Yesterday, I went back to visit my former apartments. The beauty and chaos of the 3-tiered brick-on-concrete low-income-housing buildings located right off the intersection of Colfax Avenue and Route 225.
Sandwiched between streets that have only letters for names, construction projects, and strip malls with cell phone stores, liquor marts, and fast-food joints are the Shadow Tree Apartments.
I suppose the name comes from the few scraggily evergreen trees clinging to life in the middle of the cement courtyards of “A” and “B” buildings.
I haven’t visited often this past year. Not as often as I’ve wanted to, and certainly not as often as I’ve thought to.
There was the time I showed up with bags of items to drop off that were given to me by my sister’s former roommate (the contents of which were quickly claimed and made new homes to grinning faces). I saw an 8th grader grin like the school-girl she was at the sight of a bag full of unwanted shoes. I saw the Gautam family, squatting in front of the row of mailboxes, weeding through weeks of mail splayed on the floor: coupons for pizza, bills they can’t understand, government papers they understand less…and smiling and nodding as their 5 year old daughter brought them small items, one at a time, from a donation bag she discovered before the others.
There was the sunny afternoon I arrived and helped assemble disparate pieces of a play set into a cohesive unit (a major victory) and then felt the joy of providing the smallest amount of dignity in sharing bottles of nail polish and painting the fingers of Nepali women who gather when we pull out our Ziplocs of nail accoutrements and settle ourselves onto the barren walkways between the front doors of homes. Cheryl joined me, and added to the beauty by braiding hair, helping with the play set, visiting one of the two Burmese families she has adopted, and offering her ever-gracious and loving presence.
There was the water-balloon fight that Innae and I had with a group of exuberant children when we took trash bags full of water balloons over on a partly cloudy July afternoon. Afterwards, those children who picked up the most pieces of multi-colored latex strewn about the parking lot were awarded Happy Meals, and the rest of them mini powdered donuts. All offered with prayers for good health, of course.
There was the handful of times I’ve stopped by since then for an hour or two and wished I had more to offer-of time, of energy, of self.
And then there was yesterday.
I had wanted to take some of the boys out hiking. The aspens are in the peak of their golden glow, the weather is still warm, the activity is one of my favorites. The girls have had nail parties and sleepovers and movies, so I figured we would try to have a day for the boys.
I visited several days ago in hopes of rallying some of the boys to be ready for a Saturday morning trip. The ebb and flow of children at the apartments, though constant, is unpredictable, and I didn’t locate most of the boys I was looking for. Furthermore, and of no surprise in this microcosmic sampling of the entire world, the boys have soccer every Saturday morning and wouldn’t be available until early afternoon.
Adjusting accordingly, I arrived mid-afternoon without a plan, availing myself to whatever would happen.
Immediately, I came upon Tha and her brother, Lay Paw, leaning into the door frame of a corner apartment in B-building, a paper, pencil, and tape measure in hand. Instantly curious, I approached to find out what they were up to.
On the paper was a blank chart- a list to be filled with children’s names, sizes, ages, heights, apartment numbers, and a contact phone number. It was made by a man we all know simply as “Mr. Jeff”.
Mr. Jeff is a kind and generous man who has come to visit the apartments consistently every Wednesday, for the last 3+ years, sometimes even more often, to fix children’s bikes. He threw a block party for them one time and gave out raffle numbers to donate “new” bikes to the kids. He has rallied his church to drive vans of children and families to his church for Sunday services, and now he was gathering information to collect winter coats for the children.
I immediately dived into the project with them, and for nearly 2 hours we walked around and filled the list. We stopped children walking by, and had them remove their shoes to measure how tall they were. We asked older siblings and aunts what phone number to reach them on. At one point, Lay Paw and a group of boys sprinted off to A-building because one of the younger boys we were sizing couldn’t remember his apartment number.
