Fitting in, standing out. I thought I knew enough Spanish to get by, but I realized on my journey to Puebla, Mexico, how little I knew. Junior year AP Spanish taught me how to fake understanding. I faked it too well on this trip. I laughed when there was laughter and I held a serious pose when there was honest talk. Then, someone would ask me a question and I would stumble and fumble, caught in my lies of trying to belong. I felt rude and unintelligent. It would have been better if I could have hid my rudeness and stupidity, but there was no hiding with so many people staring. I didn’t like this sort of standing out.
Blonde—it was a treasured oddity when I went to China. People would hand me their babies so they could take a picture with me. They called me “angel” and the admiring stares made me feel famous. But in Puebla, my lighter hair was a bright flag announcing to the city that I was glaringly different, that I didn’t belong there, and that I wasn’t smart enough to even understand a child’s sentence.
My differences separated me exceptionally well as I walked through a beautiful cathedral. The gold glittered, and there, it was acceptable and loved. I looked at all the boxes containing Jesus. It was obvious I was out of place; I wasn’t kneeling, I wasn’t praying like they were, and I felt bad for entering their holy ground as a tourist. I looked at the language I still didn’t understand, as if staring at it long enough would will the words into something I could recognize. When staring didn’t transform the language on the tombs in the ground, I decided to look up instead. There was a glittering chandelier. Candles crowned it. And then, I noticed a balloon. It wasn’t a balloon in its glory—it was deflated and hanging over the ancient chandelier.
I’d loved looking at the balloons on the street just a few minutes before entering the cathedral. Helium balloons were a family’s livelihood. One man would ride a bicycle down the street. On the bicycle were as many balloons as on Mr. Carl Fredricksen’s Up house. Each balloon was a different pattern and design, yet together, they made an instant parade.
Looking at the cathedral chandelier and the deflated balloon, I wondered about its story. I’m sure it was a lovely balloon once. It belonged. It fit in perfectly with its kind to form a wonderful eye-catcher. When this blue balloon was purchased, chosen, I’m sure it was so happy. It had the highest privilege—to grace the stunning cathedral in celebration of a saint. Now, it caught eyes because it was different. No one seemed to care enough to get it down, but the balloon, though it didn’t understand much from way up there, knew enough to know that people hated the way it obstructed the beauty. I sympathized with the balloon, and then I started to feel sorry both for myself and for the deflated, draped, discarded object.
But in the deflated balloon, the gospel was sung, lovelier even than the golden portraits of saints and disciples and a virgin mother and a King that were surrounding it. God gave his love for the deflated. When we belong, when we fit in perfectly, we only see people like us. Without realizing it, in Puebla that day, I searched for someone like me. Someone who spoke my language. God wasn’t like us, but He humbled himself and came to earth to speak our human language so He could show us something we could never understand: the way above the world, the way that would save us, the way of love. His love grants life’s air to those who are deflated and wrung out.
The day after my cathedral visit, I went to a very different church. Forty people gathered in a small one-room, roofless home on the edge of a mountain that was a volcano not too many years ago. Children laughed as they made their way across the dirt roads to come to church. They watched not for cars bustling by, but for burrows headed toward the water hole. Toes peaked out of their breaking, American-discarded shoes. Everyone in the room was covered in dust, but that didn’t stop them from scooting close so more could hear the man in the front talking.
The man had wrinkles around his eyes. He had very few earthly possessions, and the weight of the impoverished city rested on his shoulders that had been broken before. At first glance, this pastor was a deflated balloon. But he, like so many in Canoa that I met that week, was more full of life than the brightest cathedral lights. Though I only understood about two words that he said, it was as if I knew him. Maybe it is because know the God in him. He taught the Word of God with patience and passion. He looked at his wife with love. I could tell He gave everything for his daughters. His daughters accepted me as their own sister. They taught me hand clapping games and helped me understand their answers about the story in Acts. I didn’t need to fit in to understand their love, the love that they gave so freely. They took me outside on Saturday night to let me watch the sun set over the smoking volcano.
These new friends completed the gospel of the deflated balloon. Jesus encouraged his followers to go to the places where they didn’t belong. He encourages us to go where we don’t fit in, for so many reasons. There are so many deflated people who don’t know about His love. We can tell them. But He asks us to go, also, I think, because it is in those desperate moments of feeling unbeautiful, unlovable, that we remember just how great God’s love is, just how much we need it, and how wonderful a gift it is. Standing out means fitting into His plan.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” –1 Peter 2:9