it was extremely hot and therefore, most schools were closed due to the heat and horrific wild fires burning in the North County of San Diego. We had nine students (aged 7th through 11th grade) who came to tutoring because they needed help with their homework (remember: no school). These students needed help with geometry, algebra, rocket science and writing a paper. I was extremely thankful that there were volunteers with the ability to help them with the math and science. I worked at helping a 10th grader develop an outline for her paper. We were fortunate that the freezer had several trays of ice cubes, as we were able to give the children cold water with their snacks of goldfish, Oreos and strawberries that were the size of many of their small fists.
While tutoring was going on, a homeless woman came to the door looking for food. The facility we use for tutoring is also a food distribution center on certain days during the week, but this day was not one of them. The staff with the food distribution responsibility were not at the facility and the food pantry was locked. The woman was quite distraught and the other volunteers were trying to explain the “Rules” to her, advising that she could come back in two days…
I told the nice lady that we could help a bit because fortunately, I carry a “blessings in a bag” for just such occasions. The woman was disappointed that she could not get some groceries to take home but was nevertheless grateful for the food she received.
This week has been full of prayers, blessings and the ability to witness numerous volunteers sharing their gifts and talents with children and adults in need. God’s love continues to spread through this community and I am happy for the opportunity to learn and grow in that Love.