A few friends and I recently went down to the Emergency Family Shelter in Belltown to serve homeless families for the evening. The EFS is a place of refuge for women and children who have experienced loss and domestic abuse and are trying to get back on their feet. We were eager to support, serve and bless these families.
The majority of the women and children we spent time with that evening were Somali refugees. They greeted us with big, beautiful smiles. The children had been staying there for weeks with nowhere to go and were excited to have someone to play with. The mothers, each of whom had between 2-4 children, likely felt the same.
We played games with the kids, sang songs, ate dinner with them and listened to their stories. They told us of fleeing war-torn Somalia, leaving everything they had ever known to immigrate to the United States. Their fathers had abandoned them, some of them had faced abuse and when they’d landed in Seattle, chasing rumors of a large Somali population, their families had had literally nothing in their pockets.
It was sobering to hear their stories of trial, struggle and fortitude. We’d arrived thinking about the great opportunity this was to serve these families, but while we were there, something funny happened. We were the ones who were served.
Often, when we citizens of America come across these stories of need, they become an impetus to celebrate and give thanks. We thank God or our lucky stars that we have so much; that we are not like this refugee who has nothing. We center our thankfulness around our material wealth, believing that it is our life source.
But what I observed that night was the life coming out of those Somali families.
They had been through so much, yet were so joyful. They were staying in a shelter in Belltown, yet gave so much thanks for the life that they had. Their self-worth wasn’t tied to their net worth, but the strength of their souls.
It brought to mind a woman I met in Haiti on a mission trip a few years back. Living joyfully, in abject poverty, she had turned to me and said, “I’ve been to America before, and I feel sorry for you. All the distractions, temptations and lures of money and fame that can seduce all around you. Here in Haiti, I don’t have much, but I’ve got God and not all the distractions that keep me from a vibrant life with him.”
This year, as I gather around the Thanksgiving table with my wife and three little girls, my heart and head will remember those Somali women and children, and we will give thanks – not for the physical things that we have, but for a life spilling over with love and spiritual wealth.