Seven years ago — after my husband and I discovered we can’t have kids — I applied to be a volunteer mentor with Big Sisters/Big Brothers. This nonprofit organization matches adults (“Bigs”) with youth (“Littles”) and supports the friendship.
I first learned about it 35 years earlier when I myself was a Little in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Today I live in Vancouver, my Big lives in Toronto, and we still see each other every couple of years.
My Big Sister taught me that the echoes of some relationships never fade away. So, when I turned 41 and accepted the fact that my husband and I would remain childless, I felt ready to step into a Big role of my own.
I didn’t know what kind of Little Sister I’d get. My biggest worry was being matched with a teenager who wanted to shop, talk about boys, and experiment with clothes and makeup. I was also concerned about committing to a whole year of weekly visits with a girl I’d never met and may not even like.
It never occurred to me that I’d be matched with a Muslim girl who fasts every year for the month of Ramadan and never leaves the house without carefully winding her hijab around her neck and head. She also wasn’t allowed to attend school until grade 2, but that wasn’t because of the Islam religion.
Neither did I dream we’d celebrate our seventh anniversary as Big and Little! She’ll be 18 years old and graduating from high school soon. Here’s what she wrote in my birthday card last month: “I’m so grateful that God brought you into my life…Thank you for laughing with me, talking, drinking Slurpees, painting, and walking the dogs. Thank you for listening and being with me through the good and bad.”
5 Things I Learned From My Muslim Little Sister
The most important thing I learned from my relationship with my Little Sister is one of my favourite facts about God: the more often I leap in faith, the faster He catches me.
But wait, there’s more! I also learned…
1. How we spent our time mattered less than how we spent our time
It’s not obvious from what my Little Sister wrote in my birthday card card, but we did a lot more than talk and drink Slurpees! We saw Katy Perry in concert, skied in Whistler, kayaked in False Creek and even received a standing ovation after making a speech at a posh Big Sisters fundraising gala. Despite all those exciting experiences — and many more — my Little doesn’t immediately recall the adventures when she thinks about us. Neither do I. It was the mundane, everyday events that paved the way to our life-changing friendship.
2. The difference between giving advice and sharing my experience
It’s not easy to listen to a teen’s troubles and not give advice — especially if she’s a Muslim girl traveling a rocky road. But instead of telling her what she “should” do, I shared how I recovered from my own painful childhood (my mom is schizophrenic, and I spent time in foster care). I briefly described how counseling and writing helped heal my wounds. My Little has often commented on my strength, courage, peace and joy. She knows my light comes from my relationship with Jesus. I openly share how God uses both the hard and the happy parts of my life to blossom me into the woman He created me to be.
3. The value of speaking my truth, even imperfectly
The one time I tried to explain the theology of Jesus on the cross, I stumbled over my words, talked in circles, and kept getting distracted by squirrels. Even I was confused by the end of it! So, to cover my embarrassment, I asked my Little questions about Islam. She stumbled over her words, talked in circles and got distracted by squirrels. We were both left feeling silly and inept; I also felt ashamed that I wasn’t prepared to give an answer for my faith. Nevertheless, I believe God is working through me.
4. The delight of creatively redeeming the past
Something occurred to me while I was writing the above paragraph: my failure to adequately explain Christianity gives me the perfect opportunity to practice my “pitch.” I can tell my Little the truth. Jesus calls me to always be prepared to give an answer for my faith, and I need her help. I’ll ask if I can practice my “apologetics speech” with her and get her feedback (where did I lose you? what doesn’t make sense? what questions do you have?). People love sharing their opinion because it makes them feel valuable and appreciated; 18 year old “Littles” are no exception. My past failure opens the door to a deeper conversation — and friendship — in the future.
5. The value of letting people grow through their pain
As my Little mentioned in the card, we’ve been through good and bad times together. She’s experienced great pain and made difficult choices. But she is surviving and healing, and there’s a lot to be said for that. We always celebrate how far she’s come. We always look forward to a brighter, healthier, happier future. I can’t take away her pain or heal her wounds, but I can walk beside her in the valley and through the desert.
I show up consistently, share a little, and listen a lot. This is the most important part of my relationship with my Little Sister — and my relationship with Jesus.
Last year, my Muslim Little Sister started volunteering as a Big Sister through the in-school mentoring program in her community. The ripples my own Big Sister started 30 years ago in Saskatoon are still echoing today, extending to both shores of Canada. And they’ll continue to echo through the ages…God willing.
If you’re thinking about volunteering as a mentor, read 6 Reasons You’ll Love Volunteering as a Big Sister or Brother.