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Faith Calls Us to be Neighbors: “Welcome” Has No Language Barriers


Editor’s note: As part of FMS’ 2017 Advent blog series, missioner Maggie Van Roekel describe a time when she was patiently welcomed by her students in Carmen Pampa despite the challenges of the language barrier.

When I think about being welcomed, one of the biggest ideas that comes into my mind is my first few months as an English teacher in Carmen Pampa.

To put it honestly, when I arrived, my Spanish skills were…non-existent. I remember the first day walking into the classroom with my “classroom rules,” written out before-hand in Spanish. I remember nervously stumbling through these rules as 40 new faces stared at me.

When I finished reading the rules, several hands shot up. By the time that hour was up, my mind was a jumbled mess and I honestly don’t know that my blood pressure has ever been higher.

On the second day of class, I felt I had learned from my mistake. I wrote out a very detailed lesson plan in Spanish, trying to include answers to many anticipated questions. I had my community-mates check over my notes, and I practiced speaking with them.

When I began class that day, I started by explaining an activity that we would be doing. I gave it my best shot in Spanish, hoping beyond hope that it would be understood. When I finished explaining, I was met with….blank stares. I panicked. I tried again.

This time, Isabel, a second semester nursing student stood up, and asked to look at my explanation. With an “aaaahhh,” her face lit up and she smiled at me before pointing to a few words and having me repeat after her to get the pronunciation. She then proceeded to explain to the class what I wanted them to do, and they immediately followed.

In the days that followed I began to find that it wasn’t just Isabel who was helpful. Many of the students, in fact, were more than willing to help me out. When I made big grammatical errors, they gently corrected me. When I talked to them outside of class, they gave me time to speak slowly and kindly corrected some, well, embarrassing word mistakes.

While I’m sure it was incredibly frustrating to have a teacher who often times had no idea how to answer their questions and who so often had to open the handy-dandy Spanish-English dictionary, my students were extraordinarily patient with my slow responses and my pretty consistent use of “¿Como?”, the equivalent of “Huh?”.

Isabel and the rest of the students in that English 1 Nursing class showed me what it means to show welcome and feel welcomed. Those students showed me that welcome has no language barriers, that welcome means giving your time and energy even when it’s frustrating, and that welcome means sharing your heart with those you don’t yet know.

In the end the “welcome” was found in the compassion the students showed, the willingness to go from student to teacher. The welcome I found was an invitation to relationship, and for that I will always be grateful.

Reflection question: When was a time you had to overcome a language barrier despite it’s challenges?

Through listening the stories of our marginalized brothers and sisters, Maggie seeks to gain new perspectives on joy and hope across different backgrounds. Her passion for disability social justice grew out of numerous experiences working with individuals with disabilities, including three summers at an Easter Seals camp. Maggie grew up in Iowa and studied health science at the University of Iowa.