Clarkston, Georgia is the epitome of diversity. If you ask me, it’s comparable to being at the airport, the Olympics, or a United Nations meeting. There are people from literally all across the globe. But the thing about Clarkston is that here you find people of all ages from all different countries living in the same CITY. In the same apartment complex, even. When I step outside of my apartment, I can run into a Nepali man in a colorful wrap skirt, an Iraqi woman wearing her burqa, a Somalian family piling into a worn-down sedan, and a swarm of barefoot Eritrean kids within just a few yards. This is Clarkston life.
Clarkston is this way because it was chosen a while ago to be the relocation center for millions of refugees coming into America. These refugees come from lives of chaos, danger, persecution, and rough conditions in countries such as Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda. And they’re squeezed together into this one square mile south of Atlanta.
A lot of the refugees here aren’t fluent in English or even know the alphabet. They struggle to find jobs and pay rent. Homesickness is the least of their worries. They come here with nothing and are expected to thrive when the most they can do under this pressure and in their situation is simply SURVIVE.
I’m spending my summer in Clarkston (for the second time) because 1) these refugees need love, and 2) these refugees need Jesus. I’m working with an organization that strives to provide those two things in the form of ESL classes, summer camps for kids, gardening, prayer, and day-to-day conversations.
But not until today did it occur to me that they have something to offer me, as well.
This morning, my roommate Hannah and I stumbled across a scene we had never seen: an Iraqi woman with her young daughter, an Eritrean woman with her special needs son, and a Nepali woman with her infant… sitting on the same bench and conversing. We approached the three women and joined in on their conversation to the best of our ability. Do you know what they were talking about? How much our apartment complex stinks. They’re unhappy with the complex manager and how they’re treated. With kids in lap, through broken English and thick accents, they were engaging in a dialogue about these irritating and discouraging experiences.
And there was something beautiful about the way these three very different women were taking turns shaking their heads in disbelief, nodding in agreement, and sharing these burdens. Never mind the fact they come from various war-torn countries and different faiths and backgrounds. They just wanted to sit together and bond as next-door neighbors, as mothers.
In that moment I felt like I knew nothing.
I’m a not-even-twenty-year-old who has much to learn about independence, financial burdens, marriage, and raising a family. If I were to sit with two women of my choosing, it’d be women my own age who have no children, no real responsibility. Our greatest burdens would be choosing a major or dealing with our protective parents. And I don’t say that to talk down those burdens. I say that to show how much I have left to experience and learn.
Who am I to think that I’m here in Clarkston to solely teach and to change lives? No. I’m also here to have MY life changed by these refugees.
I don’t want to let my pride prevent real friendships from forming while I’m in Clarkston.
I want what those three women had: common ground forged in even the mundane trials of life.
I want to knock on that Iraqi woman’s door and ask her to show me the way of motherhood. How do you raise three children? How do you carve time for your marriage? When you’re a stay-at-home mom, do you struggle to find purpose?
I want to sit down with that Eritrean mom and hear her experience of having a special needs son. Were you scared? Are you still? How does it change you?
And then I want to spend time with the Nepali woman and her infant son and see how a love for a newborn grows from the start. What was it like when you first took him home from the hospital? What are your dreams for his life?
And then I’d ask them all about living. Not just living as a refugee, but day-to-day living. Is it hard to pray and pursue God in the busyness of life? Do you have unrealized dreams and how do you cope with that? How do you get stains out of clothing?
I know nothing. And these women know something. Instead of trying to teach, I think it’s time to learn.
And while doing that, perhaps I’ll be opening up doors for giving them the two things I still want to offer: love and Jesus.
I’ll keep you updated on how this goes. I’m nervous, but excited. Maybe I’m on the right track here.
I don’t think I could leave Clarkston right now even if I tried.
It’s not because this place is better than home. It’s not because I enjoy my roommates’ company more than my family, boyfriend, and hometown friends. It’s not even because the food is better here (which it is).
I don’t think I could leave Clarkston because it feels like God has me here. Not in a forceful, “thou-shalt-forever-remain-stuck-under-my-command” kind of way, but in a loving, powerful “hey-you-know-that-I-have-you-here-for-a-reason” kind of way.
