I look nothing like my grandma Ruth Geneva. She was a redheaded, fair skinned, white woman, and I am Chinese, with black hair and brown eyes. I am not her biological granddaughter, but she loved me like I was. She was at the hospital with my mom when I was born, and she was the first to hold me after my mom. When my mom asked her to give me my English name, she named me Mary Ruth, passing on her name to me.
My grandmother turned 90 this past November and a month later, she breathed her last breath on earth. When I think of Grandma, my heart is filled with three overwhelming emotions — peace, sadness, and gratitude. Peace, because she is with Jesus and her lively spirit is no longer confined in a body that cannot dance and a mind that cannot remember. Sadness, because she is gone. And gratitude. I feel so much gratitude, for what she has done and for who she is in my life.
Grandma loved Jesus, was a woman of prayer, and wanted to help people. God planted a strong value of serving others in her, and she took that seriously. It struck me deeply that even as the dementia took over her mind and memories, she would repeatedly say, “Did I help you? I just want to help people.”
“Yes, Grandma, you did help me,” I would reply.
In 1979, the year before I was born, Grandma followed God’s leading and made a decision that directly changed the lives of eight people and has indirectly influenced more than we can know. I am one of those eight. And I want to share her story as she’s told it to me.
In the 1970s, Cambodia suffered massive genocide in which nearly 2 million people were killed and even more were greatly impacted. About 9,000 miles away, in a small town of Texas, Grandma started seeing news reports about the refugees who had fled Cambodia and were flooding the refugee camps in Thailand. She felt a tugging in her heart but did not know what she could do. She started to pray, “Lord, if there is something I can do, please show me.” One day, as she was packing for a trip, a segment sharing about the refugee situation came on the TV, giving practical steps Americans could take to help. Grandma told me she was so struck by the idea of sponsoring a family but didn’t think she could do anything like that. She prayed again, “I can’t be a sponsor, but Lord, please show me something that I am able to do.”
She said she thought about this her whole trip.
When she returned home, she saw the same segment on TV and felt the Lord leading her to be a sponsor. She talked to my Grandpa Bill, and he came on board. She shared with her church, and they rallied around her. And Grandma and Grandpa started the process to become sponsors. She told me they let the organization know that they would be able to sponsor two people. She and Grandpa had a camper, and she thought that would be an ideal situation — the people they sponsored could live in the camper, on their property. She heard back from the organization, and they said to her, “We have a family of seven: a grandfather, mother and father, and four children. Would you be willing to sponsor them?”
Grandma said she was in shock. She was preparing for two. How was she possibly going to prepare for seven She almost said no, but said instead, “Let me pray about it.” She prayed, and with the support of Grandpa and their church, she said yes. She found a house close to hers, schools, and jobs. She gathered necessities and coordinated support from her community. She got ready to receive these seven refugees.
She was in for another surprise.
When she met my family at the airport, my mom stepped off the plane and Grandma caught sight of my mom’s bulging belly — me at eight months, growing inside. Grandma said, “I couldn’t believe it! There was a baby coming!” And usually at this point of her retelling, she’d give me a smile and hug.
Grandma never talked about her decision to sponsor us as a way to gain attention or praise. She would talk about it to share about God’s love and work in her life. Grandma wanted — and would want others — to experience God for themselves. When I decided to follow Jesus, Grandma was so excited, not because I was following in her footsteps, but because I was experiencing God in real ways, for myself.
Grandma followed Jesus in many ways. She prayed and heard from God. She gave refuge and new life to a family that desperately needed it. Some followed her example, and I know of two other families who became refugee sponsors. She planted a love for Jesus and a heart for service in us. Her love inspires us to live out love and service, and I really hope that, as her legacy, we make her proud.
Mary Chong Carrera was born a friendly, fiery extrovert with a flair for drama. Growing up has brought a healthy dose of wisdom; she's learned to appreciate being still and quiet.
Mary attended Santa Clara University, where she cultivated great friendships, studied accounting, and fell in LOVE with Jesus (Christ, not her husband--that Jesús came later).
Mary has a passion for people and loves developing friendships, empowering leaders, and walking with others as they explore faith. She's wife to Jesús, mom to three adorable sons, Jesse, Ángel and Sebastián, part-time InterVarsity campus minister, and full-time human trying to engage with the world with love. Though her big Chinese family drives her up the wall sometimes, she loves them to pieces and knows she wouldn't be who she is without them.