The Scripture Scout
3 Surprising Things to Expect to See
on Your Mission Trip
Culture is like the air we breathe, taken for granted, but we can't live without it. It is so vast and so deep that sometimes we don't realise it is all around us. And as missionaries, it can be pretty scary if we don't step back and take the time to realise that as we forge forward.
One of my ACU graduate professors, long-time missionary to the Kipsigis tribe in Africa, told me about some missionaries saw an old woman in the street, shaking hands with a very young boy and calling him “grandfather.” Weird, huh? Now, these missionaries thought she was kind of nutter, and some just thought she was blind or confused, but the reality of it was ... she thought he was her grandfather! He was not making this up!
This tribe performs the Kuronet rite ("the calling") when children are born. They dance around the baby and chant their ancestors' names until the child sneezes. The name it sneezes for is the spirit that they believe has entered the child’s soul. “Hello, grandfather” was not the mutterings of a crazy woman. She believed she was saying hello to her old pops!
So, missionary, you can expect that culture is assumed, not seen - just like the air we breathe. You can also anticipate seeing the world differently than you ever have ... and pray for the strength to be okay with that.
Culture is also like the glasses we wear. What lenses do you put on when you visit another country? I have often wanted to have my mission teams make a pair of glasses with the Honduran flag on them to remind them to at least try to see things from another perspective before making any judgments.
There are different perceptions of reality. In Hartford Connecticut Oct 25, 1993 police gave a woman a heart massage, but people thought they were beating her because the Rodney King videos that had been touring the information waves at the time, riots and protests were fresh on their minds. The woman died of a massive heart attack, and the police had no chance to save her. I'm sure you've NEVER seen anything like that happen in this age of mass communication, right? *wink* But what does that have to do with culture?
Culture is like the bottom of an iceberg. You see it, but you only see part of it. You have to know there is more below the surface. We all know the Titanic sank because it ran into an iceberg…but didn’t it try to avoid it? As you probably know, it was a tad bit bigger than they thought underneath. In the heart massage example, society onlookers immediately jumped to, "Police are dangerous; we've seen this kind of thing before!" Significant catastrophes are avoided when we understand that about entering into another culture too.
Okay, now this one is kind of touchy. Well, it can be. What about encouraging people to have a "personal relationship with God?" Here is a concept that is not wrong at all, but my friend, it is intensely cultural. It comes from North American individualism. In the United States our heroes are individuals - like the Lone Ranger who goes, changes, and then is gone). We tend to encourage implicit individualism, but in some tribes in Africa, many missionaries I know would contend that it would do better to promote communal study because a personal relationship with the all-powerful One who infuses all reality is too much to grasp.
"Don’t become so well-adjusted to your own culture that you fit into it sometimes without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it."
-Romans 12:2, The Message
So, is it fair to judge a culture by North American standards? Do we need to be aware of what our cultural mores are before we subject other nations to them? Maybe we need to remember that our values are important - as long as they don’t combat eternal truth. We want to understand others, but we must emphasise the approach to their understanding of that truth.
Amen? Any examples you want to share? Hey, you may have already returned from a trip by now....what things did you see that surprised you or changed your way of thinking?
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