While reading Psalm 139 this afternoon, I was drawn to verse 5:
You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.
Guys, God has hemmed me in. And it’s one of the most relieving feelings to know that in this moment I’m in the right place. I can’t speak for tomorrow or the day after that, but I can certainly speak for today.
His hand is upon me here. I can tell because I’ve been struggling against it. Some might take that as a sign that it is NOT God’s will for me to remain in Clarkston, but I know myself well enough to realize that the times I’ve fought the hardest against where I am are the times I’ve belonged the most in those places.
I think back to how badly I wanted to run away before starting my freshman year of college. I imagined hopping on a plane and spending the rest of my life sipping Arabian coffee with my new Henna-adorned Muslim friends in a land far away from suburbia.
And then I recall how much it hurt to be turned down from my dream internship a year later, the internship that would’ve taken me away from the most painful and eye-opening experience I have had in my almost-twenty years of living. The last thing I wanted was to spend a summer in my friend-forsaken town, but I did and it changed me.
And most overwhelming of all is the constant nostalgia-like longing for the future, to the days where I am no longer just an “I”, but a “we”– someone’s wife and mother. Never do I feel more of a calling on my life than when I think of the baby-nursing, diaper-changing, marriage-protecting days I believe are coming.
Time and time again, I have felt stuck, just longing, DYING, to leave my home and the life I’m currently living. God, please just let me fast-forward to a different time, a different place. I’d give anything.
But looking back, I can see now that God had purposefully hemmed me in. His hand had been upon me in the places I had felt forsaken. And though I wrestled against these many circumstances, I eventually found a way to surrender. Surrender doesn’t come easily to me, but freeing things in life rarely do.
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been wrestling against being in Clarkston. For reasons I’m not even sure I understand fully, I often think of leaving. I picture myself spending these summer days at home, sipping coffee and writing meaningful blog posts as I rest against my pillow-filled chaise, my dog resting against me. That’s where I belong, I think.
But God thinks otherwise.
I know this because He’s been opening my eyes to Him and to beautiful things while I’ve been here. I’ve been so busy wrestling for the past month that I’m sure I’ve missed some of what He’s been trying to show me. But I’m starting to see more clearly.
His presence asks me to remain present, so I will dutifully stay.
There is a beauty in being hemmed in. It feels like maybe the place I am in is covered in grace. Even I am covered in grace. And I don’t want to miss these beautiful, grace-filled moments anymore.
These are my thoughts for right now on why I am here. It’s still going to be difficult to make this place my home, but where God leads I have committed to go. And right here is where I’ve been led.
I’m hemmed in.
P.S. I know I’ve been so vague on what exactly is going on here in Clarkston. I promise I am working on sharing more testimonies and stories with you. I have plans on writing more informative pieces in the next couple of weeks so perhaps the pieces will fall into place for my curious readers on what is happening here. To tell you the truth, I’m still a little lost myself.
But here’s some information I can offer for now: people are falling more in love with Jesus in Clarkston– missionaries and refugees alike. There’s still a lot of work to be done among these unreached people groups, but we’re witnessing how small moments of faith can result in great opportunities.
Keep an eye out for blog posts to come.
Right now I am in Clarkston, Georgia, the most diverse square mile in America. It’s true.
I’m working with an organization that is aimed at serving refugees and sharing the gospel with unreached people groups. It’s amazing work, my friends. I can’t brag enough about the selfless, life-giving work being done here in Clarkston.
I worked with this same organization two years ago and I finally decided this past January that it was time to return.
For the next few months I get to play a role in what’s been unfolding here for years with the help of so many hands, tears, smiles, and acts of love from all over the world. This is a community, a beautiful family that just wants Jesus to be made known. And I, Jessie, get to contribute something, too. I get to pour my heart out into this mission. I get to be a part of what God’s doing in Clarkston and in the lives of these refugees.
And what I want to share with you right now is one of the things I love most about Clarkston.
I love that people are recognized.
And I don’t mean the sort of recognition where everyone stands up around you and applauds the great things you have done. No, this is the sort of recognition where you’re just known. You’re not a stranger. Your stories, your past, your gifts, and your vision are known and cherished by the people who serve alongside you.
