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What Language are You Speaking?

(Adapted from a sermon by the same name)
By Jessica Chapman

Jessica ChapmanAt the beginning of this year I was privileged to travel to India with a group of classmates. The objective was to experience Christianity as a minority faith in a predominantly Hindu country. I want to tell you about Selwi and Peter, two people I met while I was there.

My first week in India I stayed at a seminary’s guesthouse; it was a beautiful house with bay windows and wooden fans. It had a shaded front porch with rocking chairs where my classmates and I would look out to see palm trees with ripe fruit hovering over grazing chickens. We would sit welcoming the cool jasmine scented breeze meeting us after a long day in the Indian sun.

Selwi and Peter worked at this guesthouse. And their presence there was refreshing. During the day we would travel to various sites, engulfing ourselves in Indian culture but when we returned back to the guesthouse, we were always glad to see their faces. We felt like we were returning home. Upon our return they would greet us at the door with chai tea, sweet oranges, and smiles. Selwi and Peter took their jobs very seriously; they stayed on the seminary’s campus in return for their work. You see they are of the Dalit. The Dalit are outcasts or untouchables in the Hindu social structure. Many Dalit, facing oppression within the Hindu caste system, converted to Christianity to find liberation, to find their voice, to be counted. The Christian seminary where we were staying stands as a refuge for the Dalit in South India, devoting themselves to the total liberation of these people, devoting themselves to uplifting the oppressed, devoting itself to stand as the Church and speak peace, speak love, and speak justice into the world on behalf of the marginalized.

In God’s infinite wisdom, God empowered the Apostles to speak up and speak out in different languages to reach the multitudes. (Act 2: 1-21). They spoke to people in their own languages so the people could truly understand God’s message for them. Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

Selwi and Peter could have spoken to me in their language of Tamil, in the few words that I understood, but to speak to my heart, they spoke to me in the language of hospitality, in the language of love. I was aware that every morning Peter arose before daybreak, and barefoot rode his bicycle to the nearest markets and gathered the freshest fruits, the freshest eggs, and even chickens, that were a little more fresh than I anticipated, stacked them on his bike and began the long and heavy trek back to the guesthouse. I would just watch as Selwi, already awake, washing the front porch or cleaning the kitchen, awaited Peter’s return; she would take the food Peter brought in, and spend all day preparing meals for us to eat. Each meal was an assortment of chutneys, curries, and breads. Each ingredient was grown locally, rice from the fields off in the distance and herbs and spices from the garden down the street; and each one of these items mixed, and stirred, and patted together by Selwi’s own hands.  Every day she prepared her table for us. Nourished us. With no words she offered us our meals. They could have spoken in a language that I barely understood, but they spoke to my heart.

Their presence in the guesthouse, the care they took to ensure our nourishment, to ensure our safety, to ensure our well being, was a language in and of itself. Their very presence in our lives, welcoming us home, preparing our table, was a language in and of itself. You see I can understand a little bit of Tamil, but it was a different language that was speaking volumes.

Just as the apostles’ lives changed because of their relationship with Christ, witnessing the Holy Spirit and speaking out into the world, just looking into Selwi’s and Peter’s eyes told the story of them witnessing the liberating powers of God, witnessing their freedom from oppression as the Dalit, as the untouchables, witnessing them finding their dignity and their pride from their relationships with Christ. And taking this witness out into the world, speaking the language of love, speaking the language of hospitality, speaking the language of extravagant welcome and radical kindness to all they encountered. If they spoke to me in Tamil I would not have understood, but as the Church, as God’s people, existing with the Holy Spirit in their midst, they spoke to my heart. Speaking in a language that I could see God’s deeds and powers in their lives. Speaking in the language that the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak.

With words or actions, with deeds or with works, what language are you speaking?

Jessica Chapman is a Seminarian at Wake Forest University and will graduate in May, 2014. She is a member of Christian Fellowship Congregational Church, UCC.

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