So would not just be a pastor to these refugee families. He would be a neighbor.
Families from Syria live in the Parkview Gardens Apartments in Prince George’s County. As do families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, Burma and Congo. And for the past two years, so do Eric So, Lisa So, 2-year-old Xavier and 10-month-old Felix.
“I think probably the most compelling reason we chose to move into the neighborhood was really the story of Jesus,” Eric So said. “From the Scriptures, I see God sending his son, Jesus, into the world, so that he would dwell among the people.”
Dwelling among the people, for the Sos, has meant bedbugs and roach scares, concerns about leaking pipes and higher crime rates and about whether they are doing the right thing in putting their children in an inferior school district. As the country has turned away from refugees — electing a president who talked about stopping accepting any refugees from Syria — the Sos have turned toward them with a radical act of self-sacrifice.
At home in a new land
When his two rambunctious toddlers finally settle down for their naps, So, 32, slips outside his family’s two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of one of the farthest buildings in the massive Riverdale, Md., apartment complex.
In the parking lots between the green-accented apartment buildings, children zoom in every direction on all sorts of wheeled toys — scooters, strollers, tricycles. A little girl with training wheels on her bike zips toward one ground-floor apartment, and So follows on foot.
Inside, Najah Ahmer can’t speak English, but she has just baked a heap of flat Syrian bread, and her gestures are enough to lead So to the couch, where he is soon drinking sweet tea from a clear glass cup and nibbling the still-warm bread.
“Made in home,” Ahmer’s son Haetham, 20, says about the bread.
“Homemade,” So teaches. “Homemade,” Haetham mimics. They repeat the word a few times each, Haetham testing the unfamiliar sound on his tongue.
So asks Haetham about his upcoming job interview, and his 17-year-old brother Adham about his first weeks of school. The Syrian family has been in the United States for three months.
Repeating each question as many times as necessary, So turns to Google Translate on his cellphone when English fails. He jokes around with Ahmer and her husband, Salah Alobeid, about how Syrian weddings compare with American ones. When Alobeid mentions how healthy he is despite his smoking habit, So listens appreciatively for the punchline of his story before chiming in: “Still, try to smoke less, Salah. I told you, try to save money and your health.”
His tone is gentle and laid-back. Less of a schoolmaster, more of a neighbor. A neighbor who also happens to be a tutor, a social worker, a résumé coach, an event planner, a therapist and any number of other roles that might be called for on any given day at Parkview Gardens.
Spreading the gospel
This one sprawling apartment complex is where Lutheran Social Services, one of the organizations that the U.S. government has put in charge of resettling refugees in the Maryland suburbs, places most of its families. The group has placed hundreds of families there, it said. Ethiopian Community Development Council, another organization entrusted with refugee resettlement, has placed about 30 more families there, staff member Katherine Parra said.
These nonprofits rely so heavily on Parkview Gardens, Parra said, because they have found the complex is unusually willing to accommodate new move-ins with very few days’ notice. Plus, most of the families seem to like it there. Some have chosen to stay for many years, even after they get their footing in America.
With hundreds of refugees around him, So somehow seems to keep tabs in his head on all of them. The Well, the nondenominational evangelical church in Silver Spring where he is one of three pastors on staff, decided his mission work at Parkview Gardens was important enough that he should spend half his work time there and half in Silver Spring.
He often spends afternoons deliberately strolling the parking lots, where he knows adults and children will be outdoors socializing between the buildings. Each time he sees someone he knows, he stops for a conversation that goes just a bit beyond neighborly pleasantries and into the territory of pastoral assistance.
He spots a seventh-grader trotting home beneath a bulky backpack. “I almost didn’t recognize you. You got new glasses!” he says to the girl. “You guys recently had some sort of celebration, right? I saw pictures on Facebook.” It was Diwali. She tells him a bit about the Hindu holiday, and he asks her about school.
When he greets a man who is watching his two sons play while his 1-year-old daughter clings to his leg, So remarks on the little girl’s growth. Then he asks “Have you found a job yet?” The man has an interview on Monday. So quizzes him about it, and before ambling toward the next building, he says, “I will be praying for your interview.”
Although most of his conversations with his refugee neighbors are about their myriad pressing needs — to get jobs, to learn English, to secure driver’s licenses, to find coats for their children before winter comes — So considers himself a missionary of sorts. He is never far from bringing any given conversation around to the subject of Jesus.
“I see it as for myself, personally, this good news of Jesus is the best thing ever in my life. It would not be consistent if I didn’t want others to at least hear it,” he said one afternoon, sitting on a playground at Parkview Gardens. Two women in hijabs walked past pushing strollers, followed by five children who run for the seesaw shouting in a jumble of foreign languages.
