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Unconditionally Welcomed

by Anna Ryan, Boston ’14
Saint Joseph’s University ’14
After School Program Coordinator, Casserly House

In many ways, communication has been the theme of my year in JVC. I have learned what good communication looks like—open, honest, based in active listening. I have learned what terrible communication is—hasty decisions, awkward follow-up conversations, relationship break-downs. I have learned and continue to learn how to listen, how to engage others in constructive dialogue, how to share and to hear others’ sharing. But perhaps most importantly, I have learned a remarkable amount about how to communicate without speaking at all.

I work at Casserly House, a neighborhood education center in Roslindale, where we provide adult English language and literacy classes, an after-school program, and participate in community organizing initiatives. Our morning adult students come from across the globe—about 20 different countries speaking 10 different languages. Each day I am challenged to re-conceptualize what it means to communicate with our students, some of whom don’t know much English beyond being able to share their name and where they are from. And somehow, despite frustrations presented daily, I have developed the most meaningful relationships with these students who have the smallest English knowledge, with those students with whom it is most difficult to conventionally communicate.

One student, Sadaka, is from Bangladesh. She’s been in the U.S. for two years, having moved here with her husband and children to escape the terrible work conditions in Bangladesh. She is the sweetest woman, cooking lunch every day after class for Sr. Nancy, my supervisor. But at the beginning of this year, I was convinced she hated me. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. She would ignore me when I said hello. Confused and slightly put off, I continued to smile at Sadaka each day she came for class, not knowing what else to do. “Hi Sadaka,” I’d say. “It’s good to see you today!” Usually with little response.

In December, we took some students to see the Nutcracker, including Sadaka and her daughter, who is my age. Once we entered the beautiful Opera House, our students were mesmerized, taking pictures all over the place. Sadaka’s daughter pulled me aside and asked me to take a picture of her with Sadaka next to a giant nutcracker. After I snapped the picture, Sadaka grabbed me by the arm and pulled me close to her, signaling for another student to take the camera from me. “Daughter,” she called me and smiled as the three of us had our picture taken together. As she pulled me close for a hug, I held back tears. Perhaps she had noticed all of that smiling I was doing every morning. How quickly I had assumed that her lack of a verbal response meant that she disliked me.

I have learned a million things about communication this year, and perhaps the most important has been through acknowledging the significance and power of nonverbal communication. A smile goes a long way, particularly in building confidence, courage, and community within the immigrant population. My friendship with Sadaka illuminates the power in simple actions shared between two people. Sadaka speaks up more in class now; her increasing confidence is hard to overlook. My friendship with Sadaka is one of many ways in which I have been humbled to become part of the Casserly House community this year. We do not save or help or serve or transform. Rather, we bear witness to the powerful transformation that occurs within a person when they are unconditionally welcomed. We grow together when we share a smile, a hug, a word of encouragement. We build each other up.

Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just “forgotten that we belong to each other.” This year, I have encountered the sameness between myself and the people who come to Casserly House, and have truly encountered God in these friends of mine. In sharing our lives with people living in poverty, we seek kinship. Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, writes that “Kinship is not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not ‘a man for others’; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.” For me, a smile has been the first step on the road to kinship with the people who have graced my life this year. Through compassionate (oftentimes nonverbal) communication, we continue to grow together.