We marked size 4-5 for Anjila, with the beautiful deep brown eyes, dirty dresses, and the haphazard hair that’s always in need of combing. Size 6-7 for Hint, a whisper of a 10-year old boy who was wearing a size “4T” shirt. Size 4 for Bikram, a hilarious and spunky 6 year old who held up three fingers when we asked him his age. Fortunately Tha helped translate with his grandmother, clad in a brightly colored wrap, who giggled with us that Bikram misremembered his own age. We took down the sizes of the three Mahal children, returning with jugs of milk and other grocery items undoubtedly on their food stamp allowance, while their sweet mother, in a full-length Chador (Muslim head covering) pulled out their identity cards to help us spell their names.
Tired from 2 hours in the sun, we retired to Tha and Lay Paw’s home. When I lived 2 doors from Tha back in 2012, I would knock on her door to learn whether she was home, but avoid long visits because of the smell. Today, I was grateful for open windows and breezy air and time to sit with her family, and humbled to be reminded once again that my reality is so far removed from the reality of this family of 6 sharing a two-bedroom apartment.
Tha’s family, the Dah’s (Although not all family members share the same last name, I haven’t yet learned how that is determined), arrived in Denver when she was seven. She will tell you she is from Thailand, but her mother Day Lay, will tell you she lived in a Thai refugee camp for 11 years after fleeing from Burma- one of nearly 2 million Burmese from the minority ethnic group, the Karen, who have been persecuted and pursued and forced to flee their country since 1990, when the military Junta “launched a systematic offensive against the Karen.” (See http://worldwithoutgenocide.org/genocides-and-conflicts/burma )
Tha, now in 8th grade, showed me pictures of drawings she had done-designs for clothing she wants to make for herself. She wants me to take her to buy cloth for her outfits, and is saving up for the trip. According to Tha, their sewing machine works “sometimes” and I would be lucky to remember how to thread a machine, so we’ll buy cloth and cut and sew and probably laugh at ourselves at the way it turns out, but Tha will wear it around proudly nonetheless.
Suddenly changing subject in a way I’ve known only Tha to do, Tha asked me about why we, as Christians, get baptized, and if it meant that you had to remember all of the Bible when you did.
Among all refugees- the Karen people have some of the strongest faith I’ve ever seen. A Christian minority in a largely Buddhist country, their faith has been emblazoned as a result of the persecution they face, and I remember many times passing an apartment with 30+ adults gathered, singing familiar worship songs in an unknown language. Many times the sound of their voices and the evidence of their faith caused me to thank God for the unity of his family of believers.
While we discussed baptism and Jesus, and what it means to profess your faith, but not have to have all the answers, Lay Paw came and joined us. A handsome 23 year-old with a quiet, patient spirit and friendly demeanor, he sat in a rickety wooden chair and listened a little while before he joined the conversation.
To the best of my recollection, Lay Paw started by telling me he had dreams about Jesus. In one of his dreams, Jesus showed him that he was bringing refugees to America (he paused, struggling to pronounce “repugees” and gave a sideways look at Tha, who nodded) because we need them here. For their faith.
In a piercing way I cannot describe, I felt what he was saying. THEY are the poor in this world who are rich in faith. They understand what it is to be without, and yet to be content in any circumstance. They are the widows who donate their last mite. They live community, and practice hospitality, and love Jesus with an unabashed shamelessness. They are the meek who will inherit the earth. They are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, and theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5)
As simply as I could hope to express it, Lay Paw said, “I don’t like religion, only Jesus” He talked about how businesses and government and religion separate people, and hurt people, oftentimes over money. At one point he said, “I hate money.” And stomped on the floor as if smashing the serpent –head of currency underfoot and declared, “Jesus hates money.”
And I can’t help but agree. In so many ways I am hard-pressed to describe. Maybe your immediate reaction is that “Jesus doesn’t want us to be in need” but I would contend he wants us to be aware of our need of him-whether through provision of funding, friendship, greater faith, healing, or even renewed dreams for the stories he has written on our hearts.
For the thousandth time, I was grateful to have spent time with the residents of the Shadow Tree Apartments, and this time in particular, with the Dah family. Talking about Jesus with them DOES renew my realization for my need of Jesus, and the more time I spend with those this world sees as “needy” the more they help me to unbury my own dream- to learn their stories, to learn from them, to gather the richness of their stories and their lessons and their wisdom, and to share them with a world-with an America-that needs refugees (and homeless and immigrants) to relearn how to need Jesus.