Not talking to his neighbors about Christianity, So said, would be like making new friends but not mentioning his wife and children to them. “As they learn about me, I can’t help but talk about Jesus, because he’s so important to me.”
He counts two former Muslims and one former agnostic who have converted to Christianity under his tutelage at Parkview Gardens.
The ‘nastiest’ place on Earth
This living experience has been a mission for the Sos since the beginning, when they were newlyweds and So was not even a pastor yet.
Both Eric and Lisa were born and raised in Montgomery County in Asian families, and they encouraged each other as they deepened their Christian faith after they started dating in college.
In 2012, Eric left his job doing IT work as a government contractor to take an unpaid internship at the International Rescue Committee, one of nine nonprofits that the federal government deputizes to resettle refugees once they’ve been vetted and accepted for entry into the United States. Before long, So took a full-time job working with refugees in Maryland, a position that allowed him to train as a pastor while working. Not long after that, he was thinking about moving.
The couple had a new baby at that point, and So was not sure what his wife would say to the idea. But he shouldn’t have worried: “Amazingly enough, God put it on both our hearts.”
Not that either of them felt sure of their decision every day. At first, there were the living conditions to contend with. Lisa made the mistake, as they were preparing to move out of their downtown Silver Spring home, of reading online reviews for their new dwelling.
“I moved here just about 6 weeks ago and already, I wanna move out.”
“See people doing drugs in the morning and selling at night.”
“This is the dirtiest, nastiest [roach] infested place on earth.”
“While living in Parkview Gardens, was a nightmare and I mean nightmare. I would sometimes cry on my way home from work, because I hate coming home to that place. “
She read about cars being broken into, children being molested. She read about heat that wouldn’t turn on in the winter and pipes that leaked. Somehow, she steeled herself, insisted on only one thing — a washer-dryer inside their apartment — and moved in.
Almost immediately, she encountered one of the scourges she had read about online: bedbugs. The itchy biters, nightmarishly difficult to eradicate, almost drove her back to Silver Spring right then and there.
Instead, she got to work. If she had bedbugs to contend with, her neighbors probably did too, she figured. She learned about bug-proof mattress covers and started teaching neighbors who couldn’t read the English instructions to use them on their own beds.
Until she stopped working after her second baby was born, Lisa was a nurse in the neonatal intensive-care unit at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Her neighbors soon learned that they could knock on her door to get answers to the medical questions that their doctors sometimes didn’t have the time or the language skills to communicate to them. Lisa stopped one neighbor from taking too large a dose of his medication and taught a diabetic how to use the blood-glucose-monitoring device that a U.S. doctor had handed to her.
Another neighbor confided in Lisa that she had recently suffered a miscarriage, a topic too taboo to discuss in Afghanistan, where she came from. Shyly, she asked Lisa what had been troubling her most: Had she killed the baby by having sex with her husband while she was pregnant? Lisa assured her that the miscarriage was in no way her fault, and when Lisa asked the woman whether she wanted to pray together, the woman said that would be comforting, even though Lisa is Christian and she is Muslim.
For Eric, there are still days he hears about the milestones achieved by the friends he left behind in Silver Spring and wonders what he is doing in Parkview Gardens. His peers are buying houses in nice neighborhoods and enrolling their children in superior schools.
“There are times that I’m like: ‘What are we doing? Why are we here? We don’t have to be here,’” he said. “That’s where we truly make a firm commitment in following Jesus, whatever that might look like.”
Forming a community
What it looks like on this night is the Sos’ children, Felix and Xavier, crawling in the center of a circle of friends, a circle that looks just the same and yet very different from the other community groups that So’s Silver Spring church convenes for regular weeknight fellowship in members’ Montgomery County homes.
Church members are here, including some of the volunteers that the Sos have recruited to teach English lessons at Parkview Gardens and a second young couple who actually followed their lead and just bought a home near the apartment complex. And a few refugees are there — not just the Christian families who have come to see So as their spiritual guide, but two Muslim men and one Buddhist.
So asks two members of the group to give their testimony, and they tell drastically different life stories. Lisa So speaks first, sharing how much pressure she felt to get into a good college when she was a high schooler in suburban Maryland and how finding Jesus allowed her to accept herself. Then Bishal Gurung talks about fleeing his native Bhutan as a child, spending 18 wretched years in a refugee camp and coming to the United States only to develop an excruciating kidney stone almost right away and find himself unaware of how to get to a hospital. Everyone in the circle nods along to both stories, offering the same warm encouragement while nibbling potato chips.
Soon, So hopes, he will be facilitating this sort of dialogue across such vast gulfs of faith, culture and life experience even more often. He has a new and even more ambitious vision for his ministry in Riverdale: He wants to plant a new church.
He can picture the place — a church open to all cultures. Open to all traumas. Open to all neighbors.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to one of the Sos’ sons as Francis. His name is Felix.