I was asked to say a few Words

I was asked to speak at a meeting of about 120 church members in January. It’s not something I’ve been asked to do before and not something I am particularly comfortable doing. I wasn’t sure that anything I had to say would be relevant, but I said I would and so I did. I’m saving my words here because they reflect a little on my life and this is my family history blog (well, sometimes it is family history; sometimes it absolutely is not). I was asked to say something about how ministries of the church had had an impact on my life –  or something like that…

I have been a member of FUMC for more than 30 years. During that time, my life has taken a few unexpected turns and at least a few of those surprises were the result of the ministries of this church.

About 12 ? years ago, I got a call from Cathy B., who leads the ESL program, asking me to please consider helping her. She knew several teachers would be absent from the next English as a Second Language class and was afraid she would be the only teacher. ESL was not on my radar and I don’t think Cathy and I had ever had a conversation about ESL. But I told her I’d come and at least be a warm body. The students kindly helped me and I had a great morning. Cathy asked if I wanted to come back and I did and I still do.

When Cathy explained the ESL program to me, she told me that yes, we teach English, but teaching English is not the most important thing we do. The most important thing we do is to provide a place of welcome – a place where our students can find friendship.

Teaching ESL has given me many gifts:
– The first to come to mind is the gift of Joy. There are no bad days.
– My nest was emptying at the time of Cathy’s call – teaching ESL gave me a new direction and sense of purpose.
– The world has become a much smaller place to me; but my circle has grown ever larger. I view the news and world events with different eyes and ears because of the people I have come to know.
– I was sick a few years ago and I wasn’t able to teach for about a year and a half. My students prayed for me; sent me emails and cards and gifts and carried me in love. What a gift! And when I returned, they were so protective of me!
– When I was sick I had a lot of time to talk to God and I would tell God how much I wanted to get back to my students. Cancer really messed with my brain and there were a lot of things I just couldn’t do – or do well: follow directions, make plans, organize ideas… Thank goodness Cathy B. prepares all the lessons and I just have to show up and teach. When I was well enough to teach – I could! It was my little miracle that this part of my brain still worked. The gifts of joy and purpose returned to me and helped me continue to heal.

I have also seen how the ESL program has had an impact on students – not just things like improving their English, or making friends, but changes of heart. It is not that uncommon to have students in a class who are from countries that share a bad history.

There was the student who told Cathy, “I have never liked people from X. In my country, we do not like people from X. But I came here and I met a friend. She is from X. Now I know that I do like people from X.”

Another student told me, “In my country, they tell us that Americans don’t like us. Christians don’t like us. But I come here and I know that is not true.”

You may not know that many of our students are temporary residents here and return to their home countries. I believe that the welcome our students experience here leaves a mark on them that they carry with them wherever they go when they leave us. We don’t know how God may be at work in and through them.

And I have to tell you that I believe our ministry of welcome is more important now than ever before.

I also want to mention the Mercy and Justice book discussions that I have participated in over the past couple of years. Cathy S. has chosen well when selecting books and has created a safe space to learn about and discuss sometimes difficult or uncomfortable topics. I have been challenged to examine my opinions and biases and how I fit into systems of justice and injustice. At some point, the challenge is to do more than read and discuss, and more than once this year, I found myself putting on my walking shoes and sunscreen and heading over to the Capitol to let my feet do the talking – not something I expected to be doing at this time in my life and something I clearly would not have done without my reading/talking/walking companions.

On January 29, 2015, our ESL class had just let out and we were cleaning up and saying our goodbyes when a large group began to trickle in from a rally on the steps of the Capitol. This is common during legislative sessions. It was apparent that this was a large group of Muslim Texans and, as we do, we greeted them and pointed them up the stairs to this room for their lunch and meeting. I didn’t know until after I left the building that this group had just been subjected to a threatening and hostile encounter during their rally. School children had been heckled while singing patriotic songs; a woman had rushed the stage and grabbed the microphone from a speaker; hateful words had been hurled at them. I was so glad that we were in the building to give them a warm greeting.

On January 31, 2017, I joined members of FUMC, other people of faith, and other concerned citizens on the south steps of the Capitol where we linked arms to form a circle of protection around our Muslim neighbors as they held their Muslim Capitol Day rally.

I can assure you, I did not see that coming.


ESL Book Club – Who is your “Swimmy”?

It never ceases to amaze me how a simple little book written for children can offer so much food for thought – for adults.

1964 Caldecott Honor Book Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, did not disappoint our ESL Book Club. If you are not familiar with the book, I’ve included a video below.

As a Caldecott book, of course we loved the art! That was the first comment made after reading the book. We selected a few of our favorite illustrations:

“He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly …”  


forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks”

Our conversation turned to interpretations of the story. M connected the story to people in her home country standing up against the regime with the words, “Do not be afraid. We are together,” leading us into the theme that, for the weak, there is power and safety when we stand together.

A comment from R surprised all of us a little, I think: “This story is like the story of immigrants. Immigrants have to leave their home and live in a new place, sometimes escaping danger.”

This idea had not crossed my mind as I prepared for book club and when I said as much, several students said they had not made this connection either. But they quickly jumped in with shared experiences as immigrants and many saw themselves as those little red fish “hidden in the dark shade of rocks and weeds” who did not go out and experience their new country, choosing instead the safety of their home.

Y suggested that she was “lazy” in comparison to her friend because she does not get out and do more and expose herself to the bigger world outside her home. E assured her that she is not lazy, but that we progress in our own time. For an immigrant everything is new and it is not always possible to be brave in every new situation.

