Welcomed as Foreigners: Language, Listening, and Overcoming Our Fear of Failure

Lyle Enright (with Suzanne Ross)

In Bogotá, Colombia, we learned what it meant to be welcomed as the other, as we watched Latin American artisans of peace build their own unrivalrous space.

Hitting the language barrier

Tuesday, 28 June 2022, was a historic day in Colombia. 

After decades of violence that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, the nation’s truth commission issued its final report. 

This report detailed atrocities committed by the Colombian military and revolutionary fighters. Along with a new president-elect, it points a clear if rocky path forward for the country and its people.

While these events unfolded, several members of the unRival team sat only a few miles away. At the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, we shared a meal with other Latin American peacebuilders. 

Facilitated by Joel Aguilar, these change-makers discussed racial struggle, advocacy for victims, and artistic ways to connect people with their heritage. Whether it led to longer-term fellowship, they all needed one afternoon to hear and care for one another.

“We’ve been missing opportunities to talk amongst ourselves,” said one participant. “To have serene conversations, to imagine the future and not focus only on the violence of the present.”

The conversation developed as new peacebuilders joined after lunch, having just come from hearing the truth commission’s report. They were exhausted, but still eager to see us. They described the hope of seeing so many young people there to hear the commission, along with the new president and vice president. 

But they also heard the pain of protestors saying the report did not go far enough. Many victims still cried out for justice.

Joel and James Alison generously acted as our interpreters that afternoon. But those of us not practiced in Spanish still struggled to keep up. A few of us turned to technology, parsing butchered reports from Google Translate as we tried not to miss the many nuances and human rhythms of the gathering. 

Eventually, we had to let go of our need to understand everything. All we had were those human rhythms, graciously mediated by those who knew the language.

We felt, at first, that we’d failed in a big way. But we were about to learn something new and exciting about crafting unrivalrous space.

“We wanted you there”

After meeting with these artisans of peace, we took a hard look at our own planning and expectations. 

We worried that our inability to speak Spanish bogged things down. We were grateful for these peacebuilders and their patience with us. But they’d needed to interrupt themselves to tell us what was happening. Couldn’t the conversation have proceeded more smoothly and intimately without us? 

We prepared to admit we were wrong. That facilitating spaces like these was too ambitious for us yet. 

Then our host, Iván–a keystone connection in our group of peacebuilders–told us something extraordinary. “We’re glad you were there,” he said. “We wanted you there. It meant a lot that you wanted to hear the stories.”

As we learn to share in unrivalrous space, it’s tempting to see ourselves as providers but never as recipients, as crafters instead of partakers. Feeling responsible for the space made us insecure as the only English speakers in the room. We wondered how we could ‌provide a welcoming, dignifying environment when we couldn’t even keep up with the stories of our guests.

To be honest, this was a very colonial attitude at work in us, despite our best intentions.

But what first felt like a failure on our part was‌ an opportunity to learn and heal. 

In this space Joel and Iván created with other Bogotanos, we were truly foreigners. We experienced what it meant to be welcomed as foreigners

As we felt the weight of history unfolding in front of us, we stepped out of the role of host. Letting go of linguistic control opened up another space for us. We became the invitees, bearing witness to these stories, even when we couldn’t understand them.

The idea of being a witness has become complicated in recent years; it carries some legal implications for peacebuilders in dangerous places. But witnessing can also mean an act of pure presence. Of being there with other bodies, attentive. We may not know the content, but we ‌know, through our presence, that a story is being told. We know that history is being made, that intimacy is developing in the room. 

To be there while it’s happening displays a desire to see it, to be part of it, even if we don’t know what’s going on. And that desire is invaluable to the storytellers.

Loving our uncommon language

Western history is marred by acts of cruelty. In the infamous “Requerimiento,” Spanish conquistadors addressed the indigenous South American peoples in a European language, and then punished them for not understanding. 

Throughout the process of colonization, imperial nations entrenched their language in every place they settled. Language became the tool by which one group of people dominated another.

Is there something redemptive, decolonizing, in the simple act of listening to someone whose language we don’t understand? Of displaying the desire to be there? To lean in with the body, strain the ear, saying “I want to witness your story, even if I don’t understand”? 

It hadn’t occurred to us until Iván thanked us for being there, saying he could tell that we wanted to hear–to be with them and witness their history.

Later that week, we heard the story of René Girard’s meeting with a group of liberation theologians in São Paulo, Brazil, back in 1990. With the country awash in violence, priests and academics asked Girard for his perspective as the world’s leading scholar of conflict. They were looking for an ethical way to resist, whether it be through nonviolence or armed revolt.

* The Spanish summary of this encounter is entitled, Sobre Ídolos y Sacrificios: Girard con teólogos de la liberación [On Idols & Sacrifice: René Girard With Liberation Theologians].

As the meeting gradually moved from French to Spanish–two languages with their own colonial baggage–Girard, also a guest at that meeting, found himself at a disadvantage. He did not know Spanish. 

This prodigious thinker, whose theories had already filled thousands of pages, found himself with meager resources. He used them on behalf of those who had invited him. His most important work of that week involved straining, listening, hearing the conversations as well as he could. Then he responded in as few words as possible to the most central points of the questions asked of him. 

Girard’s behavior during that event led one of those present to comment on the “sanctity of his intellect”. One would think he meant Girard’s brilliance, his incisiveness, his “genius” if we wanted to be romantic about it. 

But no. They meant his patience, his humility, and his ability to make others feel like they were the most important people in the room.

This new look at desire transformed our failure into success. There’s already something transformative about wanting to be immersed with others, even in a language we do not understand. And when we give others the opportunity to do the tender, patient work of translating, that too builds trust and peace. I think this is a special expression of what it means to be unrivalrous. 

These stories need to be told. All stories deserve to be told, heard, and listened to. And where the desire to hear is genuine, there can be no fear of failure.