I had been reaching out to Mahaiir in Somalia for a long time before refugees came to my city. Specifically, into my neighborhood. Some people joked that my part of town should be renamed Little Baghdad. It doesn't have the ring of Little Italy, and also wasn't geographically accurate, but I get it. (Little Mogadishu can be hard to say.) But outreach in my city was different than online. Mahiir, my online friend, spoke strong English. The families on my block spoke almost none.
I thought maybe I could piece some communication together from the handful of Arabic and Somali words that I did know. I asked some Somali friends if their teenage kids could go to Youth Group. I tried in Arabic (their third language). It came out something like this: "Can they go to the student group? Student group of know God?"
They said something. I have no idea what. But the looks on their faces were confusion and shock.
I tried again, still in broken Arabic: "Student group" (I mimed a posture of submission) "I want... I want take your kids. Take your kids, know the holy book of God. I put your kids in my car. I take, we go. Please." They shook their heads. I wasn't sure if it was an "I-don’t-understand 'No,'" or an actual "No." I spoke again, this time including some Somali (their first language): "It is for youth." A mix of Arabic and Somali: "Please I want they go to youth group. Meeting tonight" They looked even more shocked. I took their no as a real "No" this time and let it go. As I walked home, I suddenly realized what had gone so wrong.
In Arabic, the word "student group" is "Taliban." In Somali, "Youth group" is "Al Shabaab." Two of the most notorious terrorist groups in the world.
I had asked, "Can they join the Taliban? Taliban, to submit to God? No? Al Shabaab? I want they go to Al Shabaab, please. Meeting tonight."
Amazingly, this story actually gets worse.
It was some time later, when their English was strong, that they told us this story: "You know how you introduced us to your pastors? And you kept smiling and saying, 'I want you to meet my friend. He's a pastor. And this friend; he is a pastor too.' Yeah? We thought you were saying bastard."
It turns out the P and B are almost identical in Somali. I'd just recovered from "Terrorist or not a terrorist?" but still managed to land in "Total jerk." (To their credit, they tried to be nice: "We were like, 'Wow, he says it to their face. And then he stands there and smiles. There's something wrong with brother. Yeah. There's something wrong with this man.'")
There's a word in Koine Greek that means messing up: Hamartia. Sin. We think of that word as meaning only active defiance, but that definition is incomplete. In its original form, the word was an archery term. It means "missing the mark."
1 Peter 4:8 gives good news to everyone whose attempts to share Christ have missed the mark: "Love covers over a multitude of sins."
Through language barriers and cultural mistakes and my own failures as a person — I got to experience what it means to be "covered." The moments you laugh about later and the moments where it never becomes funny.
And on the other side, there were moments like this: Sharing the gospel of Jesus with this family. Getting to walk with these men as they wrestled through the enormity of these claims: that Jesus was crucified because this was the will of God. That he was resurrected in power. Hearing the wife of the family tell us that she cries when she hears the stories of Jesus. Praying together, all of us bowed low to the floor, asking God to confirm to their hearts that this good news is true.
I had to wait almost two years before I could have a clear conversation with this family about Jesus.
But there are countless Somalis who we can talk to today as well. Whether or not you live in Little Mogadishu.
Whatever God has called you to, my request is this: Be present. Be available. Trust God with your weakness and imperfection. But if you're a pastor, try to enunciate your P's.