A shared that when she came to the US, she focussed on what she thought was most important – being independent and doing things on her own. She has learned to practice gratitude every day and now has a much more positive attitude.

We also considered the theme that life goes on after a loss or other bad situation. Although it seems like the author moved quickly to Swimmy’s recovery, we went back and looked at the illustrations. After all the fish in his school were eaten by the big fish, the next illustration is not colorful like the previous pages, but dull and nearly empty.

“He swam away in the deep wet world. He was scared, lonely and very sad.”

And then Swimmy begins to notice something beautiful or interesting on each subsequent page. We don’t know how long it took Swimmy to begin to heal, but by the time he reaches the school of red fish who are hiding, he is ready to engage the world: “to go and swim and play and SEE things!”

We also touched on:
* cooperation
* the power of nature to help us heal
* Swimmy taking his place as the eye – the one who sees for the others what is possible
* Swimmy is different in color and speed – sometimes our difference is our strength
* If we think about a problem and do the work, we can solve it.

We had so much to discuss that we never got around to the metaphors and descriptive language that make the story memorable.

One of the students reflected on our discussion by writing the following. My thanks to Ming-I for allowing me to share her words:

My Swimmy

‘Then, hidden in the dark shade of rocks and weeds, he saw a school of little fish, just like his own.
“Let’s go and swim and play and SEE things!” he said happily.
“We can’t,” said the little red fish. “The big fish will eat us all.”
“But you can’t just lie there,” said Swimmy. “We must THINK of something.” ’
——by Leo Lionni, Swimmy

These little red fish triggered the memories of my first two years in Austin. I spent most of the time at home. I only went to the UT apartments ESL classes or visited other housewives living at UT apartments by walking or shuttles. My world was so little, but I hesitated to leave my comfort zone.

Then I met a girl, J. She brought me to various ESL classes and hung out with me in a lot of places l had never been to. She showed me where to take the bus and how to make connection. We always met up on the bus and talked during our rides. She really expended my comfort zone in a friendly way. I appreciated it when I looked back.

I shared my story in the book club while we were discussing the picture book Swimmy. The leader of the book club, Kathy, spoke to me with a flicker of a smile, ”So J is your swimmy!”
“Yes, she is.” I said heartily.
“And she swims.” there is a flicker in Kathy’s eyes.

“I love swimming. I even swim in my dreams.” I recalled J’s own words.

“A happy school of little fish lived in a corner of the sea somewhere. They were all red. Only one of them was as black as a mussel shell. He swam faster than his brothers and sisters. His name was swimmy.”
——by Leo Lionni, Swimmy

As we walked out of the building together, S told Ming-I, “You are my Swimmy!”

I recommend sharing the book Swimmy with ESL students of all ages.

And consider for yourself who has been a Swimmy in your life.


And I’ll add the theme image for Sepia Saturday this week – Helsinki residents waiting for evacuation at the railway station. (1939)

Sepia Saturday Theme Image 416

Please pack your bags and take a journey to Sepia Saturday and see where others have gone.

Sepia Saturday – Is This My John Sylvester Strange?

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs.

Sepia Saturday Theme Image 415

The theme photo this week pictures Enginists of the Finnish State Railways playing chess on call duty. (1951) With back to the camera, caps pulled low, and several profile views, one might be hard pressed to identify these men. And that is my last-minute take on the theme:

Who is this man?

This week I found a couple of photos on ancestry.com identified as my 2nd great-grandfather, John Sylvester Strange. One of the photographs was obviously him – looks like other photographs in the family archive and a couple of cousins think they have copies of the photograph.

This photograph also appears in Lincoln – that County in Kansas by Dorothe Tarrence Homan. My copy arrived in the mail just yesterday! I took this photo right from the book. So that is definitely my John Sylvester Strange on the right.

It was the other photograph I found on ancestry that day that caused a lot of discussion among the cousins once I posted it on Facebook for everyone to see.

This second photograph is identified as John Sylvester Strange and one of his wives. JSS was married first to Elizabeth Hendrickson. She died while he was away during the Civil War. Upon his return home, JSS married Elizabeth’s sister, Susan, who is my 2nd great-grandmother.

My cousins have serious doubts that this is our John Sylvester Strange. And it is all about his eyes. JSS had blue eyes and this man’s eyes do not look blue. At. All. Other features are similar to our guy – but those eyes! Could the photo have been tinted and the eyes darkened?

I asked the person who shared the photo to ancestry where she got it and she said she found it on FamilySearch.org. I finally found it and messaged the person who shared it there. I asked her a few questions about where she got the picture and how we would be related –  there have obviously been more than one man with the name John Sylvester Strange. Her linage fits our family tree to a T. We are related to the same man. She said that her father and grandfather said this was JSS.

So, I give you the photos we know to be our JSS with this man added to the mix. What do you think?


It is hard to tell with that pesky beard, but the cheekbones, forehead, hairline, and nose seem to me to be very much alike.

Besides your input on the facial differences/similarities, I have another question for you. The woman with the photograph kindly provided me with her phone number so that I could call with any further questions. What would you ask her?

By the way, we can’t really go by the wife to make the identification. No one has a picture of Elizabeth and the only one we have of Susan was much, much later in life. And, well, our attention is focussed completely on John.

Looking forward to your input!

Be sure to visit others who have participated in Sepia Saturday this week!

John Sylvester Strange has appeared here before: Strange in a Strange Uniform