Vanderveen Story pt. 2
Vanderveen Story pt.2
By Chase Vanderveen
We moved into the apartments on 51st and NW Radial Hwy out of obedience on January 6th. It was difficult to track down the landlord, and even after we had made an appointment to view the apartments, he had forgotten about us and didn't show up. I mentioned in the last blog post that there was every reason to say no to this place, but we knew Jesus was asking for our yes. We ashamedly lived for three years in our last apartment full of Americans and zero language barriers and never had a meal with any of them nor shared any more experiences than simply talking occasionally in the parking lot. We knew it would take getting far out of our comfort zones paired with tremendous effort to step into this place, build trust, get to know our neighbors intimately, and share the love of Jesus with them—all while overcoming a language barrier.
We prayed and prayed: “God, would you use us?” The first week here started off as hard as I expected. I was spending my days editing a wedding from the previous weekend (the only one I had planned for the whole year) and constantly questioning how I was supposed to reach out to my neighbors. The horrifying obstacle of language barriers, the awkwardness of just knocking on a stranger’s door with no warning and no point other than to come in and attempt to get to know them, the fear of rejection. It felt impossible. I justified doing nothing but “work” for Monday and Tuesday.
A God-Given Opportunity
Wednesday morning came. I was pouring a bowl of cereal in my pajamas and sitting down on my couch to edit photos around 9am when there was an unexpected knock at my door. It was two refugee women who had seen us move in days prior. One spoke more English than the other. In her broken English, I gathered there was leaking water in the other’s apartment. I put my breakfast down, grabbed my coat, and hurried over to her place. Sure enough, there was water leaking from her ceiling inside one of her kitchen cabinets. She had a bucket collecting the drippings. I called the landlord for her with no answer. I tried, in so many words, to explain I would keep calling all day until I heard back. I invited them both back over to my apartment in the meantime. They came, one even with her three–year-old son. They said sweet things like, “Apartment–beautiful!” and pointed at furniture they liked in my place, even though there were boxes everywhere and in my eyes the place looked nothing like “beautiful.” They returned to their apartments for breakfast, and I sat on my couch for a moment after they closed the door, taking deep calm breaths, and thanking God for His generosity in giving me an opportunity. Isn’t it amazing? I never had to perform. They came to me themselves—without my asking them to, without me having to do anything except trust.
That day I was able to get ahold of the landlord, and maintenance actually came the same day to fix the issue (something completely unheard of with this place–sometimes these refugees wait months before anyone comes to help fix the problems). I went back to her apartment to let her know I had heard from them. I entered the apartment to a beautiful breakfast scene: five Karen adults huddled around a table eating and talking. I happily emoted, “Ghwah Luh Ghay!” (my phonetic spelling of the Karen words for “Good morning!”) and their reaction was priceless. So many smiles, some laughter and even clapping! It filled my heart, seeing how knowing just one phrase in their language united us, turned me from a stranger into a friend, and built some trust. After a bit of time there, I realized I still had my shoes on (in Karen culture, guests leave their shoes outside the front door before entering). I pointed at my shoes and said, “I’m sorry!” They all laughed, exclaiming, “No problem!” Mya Thin, the woman's house I was in, was so very grateful. With both of the original women next to me, Hser Boe Paw, the woman who knows a little more English, translated by telling me, “Mya Thin says she is so happy you moved here.” And that’s when I knew. God didn’t need grand gestures on my part, He didn’t need me to be some perfect language-barrier-overcomer, and He certainly didn’t need me to be a hero. All God wanted was my heart (and Robbie’s too, of course), our willingness, and our complete “yes.” Every difficult moment in the weeks after arriving back in the States, all the tears it took to get me to move into these apartments all seemed worth it in this one moment.
It nearly brings me to tears to reflect on those first weeks here, because I truly was so oblivious to all the ways the Lord was preparing to bless us and use us in the coming months. And I was so selfish to believe I was the one who needed to be perfect for this calling. Jesus was and is everything we need already and all we had to do was let go of control and worry.
I started pretending to "check my mail" at the time of day I knew many of the moms would gather in the apartment courtyard to walk together to Rose Hill Elementary to pick up their kids from school in the afternoons. It was my strategy to sort of "happen to be outside at the same time they were" in order to spend time with them in a context that didn't require talking yet allowed togetherness. Their children already knew my face from our old weekly ESL class, so it helped the moms to trust me when their kids came out of the school doors screaming "Chase!!" excitedly as they rushed in for a hug. After more than a week of walking with these women each afternoon, God answered one of my long-term prayers. Hser Boe Paw, the woman I spoke of above, told me something like, "We are all afraid to ask you if you would teach us English some time. But I want to ask you that." She had no idea that question was the fulfillment of all my greatest prayers in this place. And just like that, I began teaching the very next morning.
