This was a different Christmas for us.
We are participating as a host family in Christmas International House, a program that our congregation has been part of for three years. Christmas International House was started by a minister who realized that in his college town, many international students had no place to be during the Christmas break when the dorms were closed, and he found out that many international students studying in the United States never spend time in an American home.
The program has grown, and this year there are 25 sites around the United States, offering hospitality to international students during the Christmas break. This program is not an evangelistic outreach, but one of Christian hospitality seeking interfaith understanding. Through our congregation, Fort Mill is one of the sites. There are six students here this year, four from Japan, one from China, and one from Pakistan. Included in their activities here are a Bobcats game, the Panthers/Saints game (church members donated their tickets!), ice skating, bowling, going to the movies, attending worship services, and participating in family life at their hosts’ homes.
Our family has hosted one student from Japan, and the student from Pakistan. They are studying at universities in Arkansas and Virginia. We learned something of family life in Japan, and have watched Minagi produce the most elegantly wrapped Christmas presents in the history of our family as she helped me wrap gifts. This gentle, soft-spoken young woman who is talented at origami worked hard not to laugh at my rather careless wrapping process. We spoke of Christmas in Japan, which has become a cultural holiday much like the cultural Christmas of the United States, with Santa and songs and gift giving. This beautiful young woman embodies the grace and humility of Japan.
It is Lina who has produced the most surprises and theological challenges. She is a young woman from a small village in rural Pakistan, the youngest of seven daughters and one son in her very conservative Muslim family. She has taught us a lot about life in her family and in Pakistan, and expectations of her there. Watching six older sisters live into the expectations of their culture, as most of us do, Lina decided that an arranged marriage at a young age was not for her. And so she finds herself in an American university, geographically and relationally isolated from her family, questioning everything.
And thus I find myself, on the road to McAdenville and the Christmas lights, answering the question, “So what is Christmas?” And I tell the Christian story of Jesus and his birth, and a date tied to the pagan celebration of the winter solstice, and I tell the story of St. Nicholas and gift giving, and I tell how those things all morphed into the cultural consumerist chaos of Christmas in America. And she comes to worship service on Christmas Eve, and asks what will happen, and I tell her of broken bread and a shared cup and how the story of the baby at Christmas looks as if it will end on a cross, but then resurrection happens. And we talked of how the Christian Christmas story is incomplete without the story of a death and resurrection.
And she asks why the old stories are important? For it seems to her, the old stories of Judaism and Islam and Christianity lead to hatred and fighting and thousands of years of war. Wouldn’t it be easier just to live into new stories, and leave the old stories behind? And so we talk of ancient people trying to make sense of their lives and reality, trying to make sense of the power that’s beyond themselves, and we talk of the universal aspect of so many of the old stories of people choosing hatred over love, warfare over peace, self interest over the good of the community, and that God pursues us with love in spite of all our bad choices. And we talk of what we can learn from those old stories that might teach us how to live into new reality.
And so I pray, for Lina as she seeks the path for her life, and for all of us, that indeed we might learn from the old stories to live into the reality of God’s unfailing love and of God’s desire for us to learn from each other and to live in peace.
The Rev. Dr. Joanne Sizoo is pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill, near the intersection of Hwy 160 and Gold Hill Road. Contact her at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.