In Clarkston, sacred memories are made, each one serving as a reminder that you are loved, you are appreciated, you are known.
Sacred memories like the one of four of my roommates huddled around me and praying over me on the floor of our living room as I cried over a break-up I didn’t know how to cope with. It didn’t matter that I had just met them the week before. They recognized my pain. My hurt and my burdens were welcomed there.
Sacred memories like the one of having my feet washed, reminiscent of the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus. This person, this strong servant of Christ, knelt on his knees before me and washed my dirty feet. He wanted to anoint me for a greater mission, a mission I couldn’t fathom myself. He saw Jesus in me. He saw a calling in me. Even the things I felt unworthy of were recognized in me by others.
Sacred memories like the one of neighborhood kids screaming my name as I step outside my apartment each day. I felt like a celebrity. I felt like a big sister. All I had ever done was remember their names and play with them, and that was all they needed. They recognized the love I had for them and they reciprocated.
Sacred memories like the one of my friend and I sitting on the couch in our apartment, sharing our deepest thoughts and feelings as we read together through the book of James. I was fascinated by her life and she was fascinated by mine. We wanted to know each other’s past and present so we could support and encourage each other in the present and future. We weren’t there to teach or to gain. We were there to listen and give. The value of her story was recognized by me, and the value of my story was recognized by her.
Sacred memories like the one of crying in the arms of two beautiful ladies as we were all just completely moved by Jesus. I don’t even know why we were all crying, to be honest. But there we were, praying and crying and wiping our noses. This fellowship we had, this honest and freeing relationship between us three women in that moment, demonstrated just how deeply Jesus can forge love between those who are willing to know and be known by others.
These are just a few of the memories I hold on to from that summer I spent in Clarkston two long years ago.
Now there are new sacred memories to be made.
I’ve been here for three days and I see it beginning again already.
Not every neighborhood kid remembers me, but there are the few who do. I see the recognition in their eyes as connections are being made. I’m somewhere in their memories, maybe some of their own sacred ones. They call out my name as I step outside my apartment, just as before. It almost feels like I never left.
I felt recognized for the briefest of moments last night as a girl I had met just days before touched my shoulder and asked if I had eaten dinner.
The staff I work with remember little things about me, things I thought maybe wouldn’t be worth mentioning after two years of absence. They remember and recognize my gifts and abilities. I am celebrated.
These little things I hold sacred because they are some of the truest demonstrations of the power of recognition. I am moved by these moments because they whisper, “Jessie, I know you and you are loved.”
And I’ve decided this will be my task for the summer while I’m here: to recognize those around me.
I am not a great missionary. I don’t really know how to share the gospel and I’m awful at discipleship. The fact I didn’t come back to Clarkston to visit during the two years I was gone speaks of the lack of drive and dedication I tend to have. I feel guilty because I know I am a college student stuck in comfort, easy living, and non-committed relationships. I keep to myself because it’s comfortable here. And I can’t guarantee that I’ll branch out enough to truly change the life of any of these refugees this summer.
But what I know how to do is recognize people. I remember names and stories. I like to listen. I like to encourage. And sometimes that’s all a person needs.
I want to be the breath of fresh air to the people I’m working with and to the people I’m serving.
I won’t have the most eloquent speeches planned out, and I don’t have much advice to give. But I can give my heart and let people give theirs. I want people to be recognized here because I’ve seen how it changes lives. It’s changed mine.
Please pray for me as I continue on this journey here in Clarkston. I don’t really know what the summer will contain, but I earnestly desire fruit to come out of my time here. I don’t want to be a waste of space, time, or money, so I am praying that I figure out my niche and how I can serve. Most of all, I want to do those things, whatever they may be, wholeheartedly. I want to wholeheartedly love.
Thank you to all who have recognized me and are continually encouraging me. We need people like you. More people need to be recognized. They’re all around you, just begging to be noticed and heard. Continue to be those eyes and ears.
And if you know how to create, then be a mouthpiece, too.
The medium I choose is words, but it’s not the only one.
Let’s continue recognizing each other. In this forgetful, neglectful world, we need it.