Notes from the Wayside – May 2023

“Madonna of Pentecost” Wayside Shrine in Rome, Italy
May 10, 2023

My youngest daughter, Gesumina, is nearly four years old, and she does not speak. While her receptive communication (meaning, her ability to understand language) is excellent, her expressive communication (what she can say) is limited to a vocabulary of only about a dozen words; a typically developing child her age would be expected to have a vocabulary of over one thousand.

Because of her speech delay, Gesumina (or “Jezzo” as we usually call her) utilizes a variety of methods to express herself, such as pictures, sign language (a mixture of “official” signs and ones she has created herself), objects, and babbly sounds. Those of us who are with her every day have become fluent in her “language”, and can usually understand her quite easily: rubbing her thumb and forefinger together means she wants me to sprinkle salt on her broccoli, a “peep peep” sound while she pumps her fist in the air means she wants me to read her “Thomas the Train”, pointing to a picture of the sun and then to her sister means she is commenting that Sabina likes yellow. Gesumina is a sweet, happy, playful little girl, and our interactions feel so organic and fulfilling that I honestly forget sometimes that she “should” be talking.

I remember, though, every time we are in public and a well-meaning stranger says something to Gesumina, then looks at me confused when she does not respond. Or when we are on the playground and a kid comes over to play but then walks away after she babbles and grunts incoherently at them. It is hard on my heart, as a mother, to witness the isolation Gesumina suffers because of her inability to speak; so few people are able or willing to take the time to learn to understand her.

Recently our family has been volunteering for a ministry through our church to help refugees that have fled to Oregon. A few weeks ago we were helping a family from Venezuela move into their new apartment, and while the husbands did the heavy lifting the wife, Andreina, and I sat on the floor with crayons, stickers, and little toys I’d brought to keep all the children occupied. Gesumina took to Andreina immediately, walking right over to her with a sticker book and plopping down in her lap. Andreina tenderly stroked Jezzo’s hair and spoke to her in Spanish while she pointed to pictures of Mickey Mouse and Goofy, and Jezzo smiled and babbled back in her own chirpy, grunty way, totally content.  

It was a profoundly beautiful scene to witness. While neither Gesumina or Andreina “understood” the other in the traditional sense, it was clear that a perfect understanding existed between them; they both know what it is to be isolated by the limits of language, and were able to be a comfort to one another. The good heart they each sensed in the other person did not require words to be understood.

Watching Gesumina and Andreina together gave me a new insight about the miracle of Pentecost, when every person in the crowd hears the disciple speak in the language of their own native land:

"When the day of Pentecost had come… they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with different tongues, as the Spirit was giving them the ability to speak out. Now there were Jews residing in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together and they were bewildered, because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty deeds of God."
(Acts 2:1-11)

I wonder if, once the disciples had been filled with the Holy Spirit, the precise words they used as they preached actually became less important. Perhaps the presence of the Spirit of God inside them was so clearly communicated by their way of being that it was implicitly understood by all who heard them, and language was no longer a barrier; just as it wasn’t a barrier in the relationship between Gesumina and Andreina. Gesumina, who does not know a word of Spanish, nevertheless understood that Andreina was kind, and could sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in this gentle and trustworthy person. And, unlike a native English speaker, Andreina wasn’t exasperated by a child who spoke gibberish that she couldn’t understand. She just saw a child of God, and didn’t hesitate to scoop her up and play along.

As someone who lectures and writes for a living, I believe that words have power. But words are also limited in their usefulness, and sometimes they just get in the way. I think this is what St. Francis of Assisi was getting at when (according to legend) he said: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words”. If I was ever to visit Andreina’s home country of Venezuela (where my feeble grasp of Spanish would be woefully inadequate), I wonder if I would able to speak of “the mighty deeds of God” as skillfully and articulately as Andreina and Gesumina did.

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