Once We Were Strangers

Oh, this book. Be still my heart. Shawn Smucker has created a work of beauty with this book, while setting out to tell the story of one Syrian family and their journey to America (Lancaster, Pennsylvania).

This memoir was written in such a way that it will draw you into the lives of Mohammad and Moradi and their children as Smucker tells the story he’s been told of what it took to get them safely to the United States. But it will also challenge you to think about how you do life with the people around you as well. The tagline of the book is What friendship with a Syrian Refugee taught me about loving my neighbor.

Several times throughout the book, Smucker encourages, sometimes overtly and sometimes just by nature of the story he’s telling, that we think about the way we live our very private Western lives. There were a number of times throughout the book that either Mohammad or Shawn would remark that there are all of these people living around us and we don’t even know them. Mohammad’s story highlighted in a few places that this was not his experience in Syria, that they would spend hours drinking coffee with their neighbours.

I’ve had that very experience myself with a Syrian family who had newly arrived to Canada. Once we’d gotten acquainted, it became very clear to me that my busy, packed to the brim life was not what they were used to. They are hospitable, loving, and welcoming people who want to be friends with those around them. Real friends. Not a quickly passing “hey how are you?” “good, thanks” kind of friends.

What I loved most about this memoir is how real it felt. It helps, I suppose, that I have experience discovering how beautiful my Syrian friends are, but that was truly brought to light in this book. I learned things I didn’t know, as well. I’m not sure who’s to blame, whether it’s our own fear, the media, or a combination of both — but I’ve always thought of the Middle East as this place that is perpetually torn apart by war. It sure feels like they’re always at war with someone over there, and our media outlets don’t lend us anything to make us believe otherwise. But Mohammad describes a time of peace. He says “I was born in 1971. In 1973, there was a war between Syria and Israel, but I do not remember it, and I never saw it. No one in my village ever saw that war. This is the first I have ever seen, the first war my village has ever seen. And now it is a war not against my enemy but against my friend. Fellow Syrians. Why is this happening? I don’t know.” (p. 140)

I can’t imagine what I would do if all of a sudden one part of Canada was at war with another, and you couldn’t trust the government anymore. I can’t imagine the fear, the terror — especially if you have a family to take care of. Mohammad tells of coming home one day to find a chunk missing out of his house that was taken out by a mortar blast. Shortly after, he knew he and his family had to leave, and this book was borne out of their story.

I’m glad I got to read this book. It made me thankful for the peace that I do have, and it opened my eyes once again to the idea that if I were in a place where I was running for my literal life, I would hope that some country somewhere would take me in and treat me kindly. That was not this family’s experience everywhere they went, but I’m sure glad they were able to find friends in Shawn Smucker and his family.

If you’re looking for a way to humanize the Syrian Refugee Crisis, this book will do that for you. It will give you fresh perspective and clearer eyes. Especially as the crisis fades into the background and becomes “old news” despite the fact that it continues to be a problem, books like this will become so fundamental in helping us remember the human side of the crisis.

One part really stuck out to me. There’s a part near the end where Smucker starts to address the feelings of fear he could see evident in those around his new friends. I’ll leave you with this quote, so that the power of it can hang around long after my writing does. He says:

“A few of my relatives and friends have no problem with a refugee ban. They believe danger lurks in the hearts of these landless, homeless people. I realize, perhaps for the first time, that they might be correct. It is possible that in the midst of 60,000 refugees entering the United States, there could be one bad apple. There could be someone who has been so bent by the pain in their life that they want to seek some kind of revenge.

It is possible.

But should our fear of that one keep us from providing refuge to thousands like Mohammad and his family? Are there enough restrictions or safeguards in the world for us to put in place that will guarantee, 100 percent, that nothing bad will happen to us? Even then, evil already lurks among us, as we have seen so many times before. In the face of real evil, should we not provide refuge for families like Mohammad’s?

Should our fear overpower our love?”

p. 174

Book was provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.


Made for the Journey: One Missionary’s First Year in the Jungles of Ecuador

This book holds some kind of funky timing for me. I’m a firm believer that sometimes books find you exactly when they need to, even if you’ve been in possession of them for a while. Sometimes you pick them up right at the right moment. I think this was one of them.

I was sent this book to review it, which always makes me happy. Further, it’s non-fiction, which tends to be what I gravitate toward most of the time. Even when I find myself on a fiction run, I always go back to my deep, thought-provoking non-fiction.

Anyway, I received this book at the end of December 2018. I have until February 28, 2019 to finish and review it. I didn’t take it out West with me on vacation over Christmas, and I’ve taken my sweet time getting it and my other two reviews finished. I realize it’s only February 2nd so I still have time, but I digress.

I read half of Made for the Journey while I was off work a couple weeks ago recovering from surgery, and it was a little heavy for that particular time in my life so I put it aside.

