Lessons From My 20s

Navigating friendships

Have you heard the one about Jesus’ disciples?

“No one ever talks about Jesus’ miracle of having 12 close friends in his 30s” (credit: Twitter user @Mormonger).

I just celebrated my 29th birthday, and this definitely rings true! It’s comforting to know that others my age feel the same way. I don’t want to paint too dreary a picture – I do have some close friends whom I’m very grateful for, even if we don’t see each other every recess and noon hour to play grounders. Friendship looks different these days.

But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about two particular friends: Juan and Maritza. Our friendship has survived me getting overzealous with Christmas presents one year when they had just arrived in Canada as refugee claimants, them trying to set me up with a friend of theirs, and me going AWOL for a year while dating my now-husband long distance. Juan loves classic rock, Canadian winters and laughing at my Spanish blunders. Maritza loves decorating cupcakes, taking pictures and laughing. When words don’t always work, laughter does.

In part because Maritza is an obsessive photo chronicler of daily life, my Facebook photo albums are a long list of Canada Days at the Bayfront, embarrassing underwater camera shots, applesauce making, sewing classes, and other pictures where my family and I tower awkwardly over their petite Colombian frames. Though many times we struggle to communicate in my beginner Spanish and their ESL English, being friends with them is one of the most authentic relationships I have. The forced vulnerability (and hilarity!) of navigating cultural differences and language barriers is the best path to real friendship I know.

Peaks and valleys
We went camping with Juan and his family a few years ago. After several failed refugee appeals, they had finally gotten Humanitarian and Compassionate status in Canada, since Juan needs a liver transplant and the organ donor system is not very functional in Colombia.

We were jubilant – this new status meant that Juan could be added to the organ donor list to receive a liver from a deceased donor. They wanted to make sure we went camping before it was official, because from that point on they needed to be close enough to Toronto to get to the hospital within an hour, in case that liver suddenly arrived. Though Juan moved slowly and spent a lot of time sleeping, we were so hopeful. We feasted on more meat than I’ve ever seen anyone bring camping, topped with savory chimichurri sauce squeezed out of Ziplock bags.

I didn’t realize, at first, that getting onto the organ donor list didn’t mean the struggle was over. Many people are on the list; many people who are sicker than Juan are (rightly) prioritized, and too few people sign those little organ donor cards. I didn’t realize that Juan would get much, much sicker yet and still not be at the top of that list. He’s been laughing a lot less recently – and the world is poorer for it.

I can’t fix this. That’s not my job – I’m their friend. And that’s been the biggest and most humbling adventure in friendship of my 20s – dancing this dance of doing what I can when they invite me to, and just sending funny dog videos to Juan when there’s nothing else I can do. It’s a challenge to my activist mindset to simply walk with them through this valley. It’s a lot harder than going into fix-it mode. But that’s relationships, isn’t it?

Maritza was the first donor to our new refugee housing program, Open Homes Hamilton, recently. She brought beautifully decorated cupcakes to our launch party and refused to let me pay her. They’re walking with me through this crazy adventure of quitting my job and starting a new ministry, and I’m walking with them through the realities of liver disease.

Josh Garrels, as usual, says it better than I could:

And joy, it is severe
When the way is rough and steep
But love will make your days complete


  • Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan

    Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan is a Host Connector with Open Homes Hamilton, a Christian ministry that supports refugee claimants by offering home-based hospitality in Hamilton, Ontario.

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