I'm a mom. A busy mom. A tired mom. I have days I want to scream and run far, far away. Please, don’t get me wrong. I love and adore my husband and children. I love my job, my co-workers, my friends, and all that I’m blessed to do. Some days though, a break would be nice. I may have mentioned that more than once to my husband. So, when a work opportunity sent him to Las Vegas, he invited me to tag along. It’s not my first choice of destinations—I long for warm beaches, the cool breezes of the Pacific Northwest, or really anywhere near an ocean. However, any chance to get away for a bit to recharge sounded amazing.
I got my choice of hotel and a car to drive as I pleased, but I fully intended to knit, sleep, read, and watch Netflix for the duration of the 2-day stay in Vegas. For some reason many of my friends thought this was an inadequate way to spend time in Vegas, and insisted that I go DO something exciting.
So, I went to an aquarium. In my hotel. Yep, I went and watched fish, reptiles, and sharks swim round and round my head. It was great. I went to a pub, made friends with a gal from Ireland, and listened to a great band. I walked a bit of the strip. Feeling that I had done my token exciting things—I tucked myself into my cushy giant hotel bed and proceeded with my plans—knitting and Netflix. It was great to do what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted for a change. I thought that’s why I had come, and that’s all I expected from this trip. I was quite wrong.
The next day I had a few hours to kill before Matt’s job was complete. Being that we had already checked out of the hotel, and no desire to spend anymore time on the strip then I already had, I decided to visit a local parish I had seen online—St Paul the Apostle. As it was Thursday, I didn’t think there would be any services going on, but maybe I could take some pictures. The more I study and journey into Orthodoxy, the more I become fascinated with Iconography. When I arrived at the parish there were many cars in the parking lot. I was so excited! Maybe there was a Liturgy—hopefully I haven’t missed much! I wrapped my scarf around my head & hoped that my travel clothes would not be out of place.
As I got to the door I noticed a few pairs of shoes outside. I thought that was rather interesting. I don’t know much about Orthodoxy, but I do know that at the Greek Orthodox church I attend taking off your shoes is not the cultural norm. I thought, that’s strange—maybe it’s a delayed St Nicholas celebration? Boy, could I not be more wrong. I opened the door to find a lot more shoes. That wasn’t the only odd thing. I was suddenly in the ethnic minority, and while yes, it was obvious a Liturgy was in progress—I had no idea what language was being chanted. As I looked about, everyone—men, women, and children were wrapped in white gauzy fabric. The men stood on the left, the women on the right. There were icons unlike others I had seen, large drums that made me insanely curious, and staffs unlike what I was used to.
I received a few smiles, but mostly stares—mostly from children who were unashamed to make it known that I was the oddity here. I stood next to an older woman and tried to follow along. I did see English words projected on a screen under another language I couldn’t identify. I finally got the courage to ask the woman what language was being spoken. Her eyes were soft, and she was patient with me—but I couldn’t understand much of anything she said. I made out “Orthodox" and what I thought she said was “Egypt.” She asked if I was American. “Yes” Orthodox? “Yes” From where? “Colorado” I smiled & side hugged her. It felt okay to do. She smiled at me and hugged back.
I moved in closer to get a better view of what was going on (I was still in the Narthex). I found it strange that the building was most definitely part of the Orthodox Church of America, but no one here was OCA. As I continued to worship and wonder—I noticed I now had a little friend watching me. A sweet little girl, maybe two or three years old, was patting my leg. I patted her head in return with a smile. She patted again. I patted her head again, and she grabbed and held my hand. Okay. I looked around. No one seemed to be looking for her, or concerned that this strange white woman was holding hands with this precious African baby. She patted my leg, I looked down and smiled, and she lifted her hands up. I asked if she wanted me to pick her up. She nodded. Okay. Alright. I picked her up. She wrapped her arms around my neck, nuzzled into my shoulder, and patted my back. I swayed & patted her back.
This continued for quite some time, only stopping when we prostrated during the service, but she insisted on being picked back up when we stood up again. My heart was exploding with love for this baby. She would touch my cheek, yawn, nuzzle into my chest and listen to my heart. Always with a pat, pat, to my shoulder or back. I turned to one side, a young mother mouthed, “Are you okay?” I mouthed yes, and “Are you her mother?” She shook her head no, and so we continued on—pat, sway, pat, sway. After a final prostration, her mother did come collect her, as the children and mothers were making their way forward to receive Communion.
At that moment an older gentleman came to where I stood. He was collecting donations that were in a basket nearby. I got up the gumption to ask him some of the dozens of questions swirling in my head.
“Are they receiving Eucharist?”
“Why do they have an umbrella?”
“It is our custom.”
“What language are you speaking?”
“From what area?”
“I thought this was a Russian Orthodox church?”
“It is. On Sundays. On Thursdays it’s a Coptic Orthodox service.”
I checked my clock. I had to go to make it to the airport on time. As I stepped away, I smiled at the older woman I first spoke to, “I’m sorry I have to leave. I must get to the airport.”
In her broken English and hand gestures, she responded, “We have food. You must stay and eat.”
“I would love to, but I must go. Thank you.” (The foodie in me desperately wanted to see what cultural foods they might serve, but alas—planes wait for no one.) We embraced as if we had years already spent together.
My heart pondered over these experiences all the rest of the day. My arms still ached from the weight of the little one I had held. The joy in my heart was so full. Being human and on this powerful journey of faith, I couldn’t help but wonder and ask, “Why? Lord, why, of all days, of all places, and of all things—did you lead me into this experience?”
We live in a time where many people are hurting over experiences that are dividing us. Actions from one group or another continue to put wedges and large gaps between us as humans. Here, for just a moment, despite obvious physical differences, cultural differences, and even some variations of spiritual differences—I was embraced. I was home. I was loved. This sweet baby girl had no fear, and saw opportunity to show love to a stranger. Oh, that we all could have the faith of a child! How we could love so unabashedly! Despite language barriers—this sweet, grandmotherly woman reached out to me and connected with me. That we would reach out to all around us like this woman reached me!
1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love; but perfect loves casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”
Hug a stranger. Love the different and drive away the fear that divides us. In this way I hope what happened in Vegas goes well beyond Vegas.
(For the curious: I stumbled upon a Liturgy by the Eritrean Community in Las Vegas. Eritrea is in East Africa, south of Egypt and east of Sudan. They speak the Tigrenya language.)