Q&A: Strangers in Our Midst

Three St. John’s parishioners, Ivonne Fuentes-Wallace, Charlotte Simmonds, and Ruth Cassell-Huynh, reflect on powerful experiences with strangers.

Ivonne Wallace Fuentes:
I met E last fall: a young mother, her husband and adorable toddler in tow, asylum seekers from El Salvador in desperate need of housing help.  She was scared, bewildered by her new surroundings, still traumatized by the horrors behind them, only to find a startlingly aggressive bureaucracy shackling her and her husband with ankle monitors.  Once housed in a trailer, they confronted the oncoming chill of winter.  The electricity deposit for the modest trailer was more than four hundred dollars.  We asked our community for aid, hoping to cobble enough to offer these refugees, these strangers, light and warmth.  The next day, in my mailbox, I found Goodwill gift cards and an unmarked envelope with $150.  I never learned who these anonymous donors were, but I hope they saw the photos I was able to share of E's young son, playing in the trailer she had cleaned to sparkling, awash in the electricity they made possible.  Christ worked through those faceless donors that day, and every day after as the temperatures fell, showering them in love, light, and warmth.

Ivonne Wallace Fuentes is a professor of history at Roanoke College, a leader in Roanoke Indivisible, and the author of Most Scandalous Woman: Magda Portal and the Dream of Revolution in Peru (Oklahoma, 2017).  A Sunday School teacher, you may see her and her two young boys in the last pews at the 10 am service.

Charlotte Simmonds:
It was a few months ago, at the beginning of the warm weather, when I was picking my son up from St. Johns Music Academy, that a scruffy looking man asked me for some change.  I am not in the habit of carrying any cash so, with three kids in tow, I hastily made my apologies and shoed the kids into their car seats.  But I felt bad.  And to add to my conscience this little voice from the back seat piped up, “Mummy, haven’t you got any money?”  The man was still hanging around, so I had a quick look in my wallet and lo and behold I had $2! I apologized for it being a measly amount, but the older gentleman looked pleased and promised himself a cold drink.  A short seemingly insignificant encounter for some but as a parent, I am watched by little eyes.  Last week we drove past the same gentleman downtown.  My son pointed him out and reminded me that we had given him $2 “I wonder if he wants another cold drink Mummy!?”   In Mathew Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. 

Charlotte Simmonds is married to Andrew and they are parents to three young children.  They emigrated from the U.K four years ago but Charlotte grew up in South Africa.  Charlotte is a labor and delivery nurse, helping women have babies and she also teaches at Virginia Western.  In her ‘spare’ time she likes to knit and read.

Ruth Cassell-Huynh: “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.” Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark (1988)

I came across this quote during a devotional I often read on my phone. It gave me pause. Both of my children are biracial children of immigrant extended families. The current affairs in our country and how we treat refugees and immigrants—and people of color in general—feel extremely personal to me. And extremely troubling.

Even so, I struggle to frame with love some folks who live directly next door to us, a single dad and three kids. My youngest son calls them “neighbor friends” and runs out to play every time he hears their voices. I always follow to make sure he is safe and doesn’t go inside their house (and doesn’t hear any words I don’t want him to repeat).

My oldest son is more cautious. He’s never tried to befriend our neighbors. He started gifted education in fourth grade and went to a different elementary school. When he began talking in “us and them” statements about the students who weren’t in his gifted classes, I started to worry.

That’s one reason I signed him up to go to CYP for after school when he started 6th grade this year. I wanted him to get to know and truly interact with kids from all backgrounds so he could see that smarts, creativity, and curiosity are gifts all children share.

I came to pick him up after school recently and he and another boy sat at a table, using some markers he begged to get for his birthday. He’d taken them to CYP to share. The boys smiled as they marked up blank Lamborghini coloring sheets with these “sweet” markers.

Can you imagine a world full of neighbor friends, where fear of the unknown and distrust exist, but each of us share our talents to create frames of love to overcome our fears and worries? That is how I envision my life in Christ. That is the world I hope for my children.

Ruth Cassell-Huynh and her husband Dave and two boys, joined St. John's about three years ago. She is deeply involved in efforts across the community including serving as co-chair of Leadership Roanoke Valley Alumni Association, and member of Junior League of Roanoke Valley and Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Council. The family believes in loving one another through thick and thin, and Ruth and Dave just try to keep their two energetic and curious boys busy!

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