Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Crossing Cultures - Two at a Time

This reflection is written for the community writing project at "The Higher Calling."  Check out the others at

Oh my goodness, we were young.

Married all of 8 months, recently graduated from college, heading across the country, across the Atlantic, halfway up the continent of Africa.

We went as an alternative to military service during the Vietnamese war - to work for peace in a place that was strange to us, paying our own way except for about $150/month in 'allowance.'

But we had a great house to live in, located on the campus of a secondary school in the southern province of Zambia.  Far larger than the tiny apartment we left behind in West Los Angeles, it was set amidst the rolling hills and curiously flat-topped trees of the high savannah that would be our home for the next two years.  The same home we brought our first-born back to after her birth in a bush hospital five months before our term was up.

And we had good work to do - distributing educational supplies to the entire province the first year, teaching eager students, some of whom were older than I was, during the second year.

I remember standing in the train station in our town - the kind of station where an actual steam engine pulls in about 3 times a day - and looking out over a crowded sea of African faces.  Beautiful faces, interesting faces.  But faces that looked distinctly different from our own - a sensation that was at one and the same time slightly disquieting and curiously satisfying.  That was our first experience of what it felt like to be members of a minority culture - and it changed our lives forever.

We came in with high ideals, youthful enthusiasm and a commitment to make a contribution of some kind.  What we didn't fully understand going in was that we weren't just crossing one set of cultural expectations and experiences - we were crossing two, each with its own share of complications and adjustments.  We were surrounded by an African culture - and we were surrounded by a missionary culture.

And I would have to say that the first one was far easier to deal with than the second.  Although sometimes we were puzzled and challenged by the strange realities of teaching students who were literally making the jump from one century (at least) to another - the weirdnesses of the missionary life around us were much tougher to figure out.

Over those two years, we came to deeply appreciate the slower pace, more practiced art of paying attention to the now, and gentle sense of extended family that characterized the mindset and lifestyle of our African friends.  It was the legalistic and sometimes judgmental attitude of many of our missionary neighbors that rattled us.  Too often, we thought, the promise of an education - the deepest desire for most African children - was held out in exchange for certain behaviors and 'right' answers to questions about faith and commitment.

And there was too often a whiff of entitlement that seemed to go along with being a missionary in those days.  My somewhat lofty, middle-class American sensibilities were offended by the idea of hired labor, especially live-in help.  But I was brought up short by the comment of a young man seeking employment as a gardener when he angrily asked me why I did not want him to be able to help his family.

How do you navigate the tricky waters of offering people honorable work to do without either exploiting them or upsetting the economic dynamics of a neighborhood by paying more than the 'going rate?'  How do you maintain a Jesus-like respect for each person's dignity and worth if your primary relationships are more like master/servant than neighbor/friend/colleague?

Nor was I at all easy about the fact that almost every one of our missionary neighbors sent their children to an all-white international school over 500 miles away, beginning at age 7.  And the single exception, a couple who kept their only son at home and sent him to the primary school in our town, were somehow seen as less-than fully devoted in the minds of their co-workers.

What do such choices say about the priorities of those in 'full-time Christian service?'  Work over family?  Others' children of more value than one's own?  Discipleship and personal mentorship for students but not your own kids?

Wrestling with questions like these during our two years in Zambia proved to be profoundly formational  for us - as a couple, as a growing family, as followers of Jesus.  We would not trade the experience for anything - and we always encourage young couples, including our own kids, to have some kind of cross-cultural experience - mission trips, travel, sponsoring a third world child - even if they don't ever live cross-culturally as we did.  Learning that Jesus is Lord in any and every place on this planet - and that the Jesus journey quite often doesn't look like what we're used to as western disciples - this is a priceless lesson and a gift beyond measure.