Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Buchanan famously said, “Friends are the family you choose.” And this July 30, on the International Day of Friendship, it rings truer than ever for two families in suburban Melbourne.
When the Heydaris met the Christelow family in 2016, they had no idea a friendship that surpassed culture and language would develop.
For the Christelows, it was a typical Sunday at church. The Aussie born-and-bred family of four considered Preston Salvation Army their second home, albeit a very musical one.
Husband and wife Stuart and Cathy met there in 1989, and two and a half decades later were more involved than ever. Both were soldiers (members), and Cathy co-led the Preston Youth and Children’s Choir while Stuart led the contemporary worship team, youth Bible study and played in the band. Their children Chelsea (22) and Josh (17) had followed suit.
That same day, Mohammad Heydari and wife Sepideh Banari walked through the doors of Preston Corps (church) with more than a hint of nerves. The couple had moved from Iran in 2013 to forge a new life in Australia.
After attending a Bible study at The Salvation Army, they had decided to take the brave step of going to a Sunday service. With daughters Medisa (5) and Delsa (2), they were simply looking for a place to belong.
Little did they know that the connection they would make that year with one family at the church would give them all that and more. Speaking to both families today, they grin as they remember their first impression of each other.
“Honestly, it was like we [had] known them for many years,” shares Mohammad.
On the surface, the only thing these families had in common was their love of God and each other. But when they began opening up their lives, they found a much deeper connection.
After seeing each other at Sunday services, the Christelows walked alongside the Heydaris at the 2016 Palm Sunday march for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Federation Square. Soon after, the Heydaris were invited to Chelsea’s 21st birthday celebration.
“We didn’t look back from there!” says Cathy. “We just connected on a deeper level and our friendship has grown. Our lives are richer for knowing these friends, who have become our family.”
The love story that has occurred between the families is a reminder that friendship is not dependent on culture or nationality.
Any good friendship is full of give and take, and the families found their connection and faith was deepened when they shared in each other’s day-to-day lives.
The Heydaris introduced their new friends to traditional Iranian foods, and Mohammad has become an avid AFL fan, although he would say Stuart’s impassioned barracking is more entertaining than the match itself!
Sepideh and Cathy developed mutual trust when they worked together to find a local kindergarten and school for Medisa. And, despite the age difference, even the kids became close.
“Mohammad is fun to be around, he’s like my big brother,” says Josh—their current obsession watching the World Cup together.
You’ll often see Chelsea playing hide and seek with the girls who obviously adore her, and she recollects what she has learnt from their new friends.
“They are the most genuinely caring and kind-hearted people I have ever met, always supporting others despite facing tough times. They have taught me so much about what it looks like to trust God and be joyful no matter what we face.”
The love story that has occurred between the families is a reminder that friendship is not dependent on culture or nationality. It can occur anywhere when we step outside our comfort zone.
As Mohammad says, “In difficult living conditions we can stand next to each other and help each other. This shows us that this is God who has put this love in our hearts, so that we can love each other, apart from any nationality and race we have.”
Cathy agrees. “It’s a perfect example of how if you step out in faith, God opens new doors, new opportunities and new possibilities.”
When the United Nations implemented the International Day of Friendship, the premise was that we must promote and defend a human spirit of solidarity to enact global change. The simplest way we can do this is by befriending one another, and this has certainly occurred through the friendship of these families, individually and corporately.
Today, Mohammed works as a painter and volunteers with the wider intercultural community through the Salvos in their region. Sepideh balances being a full-time mum with also working in catering for the church. Their corps officers (ministers), Majors Brett and Sally-Anne Allchin say their role in the church is invaluable.
“As disciples of Jesus we more fully understand the love that God has for us when we choose to love another person,” Brett says.
“When I see the friendship of these two families, I see God in action, and I realise that the world is a better place when we choose to love, and go out of our way to get in the way of injustice. I know we can change the world one life at a time with the love of Jesus.”
In a day and age where we are increasingly encouraged to fear that which is different to us, the remarkable friendship between the Heydaris and Christelows shows that we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain by embracing our neighbour just as Jesus would.