Mercy Lawluvi’s first days in Canada were met by the famous ice storm. Arriving from Ghana a young woman in 1997, Mercy had never seen first-hand, touched nor felt snow, let alone freezing rain that made moving about a danger and terror for slipping and falling.
Mercy was alone. And she felt lonely, surrounded by the four walls of her apartment. She couldn’t even see her backyard garden bushes and trees buried and drooping under the heavy, thick accretions of ice.
Nevertheless she decided to slip-and-slide over to the nearby Loblaws. Surviving this first test of Canadian living, she made her way to the fresh produce section. Mercy was delighted to find some mangoes, her favorite fruit.
And as she was standing there, turning over a small reminder of her homeland, a woman came up to her looking for mangoes herself. “Hello,” she smiled. “The mangoes look good. What’s your name?” she asked.
“Mercy,” she responded.
“Where are you from?” the woman asked. “Ghana, in Africa. And these are my favorite fruit. I am so happy they are here.” And so, the two stood there for a long time chatting and exchanging mango recipes. Finally, the other woman asked, “What is your occupation?”
“I am a teacher.”
“I know the administrator of an ESL (English as a second language) school in Ottawa. Let me get the name of my friend to you. Maybe you see where that goes?”
“Thank you so much!”
Twenty-one years later, Mercy stands before us during the “Welcoming the Newcomer” session hosted by the Ottawa Lutheran Refugee Sponsorship Committeethis past Thursday, to tell us this story of her first welcome to Ottawa.
Because of the kindness shown by that nameless woman in Loblaws twenty-one years ago, whom she has never since met again, Mercy was able to find the emotional strength and resources to settle well and grow in her new country.
She said how much that simple encounter by the mango display made all the difference in the world to her, not only on that first day during the ice storm to help her through the loneliness and fear. But how important that encounter was for her development, networking and success-finding in her new home in Canada. Someone—a stranger to her— acknowledged her. And was genuinely interested in her.
Twenty-one years later she stands before us as the executive director of “Immigrant Women Services Ottawa”.
And it all started by a caring, open-hearted person asking, “What is your name?”
Indeed, what is our name? We have a family name sign in front of our house. In my first parish twenty-one years ago in the heart of farmland in southwestern Ontario, every house along the long and straight rural concession roads had one of these kinds of signs hanging or posted in the front yard.
Fast forward to today, I believe we are the only house in Arnprior, maybe even the whole of Ottawa, who has one. Obviously, it’s not a thing.
I understand Millennials prefer their private, cocooned lifestyles. I understand that, fueled by fear, we are hyper-sensitive about things like identity-fraud and being targeted by criminals. So, if there’s anything we can do NOT to be publicly identified or exposed, the better.
I wonder, though, how much we have, because of this attitude, dampened, even snuffed out, any collective heart-filled reaching out. Because before newcomers, or anyone for that matter, can get to know us and trust us, we need to be available, visible, transparent, accessible to them. In other words we cannot hide from others, and then say that we are welcoming.
I read this week that the first step to building an ethical culture in churches, in business and in society in general, is to let people be who they are. Without needing to persuade, sell something, impose our opinion or argue a point. Without believing they first need to conform before I/we will give them any time. Without needing to protect, defend and uphold my or ‘our’ way of thinking, fearful that any such approach means a loss of integrity or personal safety.
Letting people be who they are, first. Means an open heart. Means, listening first. Means, asking questions first. Means, listening for points of similarity – mangoes. And, then, when trust begins to build, going from there.
“I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you,” Wisdom says.I have the image of a couple of friends getting together at the end of a long day over drinks. And each takes turn pouring out their hearts to the other. Arms waving. Voices rising and falling with each impassioned response. Laughter. Silence. A mutual-inpouring!
I heard recently that each human being requires these two things to survive and thrive: unconditional love, and complete understanding. Both are met in this image from the Wisdom writings of the Bible. An intimacy that affords love and understanding to the partners involved in relationship.
Intimacy. God promises a deep and lasting connection within us. Despite our foibles, our missteps, our compulsions. God promises a deep connection within us despite our mistakes and failures.
Transparency, on the surface, goes only so far to the truth of who we are. You may see the name sign outside my home. You may see my license plate on the highway or city streets. This may be a good first step, I believe, to an honest transparency and invitation for conversation. But, that only goes so far.
When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, the question reveals more about the disciples than it does about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?”Jesus ask them, not because Jesus doesn’t know the answer himself but because the disciples are on a journey of growth with Jesus. These wayward disciples don’t often get it right on this journey. They miss the point of Jesus time and time again.
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is consistent with how the disciples are portrayed by the Gospel writer.And while Peter might I.D. Jesus correctly, while Peter can give Jesus his proper title and name—the Messiah—he still doesn’t understand what that name actually means in Jesus:
That this Messiah will suffer and die; that this Messiah will be rejected by the powerful, scorned by the knowledgeable, that this Messiah will be arrested a criminal, tortured and die a brutal death by capital punishment. And that this Messiah will rise again three days later. The disciples, Peter among them, do not really understand Jesus.
Just because we may know God’s name, doesn’t necessarily mean we know what is called of us under that name. Just because we can name Jesus and say the right words of faith doesn’t mean we get the follow-through right all the time. In another Gospel, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
Because, ultimately, our titles and our names only give us an entry point into who we are. Words, titles and names cannot capture the totality of who we are. As James so pointedly writes, the words we say by our tongue will get us into trouble; “though small, [the tongue] stains the whole body.”
Getting it right verbally isn’t what faith is about. It’s rather about experiencing God in our own lives and in relationship with others. Wisdom pours out her thoughts into us, not at us. God writes God’s law upon our hearts, deep within, despite our mistakes.This faithful following of Jesus is not just a function of our brains.
Intimate relationship with God and with others in Christ is a matter for the heart. We know God and we know truth not by the words we say or the names with which we identify, but by a deeper knowing marked by deeds and experiences of faith, hope, trust and love.
When the heart is in a good place, we start simply, in small ways, to see the other, reach out to them with a smile and a question: “What is your name?”
And God replies, “Mercy.”
Proverbs 1:23 NRSV
Mark 6:51-52; Mark 8:21; Mark 9:32; Mark 10:23-32,38; Mark 16:13
Matthew 7:21 NRSV
James 3:1-12 NRSV