The next five months would become the greatest adventure of my life, experiencing unspeakable joy and beauty in everything. I have taught English every day since then in my living room on my rug with my big white board. Many new faces have joined me since those first days in January. I teach in shifts throughout the day, and each woman who comes knows when her "class time" is and they always arrive just on time and stay as long as they can until the next woman arrives. Some are illiterate in their own language, so I'm teaching them from the very beginning—even skills like holding a pencil and understanding that symbols on paper (letters) correlate to sounds. Others are more advanced in their English and our time together looks like conversation practice and learning new practical vocabulary and challenging them to write their own sentences with those new words. It's been so much more than "English class" though. It's been moms coming over unannounced at any given time in the day, bringing their children to my home simply to sit on my rug with me and play together. It's been them bringing me their hearts, their messy and beautiful lives, and a willingness to share it with me. They are teaching me what it looks like to live in true community with others, where my home is their home and their home is mine. There's not a day that goes by that I'm alone in my apartment for longer than an hour. There's no knocking anymore, just coming in, sitting down, speaking the little we can to each other, and enjoying food and company with one another, or making phone calls, appointments, and problem-solving issues. It has been a true picture of Heaven for me, where we are a part of a family so diverse and are always welcome at the table.
I’m learning what it looks like to live generously even when you have so little. Here are people who struggle to feed all the mouths in their own homes yet they come to our door often with plates full of Karen food, grocery bags of avocados, oranges, bananas, or even boxes of cereal that they have bought for us. Three women even surprised me one morning with a visit to a home where they sell traditional hand-woven Karen dresses where they purchased me two of them (even though I was begging them not to spend their money on me—but it was their honor for me to have it and for them to see me wear it). It is in this kindness that I have seen the face of Jesus and understood better God’s heart for all people of all nations. Jesus came to the world to show us how loving our neighbor as ourselves, despite illness, race, wealth, etc. would radically change our hearts and the world around us. I see now His purpose for it—for His glory and for my good. It makes us better, it makes us stronger, and it makes us more like Christ.
Doing Life Together
All semester, children of all ages from multiple apartments came to our apartment after school before even dropping off their backpacks at home. Our living room became the space every day to get help with homework, to eat a meal with us, to share about their lives and what was going on at school, or to play games or draw or color. They'd stay from 4:15 until it got dark and their moms would call them back home. It happened nearly overnight. We never expected it, and without children of our own, we had no real preparation for it. But they were transforming our lives and hearts and I know God had prepared us in advance for this season without ever realizing it before. I have physically held them in their tears after they were bullied at school, and I have cheered them on when they got student of the week or did something kind to one another. We have laughed together, had dance parties, and they have confided in me fears and anxieties and vulnerabilities. I braided their hair every morning before school and was there to embrace them when they returned in the afternoons. Many friends donated old bridesmaids dresses in order for my low-income neighbors to get to go to prom in a beautiful free dress, and I was able to do their makeup and one of my best friends did their hair as if they'd gone to a professional. They had the most amazing time. Now it is summertime and we are outside every evening working in their gardens behind the apartment, playing hacky-sack and frisbee, and getting to know the middle and high schoolers much better. When I leave the apartment on any given night to spend time with friends, I have a hoard of children wrapped around my body trying to keep me from leaving. I even have middle and high school kids begging me not to leave, because "It's boring without you and Rob here." Doesn't this make you laugh? It makes me smile with great joy the way God has woven our lives alongside these people. They are gracious and fun and silly and joyful. And they are all beginning to know Jesus and speak about His great name. Three of the girls come to church with us every single week and have for months now. We've never asked them to come or told them they had to, but rather they ask us every week, "What service are we going to in the morning?" And are at our apartment every Sunday ready to go at the exact right time.
In the short amount of time we have been here, I have learned how to read the Karen script, and can speak very basically in their language. Although it has not been easy, I have seen the reward of speaking to someone in their heart language, especially a language so few people in the world speak or know about. Make no mistake about it, this has been the Lord's work and faithfulness, and I'm only at the beginning of what I pray will turn into something so much greater.
This post was very difficult to write because how can you do God's outstanding work justice in such few words? I have notes and notes on all the stories I wanted to flesh out for you all to hear and understand of all the things the Lord is doing in this place. But for now, this is just the surface of God's goodness revealed. I want to make sure I mention, none of this would have happened had we lived down the street in a nice comfortable home, had we said no to God and not actually moved into these apartments. It has been through being present daily, opening our door joyfully for the tenth time in our day to another neighbor even when we are tired, being flexible to cancel English class when another neighbor has a doctor appointment I need to take them to, calling Medicaid often for neighbors and asking lots and lots of questions because I am neither qualified nor knowledgeable, and it has required a sacrifice of privacy and less available time allotted for alone time with Robbie. We are still learning how to do all of this well, and I'm sure it will continue to be a learning curve throughout our time here, as long as the Lord continues to ask us to stay. But for now, I am praising God for a season I never expected, for His immeasurable gift that came in the most unfamiliar and unassuming package, and for the most incredible six months of my life.