In 2014, I participated in a four-month Internship with Metro World Child in New York City. The experience was one of the most challenging, exhausting, but rewarding of my life thus far. But one instance, one moment left a crack in my heart like no other during those months.
Every Saturday I rode Bus 19 to bring kids to and from Metro Christian Center for Indoor Sunday School. The ride was short but chaotic with up to 60 kids ranging from 3 years to 13 years old, all scrambling for attention. I have to admit it was not a time I particularly looked forward to in my week.
And every week a young girl, around eleven years old, got on our bus looking sour-faced and edgy. Without fail I would utter the same instructions to her multiple times every bus ride: “sit back in your seat”, “stop screaming”, “back away from [insert child’s name here]” and so on. And without fail, I received the same responses: she argued back, she stomped her feet, she folded her arms tightly as she threw herself aggressively back into her seat.
That particular day was no different. If anything, she was even tenser. She clearly struggled to manage her anger and the slightest thing could set her off; I believe that day she was triggered because someone else had sat next to her. Regardless, we had the same verbal to-and-fro all the way to Sunday School. But I knew that the same offensive strategy would continue to produce the same results so, on the journey home, I decided it was time to switch my approach.
She had just been told off for the umpteenth time and had done the obligatory cross-armed throw-back into her seat. But this time she began punching the seat she was sitting on and I knew it was only a matter of time before her fists moved from upholstery to flesh.
I quietly walked towards her, put my hand on her back, and said in her ear, “gimme a hug.”
It could have gone either way, really; I wasn’t sure how she’d react. She could have made me her punching bag instead. But, as hoped, she lowered her arms and allowed me to hug her. I held her tightly for a couple of seconds then let her go, patted her on the back, and took a step back, thinking disaster had been averted.
But almost immediately, the other girl seated behind her who had been previously taunting her started up again. And so did the Rambo routine.
I bravely tried my new strategy again. More confident, this time, when I asked and, sure enough, she allowed me to hug her once more. This time I pulled her closer, hugged her tighter, and waited longer. After a few seconds I felt her whole body relax in my arms and when I released her she had a huge smile on her face. In the five weeks I had ridden the bus with her to and from church I had never seen her smile. But this wasn’t just a weak curve in her mouth; a wide grin broke across her face like a ray of sunshine piercing through the clouds on a stormy day.
We spent the remaining three minutes of the bus ride playing a game which she thoroughly enjoyed beating me at. It was a simple game but it provided her with an escape; having momentarily been able to bring down the defences that who-knows-what had caused her to put them up in the first place.
As she left the bus, I opened my arms for a final hug and she leapt into them and gave me a good squeeze.
As I reflected on this experience, I was reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:1. It says, “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” This young girl was not interested in anything I had to say because she had heard it all before. But when I softened my heart and approached her with love (instead of frustration or anger; emotions she was likely very familiar with) she was confronted with something different and her response changed also.
Though I easily communicated in English in New York (though not always with the desired effect), this verse has taken on a whole new meaning for me here in Germany. I often feel so ineffective and frustrated in my endeavours as I continue to battle with the language, but the Bible speaks of something far greater than words. We can talk, and declare, and announce until our voice breaks, but if our heart’s attitude does not reinforce our words, they will be fruitless. I may not speak the language well, but I can show love.
A smile. A polite gesture. An offer of hospitality or to help meet a need. These are tokens of love recognised the world over.
So let’s all take a moment this week to consider: Where could I show love where words have previously failed me? How could I serve someone this week by showing love? What attitude needs to change in me in order for my heart to be softened?
Love is the universal language that everyone understands and a small act of love can make a big difference. I didn’t know that young girl’s story. I didn’t know what she faced at home. I didn’t even know her name. But I do know that a simple demonstration of love made a significant impact on her that day.