I work on a (docked) refugee boat a couple of days a week and the ‘passengers’ are mostly young men from Africa, economic refugees in search of a better life, fleeing lives of poverty. A–, a devout Christian who often carries a bible with him even as he sleeps on a park bench, told us the following story as we were in a ‘groupe de parole’, a peer counselling meeting where folks share their troubles in hopes of finding empathy. A– has a beautiful smile but on this day he wasn’t smiling – he felt ashamed he hadn’t been able to find work or earn money to send back to Zambia to help his ailing mother buy medicine.

“I wanted to call my parents to tell them I am still alive, but I put it off because I couldn’t face telling them I was still sleeping on the streets. Finally my friend let me use his phone card. My parents were overjoyed to hear my voice – my mother started crying saying she was just sad she wouldn’t get to see me before she dies… I told her to remember what she taught me – that we are Always Together in God’s Love”

At this point in the circle A– looked down at his hands, and started humming a tune. He told us his mother taught him to sing a song in their dialect which reminds us of our divine connectedness. He started singing the song for us, and although we couldn’t understand the words, the rest of the passengers started swaying and humming along with him.

“ I sang that song with my mother, and she sang with me, and my dad told me she was more lit up from within than he had seen her for a long time, smiling through her tears and singing all along…”

While A– was telling us his story, I noticed the other refugees (or, as they call them on the boat, ‘passengers’) were also smiling through tears.

“ Now I call my parents every chance I get, and I always sing to my mother, and she sings back to me. She tells me it’s worth months of her life just to hear me sing with her” (his mom died last month)

This story inspired me to call my mother back in Vermont that night. She is losing her memory quickly, but when I told her A–’s story, she started singing an old song she taught in the old Sunday school we went to as kids. I was amazed she could recall all of the verses and helped me sing it with her. Decades later and thousands of miles away overseas, a homeless farm boy from Africa taught me how to connect with my mother, and helped us join with each other in heartfelt song.