Being Bilingual

I spent my teenage years in the southern tip of Texas, about a 30 minute drive to the border. Many of my classmates in Junior High and High School had either been born in Mexico, or had parents or grandparents who immigrated.

Being a friend of families who had immigrated was a singular experience that I would not trade for the world. The culture was similar in so many ways, but different in many others. It was not uncommon to find a house with grandparents, even great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – either living there or as very frequent guests. It’s hard to remember any time I went hungry at a friend’s house – fresh tortillas, tamales, or just good American pizza.

Most of my friends who came from immigrant families were fully “Americanized”, and lived their daily lives in the same way you’d expect from any family. All of them spoke English – either as their first language, or as a slightly broken, second language.

It’s that bilingualism that I’ve been thinking of a lot recently. For many of my friends who spoke English as their first language, Spanish was still spoken frequently in their home. And, I also had friends who spoke English at school, but whose family spoke nothing but Spanish at home.

Then, there were the friends whose English was halting, who struggled to find words at times. I am ashamed to admit that many of us laughed when they struggled (they laughed with us, but probably not because it was funny.) They spoke slowly when they spoke in English, with great deliberation and concentration.

But, when they spoke Spanish, they came alive. Suddenly, they were speaking fluently, excitedly, with inflections that I didn’t know they were capable of. I couldn’t understand a word that they were saying, but it was almost enough just to hear the way that they were saying the words.

Eventually, they would remember that I couldn’t understand, and they’d slip back into English. But, those few moments that they were speaking their native tongue, they were home.

Faith has a language all its own. We speak in Scripture verses, in the lyrics to hymns, in Common prayers. We learn creeds and call-and-response, and we respond to those liturgies and litanies automatically.

“The Lord be with you.” And also with you.

“The word of God for the people of God.” Thanks be to God.

Who among us can fail to be moved by the words of 1 Corinthians 13 when spoken at a wedding? Love is patient and kind. Love is not proud, it does not boast…. the greatest of these is love.

Who would object to the words of Psalm 23 being spoken over the grave of a loved one? The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want… yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

Or, when the song Amazing Grace is sung or played over the same grave? Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found – was blind, but now I see.

People of faith come alive when we hear our language being spoken. Not everyone we know can understand our first language, and we learn to slip back into the less familiar language of the world we live in now.

But, those cadences and inflections are forever echoing in our hearts.

I’ve thought of this many times before, and a dear family member reminded me of it a few weeks ago: no matter where I roam, no matter whether I am in the church or out, my primary language will always be the language of faith.

I will never hear the problems of a friend without an encouraging Scripture coming to mind.

I will never see a cross or a dove without hearing the words of familiar hymns and songs in my head.

I will never face a dangerous situation without whispering a few words of prayer under my breath – even if it’s just an exercise, a habit, a comforting ritual.

No one can take that language from me. I can be cast out, tried and convicted as a heretic, lose my church membership, be ostracized from the community of faith, but I will never unlearn this language.

So many of us spend most of our lives in communities of faith, and then later find that we have to go. No matter the reasons, we share the experience of losing our foundation, our family. Many of us return to the Church, if for no other reason than because we don’t know who we are without it. Many more stay away, and do everything that they can to scour the presence, language, even the memory of religion from their minds, their hearts, and their mouths.

But, there are some of us who choose to live as immigrants – strangers, foreigners, who love our new home as much as our old one.

We know that we’ll probably never go back to our old home, our old way of living. The reasons that we left will still be there, as are the reasons that we came to this strange land. We know that there are others like us, people who come from similar places, who speak in familiar tones, and we just can’t help to slip into our first language when we see them.

So, don’t be afraid to speak in comforting Scripture, or sing familiar songs. Don’t be worried that you still pray under your breath. You might do these things and not believe. You may do these things and be unsure if you believe or not. These rituals and words are sometimes only tangentially tied to beliefs. Sometimes, speaking familiar words is enough.

No matter where you are or what language that you’re speaking, know that there is a whole community of spiritual immigrants who understand what you’re saying, and we’re probably ready to speak back.