Dear X, You Changed My Life
This is an open letter to people I met through my study, volunteer, and work experiences across more than a dozen countries over the last decade. These individuals impacted me in a profound way but will likely never know it.
We sat down on overturned buckets in a slum on the outskirts of Lima, Peru and talked for a few hours. I was 17 and I thought I had something to say to you about truth and life. You did not correct me. Instead, you created a crack in my worldview by sharing your story and asking me thoughtful questions.
Years later, I finally understood that my ignorance, arrogance, and good intentions blinded me to reality. I have never forgotten.
I read your interview in the university newspaper as the first openly gay student president at the University of South Carolina. I kept that article for some time and thought about it for years. You were clear, unapologetic, and gracious towards those who mistreated you the most.
We never even spoke, but you demonstrated to me leadership, acceptance, and forgiveness.
I took your class on my study abroad program because I wanted to learn about Cyprus, not because it counted towards my degree. By encouraging civil discussion every week in class and challenging our notions of nationality, identity, and history, you sparked my interest in politics and international relations.
Your class was largely responsible for my pursuit of a master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies on a different divided island years later.
You called every hotel and hostel in Salzburg late one night out of concern for me and another US backpacker without a place to stay. When there were no more rooms in the whole city, you tracked us down in the streets and invited us to come stay with you and your son. The time the four of us spent together was stranger than fiction and I’ve been telling the story of those 3 days and nights to the delight and disbelief of friends and family every since.
You provided me with food and shelter and reminded me to be open to the unexpected.
I was nervous when the International Office paired us together as language partners my senior year in college. You were from Saudi Arabia and I thought your motivations for meeting with me might eventually extend beyond practicing English.
I learned that gender, nationality, and culture don’t trump the simple respect, kindness, and openness that are the core of any relationship.
After years of writing letters to each other, I never expected to meet you in your one-room home in the Dominican Republic. During my brief visit, you told me about the games you played with your friends and proudly sang me a song. You seemed happy, childish, and full of life. I knew that you would probably never have the same educational and mobility opportunities as me, however, I was not prepared to receive a call several years later from the nonprofit agency telling me that you were married at 13 and no longer in the child sponsorship program. I was beyond rage and grief when in the same breath, the agency worker asked me if I would like to sponsor another child– as if this were a simple transactional matter.
I am not done being angry about structural violence and I am not done learning the things that your story and our encounters are still teaching me.
When I met you, we were volunteering together in Mississippi right after Hurricane Katrina. A small group of us drove a food truck into one of the hardest hit areas and watched as people waited silently in their grief and devastation for us to give them food. You held up a pair of giant whitey-tighty underwear in line and asked if anyone had lost them. You asked people to dance the cha-cha, as an 80 year old.
Somehow, you made the people laugh and remember that they still could. On the drive back to our camp, you told me about how you had been volunteering with Rotary all over the world for decades. You told me to apply for a Rotary scholarship someday and I did several years later. It resulted in a master’s degree in Northern Ireland, joining the Rotary community, and the start of many life-long relationships.
You helped me understand why service to others is important, no matter your age.
To Joel, Zachery, Professor Theophanus, Sophie, Fayez, Luz, Uncle Billy, and so many more, thank you.
You changed my life.