This past weekend, I was given the opportunity to attend a refreshing, spirit filled retreat hosted by the American Baptist Women of the Northwest that focused on building unity within the church. As I perused the roster of attendees and speakers, listed in alphabetical order by church, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a small group of 12 of us that made up representatives from “other denominations”. As I worked my way through the various lines in the registration process, I steadily met those 11 other ladies and as we came together in a comfortable group one other thing quickly became apparent — we weren’t just representing our denomination, we were also the representatives of the “younger generation”. We were adrift in a sea of beautiful Baptist Grandmothers and lumped into a group and labeled “Young Adult Women” (something I haven’t been called since I crossed the super secret magical age barrier of 35).
Our registration packets informed us that we would be working on a special tract designed to develop leadership skills for the next generation of women. For a moment, I considered protesting. I groused and even pouted a tiny bit. After all, I’d come to experience the warm fuzzy stuff, dog gone it! I didn’t want to spend my retreat weekend working on being a better leader, I wanted to attend the breakouts on spiritual gifts, community outreach and missions work. I wanted to do the things that sounded like fun, not the things that sounded like work! I wanted what I wanted, not what those ladies wanted me to do! Alas, what I wanted didn’t matter because the good manners that both of my Grandmothers taught to me didn’t allow for me to argue with the “Grandmother in Charge” (she found the moniker was quite fitting so no raspberries please).
As the first leadership breakout session started we were pleasantly surprised to meet a group of ladies, all between the ages of 20 – 30, that hadn’t been listed on the roster. These ladies were refugees from Burma, now called Myanmar, who had made it to the United States with the help of a group of Missionaries. Their names had been omitted from the roster purposely, not because they are in the country illegally (I assure you it was all perfectly legal), but rather because their personal circumstances dictate that their location generally be protected until the political unrest in their home country is resolved.
As we sat facing each other across the tables, you could have heard a pin drop. It was clear that none of us were sure that we were capable of bridging the language gap. Finally, I heard one brave soul lean forward and ask her partner when her baby was due and that was all it took to get us started. As each of us became a little more confident that we could find a way to communicate with our activity partner the noise level rose, eventually becoming a din so loud that the group meeting in the next room had to shush us.
Around 4pm, I received word that the bus that Corina, my oldest daughter, was riding home from a school trip to Seattle in had broken down on the side of the road near Ellensburg. At first, I weathered this information well. While the kids weren’t able to get to hike to town from where they were, the charter bus company had already dispatched a replacement bus from Spokane and they expected to be back on the road within the next 3 hours and Corina promised to call when they were back on their way.
Assured it was no big deal, I set any lingering worry aside and returned to enjoying the retreat. Four hours later, I still hadn’t heard from Corina and my anxiety level started to slowly increase. I headed to the hotel lobby and tried to call for an update. Unfortunately, as teenagers do in these tech savvy days, she had killed her battery snapping pictures and watching YouTube videos and from the looks of the Facebook posts popping up from the other parents, so had most of the teens on the bus. At hour five, with no more information than I’d had at hour number one, I started pacing the lobby like a woman possessed and horrible images of semi trucks ramming into the back of the bus started coming to mind.
As I alternated between pacing and obsessively checking Facebook, I failed to notice the woman quietly pacing right behind me. As I had worried and wondered, I had unknowingly been joined by one of the Burmese women. Quietly, she paced beside me not knowing my situation but instinctively knowing that I needed support. As I turned to start my next loop, she looked up and smiled at me. “I have a daughter who is close to the same age. It can be scary”, was all she said before she resumed pacing in a circle around the oversized lobby with me.
For two more hours I paced with my phone in one hand and the comfort of my new friend by my side. We prayed for the safety of the kids and the sanity of the chaperones. We talked, as best we could, about trusting God with our worries and she watched me turn the situation over to God and snatch it back a couple dozen times. As her sisters from Myanmar came looking for her they quietly joined us in our pacing and our prayers became a sort of meditation as we awaited news.
Together we waited for a call from my husband telling me that Corina was safe and sound and when that call came, together we praised God for her safety. As I sat through the rest of the retreat, I couldn’t help but reflect on how God had taken a moment to show those of us who had paced a glimpse of what true unity can be. Those 12 Burmese women and I came together to bridge communication and culture differences to pray for the safety of 127 teenagers stuck on a bus 200 miles away. Despite our nationalities, despite our denominational differences, despite our own prejudices, we came together with a common goal and embraced prayer together. We were united. We were living out the things we were learning at the conference and we were an example of the unity that was being preached that weekend.
I spent the rest of the retreat with my new friends. I learned things about the plight of the Burmese people that I never knew that I needed to know. I discovered that they aren’t so different from you and I and that those differences are easy to set aside.
I’ve already decided that I will return next year, if only to see my new friends again. In the meantime, I’ll keep praising God for teaching me about unity in a way I would have never expected.