Rev. Abigail Conley of Chalice Christian Church responds to what “Celebration, Celebración! Christ Among Us!” means to her, and all of us at our upcoming 2016 Regional Assembly, Asamblea Convención Arizona.
My first year of seminary, I ended up in the unofficial international students apartment building. My roommate was from Germany. The neighbors across the hall were from Bulgaria. The ones downstairs were from Afghanistan. The other downstairs neighbor was from Alabama, but he went home on the weekends so we never saw him.
That was the year I learned that Halloween is holiday unique to the United States. For all my knowledge of the cultural roots of Halloween, I had no idea it hadn’t developed in other countries. The people new to the country were eager to learn all about how to celebrate Halloween; they assumed I would be their guide.
It started with carving pumpkins, since this was one of the things my new friends had heard about. The request for me to teach them how to carve pumpkins came very early. Little did they know that I didn’t really grow up in a pumpkin carving household; my mother much preferred to let us paint pumpkins. Still, I knew the basic process, so told everyone what kind of pumpkin to buy, and got the appropriate materials for carving pumpkins.
On the designated night, we all gathered in my apartment so I could explain how to carve pumpkins. That was also the night I found out that conversations translated from English to German to Bulgarian and back take a really long time. The English preparation courses had not been sufficient for my Bulgarian neighbors; luckily, the man who was studying at my seminary had also studied in Austria, so he knew German. My roommate later complained that he spoke with an Austrian accent so she couldn’t always understand him well. She’d worked as a translator in London, England, so her English was impeccable. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she spoke with the Boston accent of her English instructor. Luckily, the two Afghani men had no language barriers at all.
One of the translated conversations was simple, “Is trick or treating real?” After I assured them it was, I agreed to take my neighbors and their four-year-old son around to houses. They still didn’t believe it would work. Of course, it did. And of course, the four year old cried through the process.
My roommate’s birthday was October 30th, so the last addition to the Halloween festivities hosted by me was a birthday party, complete with an apartment decorated in black and orange. We had a Halloween cake instead of a birthday cake. In the end, I think their first Halloween celebrations were underwhelming for my friends, despite the jack-o-lanterns on their porches. I certainly could have done better all the way around with a bigger budget. Actually, the neighbors who were Christian were far more shocked by my artificial Christmas tree than anything to do with Halloween.
Several years later, I think of all the effort it took to make those relationships work. For the most part, those relationships really worked. I had just turned 23 when I met all of them, so I couldn’t provide nearly the help that I could now. Still, I could ask other people their questions, so I did. We figured out vaccines for their children and the English names of ingredients they needed for cooking. I assured them those pink service papers left by the cable guys were of no consequence and helped them decipher other documents they were handed. My church and I prayed for my two Afghani neighbors who were afraid to go home over winter break, lest they not be allowed to return; they missed their young children desperately. Together, we all sat patiently through the conversations that had to be translated multiple times.
Looking back, I think far more about my neighbors’ struggles than mine. Their willingness to ask for help still amazes me. In that wonderfully complicated living arrangement, we learned to accept what each had to offer. I’ll never forget sitting in my neighbors’ home, drinking espresso. I don’t like coffee in any form, and this particular version of espresso made anything that Starbucks has taste like water in comparison. Still, I drank, not knowing their custom was to always fill an empty cup, so I drank some more. I didn’t sleep for a solid day after that. I still smile when I think about it though, or run across some of the small gifts those neighbors gave me from their home countries.
That year, geography forced us to figure out how to live together, have fun together, and even celebrate together. Despite being forced by some computer algorithm, that small community was holy—holier than I’d ever imagined possible.
As our Regional Assembly/Asamblea Convención approaches, it occurs to me that we don’t really know how to celebrate together, at least not yet. We occupy our own spaces and traditions. We bring our own expectations. Yet, there is this hope that Christ is infinitely better than computer algorithms. Somehow, those algorithms managed to create something beautiful, holy, and treasured. How much more hope Christ brings!
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)