An Awkward Graduation

July 4, 2021

Our family recently attended a high school graduation party for two girls we did not know with a community of immigrants from Sierra Leone.

Allow me to take a step back…

In our church we have a program called “ministering”. A pair of men or a pair of women are assigned to oversee the welfare of a handful of families, referred to as “ministering families”. This includes becoming part of their lives, providing temporal and spiritual support as needed. Without question, it is one of the best programs our church facilitates.

Kumba was one of Ryan’s “ministering families”. She is a strong, powerful mother, and over the past year has become a part of our lives. Her uncle, Momodu, was recently baptized into our church. He is one of the most beautiful people we have ever known.

To be honest, when Kumba invited us to the graduation party we weren’t sure we wanted to go. The reason was simple: We wanted to avoid feeling awkward.

We knew there would be many people there we did not know. Also, we assumed we’d be the only U.S-born, white people present — an assumption that proved correct — and that a language barrier might be present. We didn’t want to be in the way, or force others to accommodate us. We didn’t want to make others feel uncomfortable, and we didn’t want to sit in the corner.

And there was a big part of us that feared our autistic son, Parker, would say something offensive. He’s really into rap music and sometimes asks wildly racist questions.

Our family is two weeks away from moving into a motorhome and living on the road for the foreseeable future. Part of this great adventure will be living in different parts of the country for several months at a time, and integrating ourselves into society in these cities and towns.

We talk about the families we’ll meet in the campgrounds, the dinners to which we’ll invite others, the friends we will make. Our family discusses how we can be an example of a joyful, Christ-centered family by putting ourselves out there and getting involved. We anticipate the experiences we’ll have, the messages we’ll share, and the lessons we’ll be taught.

Yet here we are, staring down the opportunity to attend an African community celebration with a trusted friend, and we’re afraid to go.

What if it’s awkward?

How many opportunities to grow are bypassed because it might be awkward? Having children is super awkward — lots of folks avoid that — and it’s the single greatest tool for personal growth available.

Getting married is awkward. Getting sober is awkward. Seeking counseling is awkward.

Changing careers is awkward. Learning a new skill is awkward. Speaking honestly is awkward.

Going to Benihana’s is awkward.

Talking to strangers is awkward, just ask the citizens of Seattle. People can’t look each other in the eyes as they walk down the sidewalk. Seattle is incredibly awkward.

Having autistic children is awkward. There is no telling what will escape their mouths or how the receiver will handle it. And heaven forbid they wheelbarrow dump each other in the front yard on a busy street while wearing pajamas. Mega-awkward.

We discussed and prayed about attending the graduation. Ryan knew we should attend. Monica came around to the idea as the spirit worked on her. She usually avoids awkward wherever she can.

Then in a fit of insanity, Monica also decided we needed to bring the kids. It would be a great experience for them, she said, even if it brought havoc to the community.

“I mean, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” — Hunter S. Thompson.

The party was exactly what we imagined it would be, only it was all outdoors. Kumba was wonderful and allowed us to help out where needed. Parker drank a non-alcoholic beer by mistake and couldn’t stop talking about it. The kids performed admirably well (malted beverages notwithstanding).

After a long social hour during which food was prepared, the party was moved to the outdoor tables and a man took the microphone. He spoke for a moment, then introduced another man named Mr. Bannister. Mr. Bannister was the community treasurer and he would be our emcee for the evening. After introducing himself he invited a Christian and a Muslim pastor to each offer prayers.

The graduates sat on the deck behind Mr. Bannister. They were young and beautiful. He spoke to them for awhile before inviting several others to deliver speeches. On our table was a program sheet that listed eight speakers for the evening.

Their speeches were passionate and full of gratitude. They spoke of the opportunities ahead for these young women and their community, opportunities made possible by the United States of America. One particular brother, Salifu, talked about doing better than your parents did. He called it, “The Salifu Challenge”. I recall him saying, “If your mother worked at a medical center as a cook, you can work at the same medical center as a thoracic surgeon.”

Those young women looked like they were up to the challenge.

I turned to my children and offered the Salifu challenge. They were dismayed at the idea.

Kumba approached our table and told me some of the speakers had not arrived. She told me how wonderful it would be if I got up and shared some advisement with the graduates.

This came from out of nowhere and sounded supremely awkward.

“Nobody knows me, Kumba.”

“It’s ok,” she assured me. “You will do great. Will you do it?”

“Are you serious? I don’t know what I will say. I don’t even know the graduates.”

“It’s ok. Just talk to them. Give them some advice.”

At this moment, Mr. Bannister mentioned two of the speakers had not arrived. He looked directly at me and said — into the microphone — Kumba’s friend would share a message.

Monica’s eyes were grinning. It was all so shocking.

“Come, take the microphone and share a message with these graduates.”

It was one of those awkward moments. Instant awkward. Awkward deluxe.

I nervously chuckled at Kumba like she’d played some dirty trick on me.

“Why not?” I think I said. My family watched me stand, walk to the front of the crowd, and take the mic from Mr. Bannister. You can see what happened next…

God has made many things possible for us. He has led our family along a winding journey, a path that now presents like a new beginning. We are going to live in a motorhome for the next few years and nomadically travel around the country. Who knows what this adventure will bring?

Life moves forward and blessings have a catch. It would be of no benefit to be blessed and to not change as a result — to increase in gratitude or humility or generosity, for example. Heavenly Father asks us to keep growing, to serve in greater capacity, until we become like Him. We are to minister to those in need, to be His hands. And we are to accept that we won’t ever really know what is coming down the pipeline.

As we prepare to rent the house, change jobs, and shove off in two weeks, this awkward graduation represents a lesson for our family. If we are willing to be used by God, to allow Him to move us where he needs us, and to speak the words He needs us to speak, He will use us for his purposes.

But He didn’t say it would be easy. And He didn’t say it would be familiar. He surely didn’t say he would spare us from awkward.

In fact, He may ask us to bare our souls to strangers when we least expect it — into a microphone.

And we should get comfortable with that.

Thank you Kumba, Momodu, and the Sea-Tac community of Sierra Leone immigrants. You have blessed our family more than you know.

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