When I Have No Words

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After just a month in Cairo, Egypt, where I’m serving as a Christian Reformed World Missions partner and Mennonite Central Committee SALT program participant, I found myself visiting a prison. I was part of an ecumenical ministry team that brings food and conversation to foreign prisoners whose families cannot afford to make the journey. There were inmates from Sudan and Germany and Belgium and Nigeria—but the group leader immediately introduced me to Carlos, a 60-something Peruvian serving a four-year sentence. “He’ll be so pleased to speak Spanish with you,” she said.

A friendly Egyptian toddler climbed on and off my lap while Carlos spoke about the prison fellowship. I struggled to understand him through a strong accent and the hubbub of the room. The long-lashed boy giggling at my knee asked for kisses in Arabic as Carlos told me about dishonest legal staff in Spanish and a Tunisian ministry team member counseled him in a thickly-accented English I found no easier to decipher.

By the time we circled to pray and say our goodbyes, I was finished. I waded through verb conjugations to tell Carlos I would pray for him, but I couldn’t come up with any more Spanish—I just hugged him and walked, blinking, into the afternoon sunlight outside the compound.

I speak bits of four languages now, but I have no words with which to respond to suffering. I cannot produce a sentence in any tongue that has, in itself, any power to offer hope to those who are far from home and have no freedom to return there, those subject to law without justice, those who were once in the wrong place at the wrong time and are still there years later.

I’ve loved every language I’ve come across, but again and again I am encountering the limits of language. Again and again I find myself speechless. This wordlessness is accompanied by one of two things, always: the incomprehensible ugly, and the unexplainable sacred. Because there is an infuriating impotence to the plight of the prisoner, as well as an almost painful holiness in a group of people—Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Christian Reformed, Canadian, Danish, Egyptian, Tunisian, American, young, middle-aged, retired, quiet, gregarious—who are following the commands of Christ, week after week, year after year, bringing fresh mangoes to a prison.

So we show up, I guess, and put our shoulders to the aches and the holiness. And we say some words in a few languages, but mostly we show up. And if I speak French or Spanish or English or Arabic to someone who understands one of those languages or none of the above, if I speak the language I’m attempting or pieces of the other tongues that have taken up residence in my mouth, or if I cannot speak any of them because it is too much for me, still I show up.

I kiss an Egyptian toddler and hug a Peruvian man and so acknowledge the sacredness of partial graces—prison visits and foreign languages—even as I beg my God for more.

About the Author

Kathryn Van Zanen is a student at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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