I picked it back up yesterday though, and it’s remarkable to me how perfectly the end of this book applies to what I’ve been learning about in church this week. I wish I’d read it before home church on Thursday. Whoops!

Anyway, it’s a memoir written by Elisabeth Elliot, author of a number of books. She was an American missionary to Ecuador in the 1950s as well as a speaker and author. She writes about her first year as a missionary to the Quichua people near Quito and San Salvador (in the book she refers to them as the Colorados, but I’ve learned through a bit of my own research that that’s the name this group of people was given by the Spanish and it means “coloured red….” so I think I’ll opt for the more traditional one I found. I hope it’s right!)

It is written as though you were sitting and listening to Elliot give a presentation of her time. Part of me wishes there were pictures, but she described everything in such efficient detail that even as someone who has a hard time picturing what’s happening in books, I often felt as though I could see what she’d seen.

What she’d seen was dramatically different from the life she’d left in Pennsylvania, and I can’t say that I think I’d be tough enough to handle it. I like to think that I am, but deep down I fear I’m probably not as tough as Elisabeth Elliot was. She’s a woman to be respected and admired, that is for sure! The lengths to which she and several other friends/fellow missionaries went to to bring the Bible to a people group with no written language of their own was both inspiring but also heartbreaking. The trials of every day life living in the jungle were taxing and arduous, but it seems as though they managed.

I am not doing this justice, at all, I’m afraid. But I do highly recommend this book. Where it really hit home for me was the connection I feel I can now make between how Elliot wraps up the book, talking about some of the things that just fell apart for her. It felt like a lament to me. At my church, we’ve been studying a few Psalms in a series called Honest to God about praying from the Psalms. Last week’s message was based in Psalm 89, where Ethan, the author of this Psalm, basically calls God out for seeming broken promises that he sees all over the place. We talked about how we can’t see the end of what God is doing, but if you look through the rest of the Bible, you see that every promise Ethan was upset about, God had later fulfilled. It just hadn’t happened yet. Some of the language that Elliot uses to talk about some of the things that went very terribly near the end of the book sounds like she understood that lament is not equal to rebellion, and that she could be confused and angry and hurt and upset, but still trust that God is in control and knows what He’s doing.

This book was previously published as “These Strange Ashes” and there is a reference in this version that talks about that.

Book was provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.

I Will Not Fear

Fear has been a topic that’s been following me around lately.

We’ve done sermons on it at church.
I’ve read a book about it (Fierce Faith by Alli Worthington ~ fantastic book!).
I’ve had conversations with friends about it because lately it seems my life is a wee bit characterized by it.

I was given the opportunity to read and review a book called “I Will Not Fear” ~ A book written by a lady named Melba Patillo Beals.  She was one of the nine African American students chosen to integrate into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.  I can’t imagine what life would have been like — to have felt so unwanted, so other, so less than… and such fear!  I have studied American history, and I am aware of the records of what it was like in the 50s and 60s, leading to the Civil Rights movement.  I’ve read of the Klan, of the death threats….. but what I hadn’t read, until now, was someone’s first hand account.

This book will grab you and make you hold on tight.  The story this woman tells of how she was a “first” at so many things in her life — trying to integrate into a society that thought segregation was the only way to live, going to university, going to grad school, being a single mom, getting jobs where she felt “other” not only because of her skin colour but also because of her gender — it’ll grip you.

I know I’ve experienced a great deal of fear in my life, but as I read this I realized I’ve really had very little to actually be afraid of.  That’s not the point of the book, however, because Melba offers the wisdom she learned from her Grandmother throughout, and with every story of some sort of atrocious experience that would surely knock my foundation down at the knees, she tells of how she trusted God, trusted Jesus, and lived as though the protection of God were real (and it is)!

One of my favourite parts of the book, and what I found most encouraging, were the little nuggets of summary that she included at the end of each chapter.  My story may not resemble that of Melba Patillo Beals’ in any way.  I’ll never know what it’s like to live her story.  But I do know what it’s like to live mine, and fear has no place here either.  I can take just as much encouragement from her words, and from how she did not bow to fear, as anyone else can.

“… no matter what threatening evidence appears to be true, we need not fear because God is always beside us.” (p. 165)

“As complex and dangerous as a predicament may be, God is as close as our skin.  Although peril feels like forever, God is here now.  He will guide us through the jungle of fear, if we only listen and obey.” (p. 189)

I highly recommend this book.  It’s not long, only 200 pages, so it’s a short read.  And it’s written in a way that leaves you wanting to hear more of Melba’s story, to know that it comes to a happy ending just like we always wish.  Melba Patillo Beals is a remarkable woman of faith, and we would all do well to stand in the face of adversity and fear like she did and declare “not today.”


Book was provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.