“…and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
This is a story about two sisters. One of them is me; the other is Ta.*
We were born twelve days apart in 1982 on opposite sides of the globe: she in Laos; I in Stockton-on-Tees. We each had an older brother, born in ’79.
Other than our genders, birthdays and our family head-counts, we had pretty much nothing in common. We would probably never meet.
My parents were English working-class, which for them meant they were hard-working and didn’t waste anything. Ta’s parents were also working-class, which meant they would buy and sell anything they could get their hands on.
In 1988, aged 5, I moved from an industrial town to a village, 13 miles away. In 1989, Ta’s family fled the civil war in Laos and arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand. I don’t know what that was like. How could I? My greatest concern in 1989 was what colour my new bike would be.
Later that year, when I was going into Top Infants, Ta and her brother and mum moved to England. While Ta was getting used to the cold weather and the sea of white faces with big noses, I was rollerskating round my village without a care in the world.
This is hard to write, but tragedy struck Ta’s family when her dear brother lost his life to Leukaemia. This is a weight of grief and loss that I am yet to experience.
But God was with Ta.
This is where our roles, in some ways, flip. Ta was able to attend a highly prestigious public school** in Oxfordshire. Here she worked extremely hard, became an excellent violinist and got a place at a top university to study medicine.
Meanwhile, I was at my local comp, an average violinist, but also working hard and getting a place at a coveted university – to study English.
Aged 18, I heard about Jesus from my brother. I’d heard of Jesus before, naturally, but I didn’t know the gospel. During ‘upper sixth’ (Year 13), the Lord, against all odds, saved me. Full of mercy, he opened my eyes to the truth that I desperately needed a saviour, the Lord Jesus.
The following year, Ta started university and made friends with some Christians. She also became a very strong rower. Over the course of that year, she too was saved by God’s amazing grace.
Now, although we’d never met, we had become members of one body. We had become sisters in Christ.
It was at our different universities, where I felt very northern and Ta felt very foreign, that we met the Civil Engineers, born in the same hospital in Kent, who were soon to become our husbands. Both men were brought up in sheltered Christian homes, both musically talented, both the kind of men who throw children up in the air just-that-little-bit-too-high but who always catch them. These men had never met each other, but they could easily become friends.
In 2008 when Ta and I met, she was engaged to be married and I’d been married for two years. One of us was a white, northern teacher who was educated in politics by Randy Newman and history by Billy Joel. The other was a middle-class girl who sounds English but looks East Asian and who’s never heard of Genesis (the band, not the book). She was sporty, musical and was about to gain a PhD. We met at a new church plant on a council estate, where neither of us was in our comfort zones but both of us just wanted to help out.
This is where Jesus began to grow us together as dear, dear friends. Slowly but surely, we came to form a friendship which goes beyond birthplace, background or education. Together we grew up, becoming more like Jesus amidst the mess of this fallen world and our own repentance and faith. We’ve shared disappointments, successes and major life events.
In 2012, on the day my brother telephoned to tell me that his brain scan had shown a benign brain tumour, it was Ta that I went to visit. She listened to me, shocked and anxious and incoherent as I was. Ta has shown me, through this and other crises, that sometimes it’s OK not to know what to say. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to try to cheer a person up. She’s taught me how to share in sorrows, as well as joys.
We’ve seen friends come and go, as is the nature of city life.
We’ve seen friends walk away from the faith and others be saved.
We’ve prayed for friends together when neither of us new what to say or do.
Together we’ve been raising seven children to love and follow the Lord Jesus. We’ve struggled through sleepless nights, toddler bibles and discipline. We’ve sat together at baptisms, Colin Buchanan concerts and parenting seminars. We’ve been on holiday together, we’ve been to my parents’ together and lately we’ve just about survived Zoom church together.
Ta has taught me how to listen. She’s tried to teach me how to make sourdough. She’s taught me how to welcome people. She’s taught me how to persevere. She’s been gracious. She’s made me laugh.
And today, as I write this, Ta and her family are moving house. They’re moving to look after her parents, since her culture and her faith have taught her to respect and care for them. Next week her family will say goodbye to our church family.
For over 12 years, we’ve been family. This is longer than I spent in compulsory education. And I could argue that I’ve grown up more in the past 12 years than I did with my beloved school friends.
As we say goodbye, I hope that we’ll always be friends, just as we’ll always be sisters. But I’ll miss seeing her week-in, week-out and being able to pop round for kids’ tea. And our husbands, who did indeed become close friends, will miss each other, too.
Because of Christ and his powerful Spirit, it’s very hard for me to say goodbye to this girl from Laos. It would have seemed impossible to 5 year-old-me, or even 15-year-old me, that a Public School girl from Oxfordshire could mean so much to me. But Jesus does the impossible.
And I will try to trust that Christ, the best of friends, who has brought me safe thus far, still has good things in store for me.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:9-10.
*Ta is pronounced “Da” and rhymes with car. I’ve seen Ta have to explain this over and over again at parties, poor woman.
**In England, a public school is an old, very prestigious fee-paying school. A ‘comp’ is a comprehensive state school. ‘Comprehensive’ means non-selective – i.e. anyone is welcome!