My family and I were living far from home, lonely, and suffering health problems when an unexpected encounter happened.
My family was more than halfway into a three-year tour abroad and it had been rough going. My wife, who has celiac disease and an allergy to dairy, struggled to manage her diet in Asia. My kids’ health was quickly deteriorating, living in a condo infested with mold. They were also growing up in the middle of one of Bangkok’s several red-light districts. I myself struggled in a work assignment far different from what I’d envisioned.
We persuaded my employer to move us into a different condo elsewhere in the city — no more red-light district. Yet we remained deeply lonely. We made few friends at our parish. One weekend I noticed several teenagers departing our condo with their father and I recognized the family — the kids were both altar servers. A few days later, I introduced myself to the mother in the elevator. We invited her and her husband over for drinks.
Turns out, we shared much in common, having both earlier lived in the same part of the United States. The husband, an artist, was very vocal about his Catholic faith. The wife, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army, was a convert. Both were warm and talkative. We chatted for hours. The husband invited our family over for their every-Friday homemade pizza night.
From there, a beautiful friendship was born. The husband and wife adored our kids, providing a welcome outlet for their youthful energies. We began to carpool to Mass together. The family voluntarily took turns holding or entertaining our kids at church, the wife playing with our daughter’s hair until she was practically asleep in the pew. The family’s devoted faith also served as an important testimony to our children.
Most weekends we were up at their condo, enjoying pizza, eating brunch after Mass, or enjoying a midday coffee break. My wife and I, struggling with three children under the age of four, tried to find ways to return the many favors we received from them. We liked to think there was some level of reciprocity … but truthfully it was a full-blown demonstration of Christian love and grace from a family we couldn’t possibly repay.
If anything, our contribution to the friendship created some new challenges for them. I had befriended a number of Pakistani refugees and asylum seekers at our parish. Some of them had been detained in a Bangkok jail where they suffered under miserable conditions. I invited our new friends to come with us to visit. The experience tore the husband’s heart apart and soon he was bringing his teenage kids so they too could see what it looked to suffer for Christ. The family eventually offered significant financial aid to those in need, the husband frequently declaring to the Pakistani Catholics, “you always make my day.”
Outsiders began to presume we were all one, big, happy family and at times, it certainly felt that way. We spent a number of holidays together. My family was far happier and more at peace than we had been earlier in Thailand. Many of our struggles began to feel less burdensome, knowing we had friends whom we could trust and lean on. This was what Catholic fellowship is supposed to look like. As we prepared to depart Thailand, the husband agreed to accept a “commission” to paint the Visitation (our two daughters named after Mary and St. Elizabeth). It was a way to preserve the friendship across what would be almost 9,000 miles.
I could say that I can’t imagine what Bangkok would have been like without our friends, but that would be false. I can imagine exactly what it would have been like: stressful, difficult, lonely. That’s precisely what life is like for many people, especially during the holidays seasons of Advent and Christmas, and especially if they’re living far from home — if they even have a home they wish to return to.
So this Advent, consider a different kind of Christmas tradition and develop a new friendship with someone, perhaps a person you see regularly in the neighborhood, at work, or in church. You may be surprised how much of a gift that friendship can be, both for you and for them. My own family’s experience in Bangkok, Thailand, presents a perfect example of how friendship can change everything.