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I met my first tutoring student in the cafe area of a local grocery store. We had gotten permission from the store to hold our study sessions there, once a week. I brought a reusable shopping bag full of teaching materials–flashcards, photocopied exercises, and a slim “textbook” with large cartoons. That first night, we met to talk about goals, to get to know each other, and to take steps outside of our individual comfort zones.

“Where are you from? Tell me a little about yourself.”

Bianca, the Mexican grandmother blinked back at me through her glasses. “I love God,” she said. And in an instant, we found something in common. She usually read her Bible in Spanish, but had an old King James version in English. I promised to bring a couple of different translations, hoping to find one with simple enough language that she could experience the comfort of God’s word without worrying over large words.

The next week I printed out the text of Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Word’s like “anoint” might be difficult for her, but I was sure that she would know the Spanish equivalents, because this is the first piece of scripture I remember encountering in church. “The Lord is my shepherd”–so common, and so comforting.

But Bianca was puzzled by the text. I don’t think I ever quite got the meaning of “name’s sake” across. And I think she was also puzzled by my choice of it. She flipped through my NIV looking for anything familiar before resting just a page or two away on Psalm 28:

To you, Lord, I call;
you are my Rock,
do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
I will be like those who go down to the pit.
Hear my cry for mercy
as I call to you for help,
as I lift up my hands
toward your Most Holy Place.

Do not drag me away with the wicked,
with those who do evil,
who speak cordially with their neighbors
but harbor malice in their hearts.

My comparatively comfortable life resonated with the assurance of God’s hand over my life. Psalm 23 spoke to my experience of God as good, and assured me he would continue to be so. That even in trouble, he would guide me. But Bianca had experienced hardship since childhood. Poverty, abuse, instability. When the psalmist cried out, Bianca understood his anguish.

We met together for over a year. And while the focus of our lessons evolved to include work vocabulary, how to file a complaint with a manager or a landlord, and test-taking skills, we continued to close our sessions by reading the Bible together, finding passages that were old favorites, and sharing them with each other.

It was striking to see scripture be both universal and yet still specific.