Three years ago, we were sitting inside a mostly empty rental house in Texas, awaiting our return to South Africa with suitcases packed. We had returned to the USA to visit our extended families for the first time in two-and-a-half years. No one had expected the way Covid-19 would rock the world. Four days before our return flight in March 2020, South Africa shut its borders and revoked our visas. We never returned.
Our company quickly gave us two options for a job relocation: Colorado Springs or Philadelphia. We chose Philadelphia because there was an actual team presence here and because my best friend lives close by.
Our belongings in South Africa were sold, and we moved to Philadelphia with only a few suitcases of clothes and some cheap furniture purchased from Facebook marketplace. It’s a long story – worth telling one day. God provided in amazing ways through that tumultuous transition, even amidst all the grief and heartache that came with it.
We’ve been here now for three years. I have a real love-hate relationship with Philadelphia; I find the phrase “city of brotherly love” hilariously ironic.
A few weeks after our move to Philly, Jonah fell on the pavement and cut open his forehead. Nobody stopped to help us, as I was lying on the sidewalk downtown, mopping up Jonah’s blood with our facemasks. People just walked around us and pretended not to notice. This was my first real moment of culture shock in the USA. (I mean really, the South has issues, but people tend to stop and help bleeding, injured children).
I’m often baffled by how much it feels as if we’re still living overseas.
Trash litters the street through miles and miles of rowhouses. Everywhere you look, there are small businesses and restaurants with signs in Mandarin, Spanish, Vietnamese, and other languages. Little Arabic stores selling halal meat can be found on every other corner. One woman is selling fruit off her stoop, holding a bright cardboard sign. A red tent sits outside someone’s stoop, illegally occupying the turning lane, selling fresh-pressed juices and homemade empanadas. The air is filled with competing smells of someone cooking curry, rotting garbage and fresh laundry being washed.
There really is no better place to live if you work with immigrants and refugees. Twelve languages were represented in my ESL class last semester.
One strange phenomenon is an ice cream truck that roams about our neighborhood. Imagine, it’s 40 degrees outside and raining at 9pm, and we hear the annoying, repetitive bells of the ice cream truck coming down the street. Surely everyone must know it’s not just selling ice cream. “Hi! Yes, Can I get a double vanilla cone with a side of fentanyl?
When my van’s alternator died, leaving me stranded next to the highway nicknamed nationally the “corridor of death” – I quickly called my neighbor, Mike, for a recommendation. “I got a guy,” Mike tells Chris in a Philly accent, “honest and best in the business.” Trusting his recommendation, I had my car towed to Joe’s auto shop. Joe is a middle-aged, greasy mechanic, with a cigarette always in his mouth. There was no sign, just a door to a concrete warehouse in the middle of an industrial area lined with broken-down cars. Smoke filled the crammed little room, and there was a dirty cat sitting on piles of old boxes next to hundreds of ancient stereos. I cautiously handed him the keys. … Two days later when we went to pick up the car, the door was locked. Joe drove by in a truck and said franticly, “You gotta go! Sorry! Come back in an hour!” He sped off, and later told us that there was an inspector on his way, so he needed to close the shop. He delivered the car to our house a few hours later. But then we had to run to the ATM because, of course, he only takes cash. (For the record, Joe is an honest guy and a good mechanic. He’s just not very good at running a business).
We had decided to buy this van after our previous car was stolen from our driveway. When I went to get a rental car, the lady at the counter of Enterprise told me a funny story. “I had a girl last week who got her car stolen, but when I gave her a rental SUV, the next morning those lunatics ripped out the catalytic converter and the dashboard… ugh. Welcome to Philly.” … Well, thankfully our rental car survived, and this all worked out in our favor. A few days later, our Toyota was found ditched in an industrial lot in West Philly, trashed with joints and beer bottles. Despite our car’s many stains from crayons and apple juice – our insurance company paid to have that car look like new. This increased its value, and we were able to sell and upgrade to a minivan. (Thanks, thieves).
A few weeks after our car theft we saw on the news that some crazy man a few blocks down the street had taken a butcher knife and beheaded his wife. The news report said this man had obviously forgotten to take his psychiatric medication...
Another memorable moment happened just before midnight, when a car lost control and barreled through my neighbor’s front yard and into ours, only 5 feet from the wall of our living room. Had it not hit the railing in my neighbor’s yard, it would have undoubtedly come through our wall, where Chris and I were sitting on the living room couch. Two guys stumbled out, visibly high. They dumped their drugs in our trash can and ran off through the dark alleyway behind our house. The car stayed until the cops arrived the next morning.
