When I was in college, I majored in special education with a concentration in elementary education and an undeclared minor in art. The second year of my undergraduate work, we students were farmed out to several education facilities in the area.
Since I majored in special education, not only was I required to have experience in a variety of educational facilities that served special needs students, I was also mandated to experience alternative educational programs. Once such program served students living in an emergency shelter. These students, with their mothers, escaped abusive home environments and were living temporarily in the shelter until their moms could establish themselves with housing and a job.
As a student educator, my role was to assist all school-age children with their academic studies. The students went to a local public school and came in the evening to the shelter to be with their mothers. My role was that of “after school tutor.” I would sit with a dozen or so students, help them work on their homework and assist them with anything that was needed.
When I first came to work in this manner, there was a two-year-old Haitian child named Moïse who escaped with his mom after his father brutally beat her. She truly feared for her and her son’s lives. When Moïse first saw me (at the time I had waist-long blond hair in ringlets), he pointed at me and screamed, “Famtun!” I looked at his mom, who embarrassedly told me that the word he called me meant “ghost” in Creole. She explained that Moïse had never seen a person with long blonde hair and blue eyes before.
I quickly learned that my ministry at this shelter was not merely as an after school tutor but also a sounding board for the battered women, a playmate for the children who were below school age, and a confidant for the older children that I tutored. The women and children taught me about the resilience of the human spirit and the desire for a better life, one free from abuse.
Even Moïse taught me something, and no, not the Creole word for ghost! You see, before my time at the shelter was over, I was playing on the floor with one of the children. Moïse snuck up behind me and touched my blond hair. I smiled as I let him play with it. He was captivated by its texture. He would pat it and murmur things in Creole. I asked his mom what was he saying and, with a huge smile, she said, “Golden friend!” I knew then that in his eyes I was safe.
I could not help thinking of this story as I continue my series on listening. Kay Lindahl, author of The Sacred Art of Listening: Forty Reflections for Cultivating a Spiritual Practice, reminds us that when we slow down and become quiet, we can actually listen to others more deeply. Doing this creates a sense of the sacred. From this sacredness we can empathize and understand what might be a completely foreign experience. From this sacredness, we can “profoundly relate to others, especially those whose beliefs [and culture] are different from our own.” 1
This is what, at least in part, has been the “gift” of COVID-19: a discovery of the sacredness of silence in the moment. From that sacred silence, God has birthed within my heart graces in abundance. How much I so wish that this column had a chat component. I am sure that He has gifted you with graces that have really been “golden!”
1Lindahl, Kay. The Sacred Art of Listening: Forty Reflections for Cultivating a Spiritual Practice. SkyLight Paths Pub., 2002. Pg. 68-70.
By Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, Special to The Witness