The news came – I would be spending my 7-week InterVarsity urban program in Chirilagua, a Latino immigrant community between Alexandria and Arlington Virginia. I would be living in Casa Chirilagua, an intentional community (and newly forming not-for-profit) and would be helping with Kid’s Club and any other ministry needs for the summer. I had so many questions: What would Chirilagua be like? Would the Spanish-English language barrier be a problem, or would it be a chance to grow? Who would I meet and what would they teach me? Who would God bring into my life, and how would He use them to challenge me? So began a summer of challenges – a summer of questions – a summer at Casa Chirilagua!
I have a new friend named Selena. She is in the second grade and has taught me a lot about living in Chirilagua since I met her. I first met Selena when I was walking around the apartment complex where many of the neighbors live, and the original location of Casa Chirilagua with Dawnielle. We were just visiting some people to check in, and as I had already discovered, there are no quick, impersonal conversations in Chirilagua. The residents here, many from El Salvador, carry with them their strong Latino culture, including an emphasis on relationships and community. So, a quick question often becomes a 15-30 minute life check. (I have learned to slow down and listen more as a result of this cultural difference!) That night, we had been to several houses already, and when we arrived at Selena’s house, Dawnielle was met with a HUGE hug from her. I could tell that Selena and I would become fast friends, as I too love to give and receive hugs! As the weeks have passed, Selena now recognizes me and has grown to trust me more as we traveled to vacation Bible school together, and then as we got chances to play during free time at Kid’s Club.
One morning at Kid’s Club, Selena began to cry. We had been talking about brothers and sisters, and one of the little boys in Kids Club had been making fun of her. In an attempt to figure out what was going on, Selena and I went outside to talk, where she cried, “ I don’t know if my baby brother has been born yet.” Helen has a step-brother on the way in Guatemala, but didn’t have any way of knowing if he had been born yet. I was caught off guard by her situation. You see, there are many “broken” families in Chirilagua – broken because one family member is here in the United States and another is in his/her home country (El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua just to name a few), broken because there are few 2-parent families in the neighborhood, broken because family members have passed away, and broken because of stress that infiltrates all aspects of life for immigrants in the United States. That morning, I saw the pain that this kind of brokenness can cause, as she tried to sort through what the word “family” meant to her. As we talked, I was reminded of how important it is to recognize that in God’s eyes, we are all brothers and sisters, and we are all one family of believers. I have carried that truth with me this summer, as I found myself praying against feeling “sorry” for the residents of Chirilagua. Despite our different cultures and histories, Selena and I are sisters in Christ. Despite the family that I come from and my norms/traditions, I am a sister to these neighbors God has placed me among. With that in mind, my whole approach to the summer shifted, as Chirilagua became less of a mission field, and more of a neighborhood with a whole lot of family to get to know. Relationships became more important than any service or gift I could offer. What a gift to be reminded that God designed me to be in his family – what a blessing to have the opportunity to meet this part of the family for the first time!
Selena and I shared another precious moment together about half-way through my stay at Casa Chirilagua. One night, we went to meet some of the ladies to play basketball together. Among those ladies was Selena’s mom (and Selena!). Just before the game began, Selena came up to me and tugged on my arm. She leaned up and asked, “Miss Laura, could we have some girl talk?” I gladly accepted the invitation and we went off to talk. Now, in my experience, “girl talk” usually turns into boy drama or a little gossip about a friend. Selena, however, had a different idea in mind, as she began our “talk” with a firm “Let’s talk about Jesus!” We spent the next hour or so talking about Jesus and many different stories from the Bible. As I think back to that night, I am struck by how normal it was for her to ask me if we could talk about Jesus. I can’t help but wonder why I don’t ask more people if we can talk about Him? Two years ago, when Dawnielle, Emily and Julia arrived to Chirilagua, Selena had likely never heard of Jesus. I think our girl talk that night stands as a powerful testimony to the ministry of Casa Chirilagua and the ways that God is at work in the hearts and minds of the Chirilagua residents. I like to think that God was whispering to me through Selena’s small voice that night – my life was created that I might love others and share the love of Jesus with them. Despite a hectic school schedule or a need to achieve what society labels as “success,” I leave Casa Chirilagua with a powerful challenge for the future: to make my life and my future career about sharing the good news of Christ…to make God my center and to trust that He has a plan and a purpose for me. I thank God for the past 7 weeks, and the many questions he has laid on my heart. I thank Him for the family I have met and the community I have been invited into. And I praise Him for being my protector, my provider, my father and my friend!