It was my junior year at Baylor University, and I thought I had my college career comfortably under control. I had completed most of my requirements with the exception of one Spanish class. Three years had elapsed since I had read, studied or spoken Spanish; and with this small fact I knew that I was going to struggle.
It was tougher than I thought. After one week, I was hopelessly behind and dropped the class. Considering my alternatives, I had the brilliant idea that studying abroad in Madrid would be the perfect way to learn the language and fulfill my college requirement. Little did I know that I was about to learn more than just Spanish.
With my suitcase in one hand and a metro map in the other, I began to roll my belongings through the streets of Madrid. After 12 hours of travel, having flown from Dallas, Texas, I was more than ready for a shower and settling into my new apartment.
As I walked up Calle Manuel and found the apartment that would be my new home, I was greeted by an older woman with dark eyes. Her name was Carmen, and being a native Spaniard she greeted me with a double kiss and rapidly asked questions in Spanish. At that moment I began to think back to my Spanish classes in high school, wishing I had paid more attention! Not knowing much English, she welcomed me in with hand gestures and pointed down a long hallway to where I would be staying for the semester.
This seemed less frightening when I saw that my three other roommates were American students who had the same stunned and overwhelmed look on their faces. We talked about our flights, our expectations and our initial impressions of Spain. We shared the reasons we decided to study abroad for a semester, and they were shocked to find that I was not majoring in the language. To be completely and humbly honest, I did not hold a candle to these girls who seemed to be comfortable holding a conversation in Spanish. My first challenge soon arrived.
Calamari for dinner
Our first night, Carmen made us fried calamari (squid), and in my fractured Spanish, I politely explained that I could not eat the meal she'd prepared. Then, with Spanish-English dictionary in hand, I made a list of the other meats that I couldn't eat. What a way to make a first impression—rejecting her first meal! I was sure Carmen must have thought I was rude, and she soon learned that I was different in more respects than just my diet.
Every Friday night Carmen noticed how I never went out partying with my other roommates. She also inquired about the "movies" I watched on Saturdays. They were not the typical forms of entertainment the other students watched!
I explained that my church had sermons online that I could watch or listen to regardless of my location or country. Spain, a country rich in religious history and predominately Catholic, did not have many who shared in my beliefs. It was difficult to keep the Sabbath alone, and I knew that this feeling of loneliness would grow with time. I had never considered how much my church was actually a family. Being away from my family brought on a feeling of homesickness.
It was finally time for spring break, and although many of my school friends had planned trips outside Spain, I wanted to stay and fully experience the culture. For centuries, this area has been famous for richly unique qualities of food, dancing and landscape.
A year before, I had traveled through Europe and started a friendship with Claire and Jako Kasper, a couple who attend the United Church of God in Germany. After I told them that I was moving to Spain, we quickly planned a road trip together through the Iberian Peninsula (on which Spain and Portugal are located).
It had been months since I had spent time with other young adults who shared my beliefs, so I was really looking forward to our time together. The first weekend of our camping/road trip excursion, we had a nice Friday night meal, shared in deep conversation and enjoyed listening to a sermon from a small MP3 player on the Sabbath.
I had started to forget the importance of being with people who believe, think and feel the same way I do. They invited me to spend the Passover and week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread with them in Germany, and I knew that it would be an amazing opportunity to enjoy time with fellow Church members.
So the spring festival period came, and I remember stepping off the high-speed German train with a hiking backpack, wondering how long it had been since I had sung hymns. Now was my opportunity to wear Sabbath clothes, sing hymns with fellow believers, give an offering and not worry about explaining my beliefs to people in Spanish! Claire and Jako greeted me with hugs and chocolate. We rode to the Passover service together, and when we arrived at the building I was overwhelmed with an unusual feeling.
In scanning the room it seemed that people were from rather diverse cultural backgrounds. Everything was different, including the personalities, senses of humor and, of course, languages. Yet as I sat there listening to the Passover service in German, something occurred to me. Even with these differences, we were all there that night for the same reason. Each of us had been called into this belief, and we were partaking of the Passover as a unified body.
More than Spanish
This is when it dawned on me that I was learning more than Spanish. I had moved to Europe to master a language and to take part in a different culture. However, while in Europe I learned that the important thing was not whether we spoke the same language or had the same opinions about the things of this world, but that we were all fluent in understanding God's truth and purpose for our lives.
In observing the Passover together, we shared the same solemn, repentant and humbled mind-set. I saw that God has the ability to call anyone, no matter where a person lives or how he or she was raised. And He has called a very diverse group of people. In fact, it is through our diversities that we can see the importance of His plan. If we were all alike, how would we be able to challenge one another and grow?
In the week that followed, I was delighted to spend time with a smorgasbord of people with similar beliefs. The evening after Passover, the group of us keeping the Night to Be Much Observed (which begins the Feast of Unleavened Bread), consisted of people from Holland, Belgium, New Zealand and England, and yours truly from Texas. As we sat around the table discussing how we keep the Sabbath and handle day-to-day Christian living, I also considered the fact that many European Church members are used to living in an environment where they can rarely spend time with other believers.
(Those unfamiliar with observing the weekly Sabbath, the annual Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread may wish to request our free booklets Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest and God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind.)
God's people in parts of Europe are so spread out, and yet they have not given in to the ways of the world. They have continued to stand firm and practice their beliefs, even if they are alone in their country. Here I had been, practically spoiled in attending with a few hundred Church members each weekend in Texas. It took my own lonely solitude in Spain to realize the importance of staying committed to what I believe, no matter how alone I might feel.
This lesson was a surprise. I had put such an emphasis on learning a human language that I had temporarily overlooked the more powerful lesson of God—that He is calling people from all backgrounds. I went to Spain to learn Spanish. I came home with a deeper appreciation of the fact that He is calling people of all nations to His way of life. VT