One time my car broke down in a really sketchy neighborhood when I was planning to take some of our refugee friends to the supermarket. (WHY have we had so many car issues?! I blame the potholes). Two heavily-tatooed Puerto Rican guys wearing baggy T-shirts and gold chains walked towards me. I was nervous. They motioned for me to pop the hood. "Hablos espangol?" they asked. "No," I said. "English... ou parlez vous francais?" I laughed. "Nah, didn't think so..."
They tinkered with my car for half an hour. When Chris arrived, they tried to explain what was needed. I wanted to hug those guys for helping and making me feel safe, but I decided that might be culturally inappropriate! ... Chris arrived and called a tow truck, and the tow guy was a Ukrainian Christian. They got chatting and he was so grateful to hear that we work with refugees that he refused to let us pay him and sent us away with a blessing instead.
Life in the city is sometimes stressful, but never dull.
There were difficult parts of living in South Africa, too– like seeing stark racism and abject poverty or having to ration water and often going without electricity. But the Western Cape was a feast for the senses. Stepping outside our front door, the sun would set behind majestic purple mountains, silhouetting green vineyards which seemed vast and endless. Our favorite place was a quaint little beach town called Hermanus, where the rocky cliffs ran jagged into the sea. At certain points, you could stand on the edge of the hills, look down and see many whales who come to the shallow water of the bay to mate. Another favorite place was Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, a remote hiking place whose beauty is truly other-worldly. It is difficult to comprehend how such beauty and brokenness can coexist in a place.
Perhaps coming from the wild beauty of South Africa has made it more difficult to adjust to life in the urban jungle. Philadelphia grates heavily on our nervous systems. We’re itching to move to wide-open spaces where land is plentiful. I want a horse and chickens. I’m halfway serious when I say that I want to go live among the Amish. (Fun fact – I’ve never owned a television, so I’m halfway there).
But despite my itching for nature, I know if we left, I would miss the bustling life of this interesting and diverse place. I may complain about Philly – but God has blessed our lives here. We’re blessed with a job that gives us a real sense of purpose, a solid community, a thriving church, and a diverse network of friends who enrich our lives.
Another endearing thing about Philly is my colorful neighbors. Aside from Mike's family, they're mostly internationals. There's Rose, the sassy Puerto Rican woman with a big heart and even louder mouth. Her young granddaughter often stays with us and has become like one of our own. There's Haitian Gerry (that's not his real name; that's the name I called him for nearly a year before I learned to say his name correctly). He's older and a bit lonely. He loves to come over and talk, and he taught my kids to play Haitian board games. There's the Vietnamese family with a great garden. We can't speak much, but we communicate in gestures and kindly gift each other plants. Then, there's a really quirky Pakistani man and his sister. They're honestly more difficult to love, but nevertheless they make up the fabric of our interesting block.
Most days I walk our kids to school, along with our dog. Just watch the show Abbott Elementary and you'll understand why we work extra jobs to afford private school and avoid the public school system. And my kids love their school. Even amidst my neurodivergent children's unique challenges, they are in a loving environment where they have been given all the necessary support to thrive.
But can I have the best of both worlds?
Last year, my friend, Gwen, and I started a group for international women called Art and Conversation. Our desire was to create a safe space where women could find community, share their stories, and find healing through art. Each project was used to facilitate purposeful conversation. It was a wonderful time and God blessed our friendships. Since then, our dream has expanded. We dream of purchasing land outside the city – a beautiful, green place where it’s quiet and safe. We will expand our community garden and have animals. This will be a refuge, a retreat center, where people from all walks of life can temporarily escape the city to find spiritual and emotional healing, using modalities like art and nature.
To this end, we have begun to think, to plan, to learn, to pray. I don’t believe this stirring inside our hearts (Mine and Chris’ and Gwen’s) is any accident. But I’m learning that dreams are fluid. I hold them with open hands.
My idea of beauty may be rugged mountains and green trees, but God’s idea of beauty is man. (Adam and Eve – not the mountains - were the pinnacle of all of creation in the Genesis story). Beauty in the city may come in a different form – in beautiful diversity and the faces of people God loves. And I will strive for contentment in this place through the daily hitting of potholes…and the angry woman outside yelling in Portuguese while I sit here trying to type this.
I’m so grateful for the life we’ve built here. There’s been a lot of challenges and a lot of grace. I feel more “settled” than I’ve ever felt in my adult life.
But the truth is that lives can change in an instant - as ours did three years ago. So, we hold our whole lives with open hands and rest contented knowing that Earth is not our true home. It’s not our final destination. God’s ways and His timing are often unexpected, but always perfect.
Who knows where we will be in three more years – on a picturesque farm somewhere, or braving the loud, chaotic streets of Philadelphia? I don’t need to know. I just want to be right in the center of His perfect will.
That’s always the safest and most joyous place.