“Why didn’t they send a tractor?”

by Richelle Wright on July 18, 2014

The idea that much is expected of those who have been given much had been drilled into me as a boy. I saw giving back as my duty – a responsibility I’d accepted from a young age. Feeling the duty to help others after graduating from college, I signed up for the Peace Corps and served two years in a small Peruvian village.

I arrived at my village at age twenty-one filled with nobility, pumped up with the idea of helping humankind. I was proud that I had something to offer these poor folks. But one day, after I’d finally learned enough Spanish to communicate, one of the farmers asked me a question that must have been on everyone’s mind but mine.

“Why did they send you?” he asked. “If they wanted to help us, why didn’t they send a tractor?”

I don’t remember my answer, but I never forgot his question.

thetractor

Randy Lewis (best known for introducing an inclusive employment model as the Senior Vice President of Logistics at Walgreens – yes, I am a special educator by trade) recounts the above story in No Greatness without Goodness (p. 47), one of my summer reads.

I laughed when I first read it. That was, after all, part of his motivation for “ ‘fessing up” and telling a funny but true story. But he also wanted to make an important point. It was a key part of his experience working with people from a totally different culture. His story perfectly captures how, as expats working around the world, we often arrive with an implicit but never spoken aloud (or maybe even consciously realized) intent of taking over rather than coming alongside.

In my experience, it goes something like this:

My many preconceived and sometimes set in stone ideas of how something should be done… or why it should always continue to be done how I’ve seen it work… immediately and unquestionably trump, in my mind, any local ideas and traditional practices, partly because I just can’t see how they make sense. Then there’s that awkward, chin on the floor moment when the realization hits, then finally sinks in that maybe, just maybe, I. am. not….

God never sent me to be a mini-savior or God’s gift to a fledgling church… a poor community… struggling teachers… students with disabilities… a group of women who want to read…

Rather?

We are God’s gift to each other… iron sharpening iron… a more resilient and robust three-fold cord… encouraging, exhorting and extending together as we strengthen and challenge each other…

I remember one of my such “coming of age” missionary moments. It happened as I was leading a ladies’ Bible study at the church where we were assisting friends of ours, a local pastor and his wife. After 4 years of working with this group of women, I’d finally convinced them that I appreciated hearing their impressions and understandings of Bible stories as much as they said they wanted to hear and learn what it was that I,  the missionary, hoped to teach. That sticky-hot Saturday afternoon, we were looking at the story of Jonadab.

Found in the early verses of 1 Samuel 13, it is a more obscure part of a well-known and horrifyingly tragic Bible story. After reading and studying the first part of the chapter, seeing the word “crafty” used to describe Jonadab and immediately assuming the negative connotation, followed then by seeing the results of Amnon following Jonadab’s “crafty” advice? Well, I went to Bible study convinced that Jonadab was much worse than a just a sorry excuse for a friend… In my mind, he incontrovertibly qualified for the title of villain. He conceived the plan that allowed his cousin Amnon to assault and rape Tamar.

The women at Bible study didn’t see it that way. Not at all.

After I’d read the account to them and had given them time to ask questions clarifying details (most were not yet literate), they insisted that Jonadab was an astute, prudent and intentional young man. Those ladies found my shock absolutely amusing and it took them a not so small chunk of time to explain why – partly because we were working through an interpreter, but mainly because I found their comprehension of the situation so hard to actually comprehend myself. Their perspective was that Jonadab would have never been able to confront his cousin – a potential heir to the throne of David – directly. In their world, they could not envision that happening. Thus, he gave Amnon a plan which brought King David directly into the picture. David, as both Amnon’s father and the king, was clearly in position to both confront and then redirect the inappropriate and sinfully wrong desires of his son.

Craziest thing is that it wasn’t just one of the ladies who immediately understood the Scripture story to have played out according to that alternative understanding. It was the entire group of four or so – I don’t remember exactly.

With one exception – the only lady who’d already spent much time under direct bible teaching by missionaries. She concurred with my understanding of the story. I had to ask myself, “Why?”

