With all the talk about Syrians and the fear of ISIS, people might have forgotten that people flee other countries all the time. About a decade ago we received a huge influx from Sudan, including a large number of persecuted Christians fleeing death squads and tribal war. That’s right — Christians, meaning that even Trump and Jeb might have given them the ok to come here.
But the thing about refugees and immigrants is more than the question of “do we let them in,” it’s “what happens when they get here?” And that’s kind of on all of us. Certainly, historically and now, cultures group and bond together in collectives which balance out the comfort of old ways with the necessity of the new. But when the people of your culture have not yet settled and found a place yet, who can help? There are agencies, sure, resources, but the rest comes through faith and human kindness.
A large group of these Christian refugees found their way to our church. We worshipped together and ate together. We shared a laugh at each family’s recounting of what it was like encounter snow for the first time, and then realize you are responsible for moving all of that amazing stuff off of the sidewalks when you own a home. We helped them create a time for a special service they could hold in their shared language. We gave them mittens and blankets. We helped send one to seminary.
I don’t remember the first time David Kong asked me for help. Someone else at church put us together. My enjoyment of languages helped me bridge the gap in communication. I solved his secondary problem, which was finding out the primary problem and then finding the phone number to call in the phone book to help them with it, and acting as an intermediary. I gave him my number if he needed more help.
And he did. He and his family and his extended family all lived in the same house, and like all houses, sometimes things didn’t always work right. Often they were “simple,” such as a room needed a new light bulb or the smoke alarm that kept making noises needed a new battery. I showed them how to work a microwave and how to unstick the oven door if they ever accidentally locked it with the self-clean latch. Usually I would buy the bulbs or batteries or whatnot and provide extras after showing them what to do. They had no tools, so I bought them a starter set—wrench, pliers, both types of screwdrivers, hammer, nails, and screws.
Some jobs were beyond me. I’m not a handyman, so when there were real troubles with plumbing or electricity I called someone else—usually from our church. I knew David was trying to find work and get settled, so in those instances I always asked them to bill me for the work they did. None of them did, to me or David.
“Thank you, thank you,” David would say dozens of times, the most solid bit of English he knew. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I always smiled when he called or left a message, because his greeting was always the same. “My name David Kong,” spoken in a humble, apologetic way as if we had never met before, “Help me, please.” The calls came a lot more often over time. After a few years, the Sudanese refugees had found their own space for worship. Our congregations kept in touch some, but drifted away. A number of them found their homes in Minnesota, and new relationships. It always seemed, however, that David had no one else outside of them. And so he called me more and more often. I brought members of his family to the doctor or out shopping. I helped him understand mold, and gave him the old dehumidifier my father had passed along to me.
And as I went from one child to two, and bearing down on three, it became harder for me to jump up and head over when he needed help. There were naps and feedings, and I couldn’t keep a close eye on my kids and unclog a drain at the same time. It was hard to say no to David at first, but then it got easier. I hadn’t realized how much I was feeling put upon until I felt the relief of not having to go over all the time. I still went over now and then, on weekends or in the evenings if Becky was home and I was free, but having said “no” before made it easier to find excuses, and so more often than not I gave him another number to try and hoped for the best.
About six years ago I tried doing “Xbox Achievements” for myself, which I posted on my Facebook wall when I accomplished certain milestones or goals within the year, such as dropping five pounds or writing 100,000 words or mailing a query letter. One of those was called “Answer the Call,” and it was conceived for David Kong. I was feeling guilty enough by then for making excuses that I vowed to award myself that for picking up the phone for David and helping him on a day when my immediate reaction was to say to myself, “ugh, I just can’t.”
I never got that achievement that year. Part of it was because by the end of the year he stopped calling, but I’m sure most of it was because I was saying no a lot more than I was saying yes. I only heard from him once or twice after that year. I told myself that he must have found more connections and contacts by now, maybe people who could help him with some of the more involved requests he’d made that were outside of my comfort zone, like asking if I could drive him to the Twin Cities or help him find beds and couches. Somebody else could take care of him, right?
Even though it had been some years, I knew his house immediately when I saw the photo in the paper and the story that said “1 dead, 1 critically injured in domestic incident.” I couldn’t be sure it was David – the name was not released right away, but in my heart I knew it was. David was a man who needed a lot of help, and who often felt helpless. It scared and frustrated him. I suspect that didn’t change, but I don’t really know much of anything. I don’t know what he’s been doing. I don’t know why the police had been to his house so much in recent years. I don’t know why he attacked his estranged wife with a hammer—one I probably bought him. I don’t why or even how he killed himself outside the house after.
I just know his name: David Kong.
“Help me, please.”