Learning to Speak Hsi-Fu

The following post will appear in the November 2014 edition of  Purpose Magazine a branch of Menno Media.

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The date is July 8, 2013. I enter into my new home – an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities (known as L’Arche) and am greeted by a gentleman by the name of Hsi-Fu. Hsi-Fu sits in his wheelchair, grabs my hand, and promptly brings it to his mouth for a kiss. I later learn that Hsi-Fu is quite the gentleman and this is how he greets all the ladies. I also learn that Hsi-Fu is legally blind, has a profound intellectual disability and has never learned how to walk, speak, or write. Hsi-Fu also does not communicate through sign language. As a young adult who has never worked among this demographic before radically altering my life to live in this community, I am a bit nervous as to how I will make a connection with Hsi-Fu.

Hsi-Fu speaks his own language. One click means yes, two clicks means no. A tug at his apron (bib) signals that he’s done with dinner whereas reaching out his arm indicates his need for closeness with an individual.   Hsi-Fu’s days are spent with careful bathing, feeding, and dressing. His hours are spent listening to music and clapping his hands to the beat.

To speak Hsi-Fu’s language requires intentional listening and a commitment to not only become conscious of spoken words, but more importantly of the non-verbal cacophony that exists in our world. Given that Hsi-Fu is not able to communicate through words or signs, he has adapted to our environment by learning to listen through his skin. When the breeze gently caresses him on a warm summer’s day it speaks to him. When the brook gently babbles a decoded message exists within it. The sun’s warm rays signal to him love and acceptance, and a gentle massage shows him how grateful we are to have his presence in our lives.

As a complete extrovert, I must admit that I am much better at socializing than listening. Yet Hsi-Fu has taught me that I need to slow down and learn to listen creatively. Growing up in the church, I was taught that God speaks to us in our prayer lives, through Scripture, and through the messages we receive in community. These patterns of communication all exist to help foster our awareness of Christ’s love for us and indeed they are all beneficial. Yet, there is a deeper listening that happens now in my life as a result of my friendship with Hsi-Fu. Despite my theological training, Hsi-Fu and I will never have any form of deep discussion surrounding social justice issues or the Bible. And yet, Hsi-Fu has taught me that he has the ability to be a good teacher if only I will listen to him. He probes me to re-examine my own heart and life. He challenges me to reclaim my spirituality and to become present with others rather than simply with facts and figures.

This magazine’s theme is listening and yet the focus of my article is on speaking. Is this not an oxymoron? No, because to learn how to properly and articulately speak, you first must listen. The more you listen, the more profound your words will be when you do speak; shaped not only by your own biased opinions but off of good literature, the thoughts of others who have gone before you, and the current needs being expressed within the community. From infanthood, children learn to speak because they first learn to listen and as they get older they begin to try out some of the words that they have heard since they were in-utero. Words come before complete sentences and listening comes before even the first word is ever spoken.

Hsi-Fu has taught me to listen well before responding or reacting. Hsi-Fu has taught me that in order to communicate with him I need to speak his language. The language of listening and the language of love.