My goal in sharing this story is not to enter a debate regarding hermeneutics or biblical exegesis over this passage. And let me say up front that do I believe there are issues where there is no room for discussion, debate or alternate interpretation because God’s Word is clear regardless of culture. Rather, my hope is to demonstrate that clearly, cultural backgrounds and baggage – as well as prior teaching, DO come into play, greatly influencing anyone’s understanding of Scripture, best practices, motivations, possible directions for the future, etc. That isn’t wrong in and of itself. Rather, it is to be expected.

As expat workers seeking to come alongside those from different worlds, who speak different tongues, who wear different fashions, who perceive different key details even in the very same situations, who identify different needs, who value different priorities – it is vital that we first understand this will happen, recognize it when it does, appreciate the God-allowed beauty in those differences, and then commit to moving forward in a way that honors God – not my  way, not their way, not a particular culture or peculiar tradition.

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Can you share a similar type cross-cultural story or experience, where you were sure one thing to be true only to find out that your local friends or colleagues had a totally different understanding?

How did you grow and change from that experience?

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About Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. |ourwrightingpad.blogspot.com|
  • Marilyn Gardner

    I love this! It is a perfect illustration of the cultural trappings that we all wear. And I do agree with you – if the gospel is for all times, for all people, all cultures – there are some things that are not up for debate. But as you so beautifully illustrate in this story, others need to be looked at. Your last sentence says it all. Thanks for this post. That’s also why I love Ken Bailey’s book “Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes” It’s all about this.

    • Richelle Wright

      Will have to add that one to my list of books to read… my list grows faster than I can cross things off, though!

      Thanks for being such an encourager!

  • Kimberly R

    Amen! Our first few months in East Africa we had to very seriously re-evaluate our disgust for polygamy. The design of creation and the requirements for church leaders are clear, but there is definitely room for different interpretation. In Congo, the Christmas story was played out by children that included a large group of toy AK-47s serving as Herod’s posse. They included the slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem and the play doesn’t finish with 3 fancy wise men. It finished when Herod died. That was the end, the safety, the judgement on evil to accompany the Birth of goodness. And why not?

    They say you don’t truly know your own culture until you leave it. Trying to hold the Truth high, and the cultural things low…

    • Richelle Wright

      We had to come to grips with the polygamy issue, too. One of the guys with whom my husband worked most closely had two wives prior to coming to the Lord. He definitely was a leader in the church, a key voice in the Jesus film as well as other local language recordings, etc. His two wives were my friends – one thing we noted was that there’s a list of several qualities expected of leaders in the church… but only that one is considered a make or break… the others are more of a “be doing the best you can.”

      I can’t imagine a Christmas story like that – clearly they related powerfully to that part of the story.

      It is amazing how differently you see your world when you get glimpses from the outside.

      Thanks, Kimberly, for sharing your experiences – they are a great contribution to this conversation!

      • Karin

        Richelle and Kimberly,
        could you share a bit more how the local church in your countries deals with polygamy? Is it okay for a believer to take a second wife? I know there is the creation story that validates “one man and one woman” but then God tolerated polygamy for so long in Israel’s history that I wonder how much of a priority it is for him.

        • Richelle Wright

          In our area, the Biblical pattern/ideal was recognized as one man-one woman. If, however, a man had more than one wife prior to conversion, then he generally kept the wives and could still be considered for church leadership if he met other qualifications. This was something the local churches had practiced prior to our arrival – and we tended to feel that since they understood their culture a lot better than we ever would AND had the Holy Spirit leading and guiding them, they were better qualified to make an interpretation and apply it than we were… Thus, even though it made us uncomfortable at times, we chose follow their lead, particularly as we studied through the biblical verses on leadership qualifications and listened to their understandings. Some of the reasons, as I understood them included:
          1. “husband of one wife” was one item in a list of qualifications that no one would be able to keep perfectly,
          2. when a husband divorced or put away a wife, if her family would not accept her back, she was often left destitute,
          3. taking 1 Cor 7 principles into consideration.
          I’m sure there was more as well, but that was what I understood to be the case and how we were encouraged to counsel those who asked for help in that area.

          Sometimes – often, actually – families would insist that wives return to their birth households when their husbands converted and would sometimes claim the grandchildren, even though in a divorce/separation, children generally went with the father/his family/his designate.

          If a believer took a second wife, it was generally a reason for the church to exercise church discipline – which often involved removal from leadership and eventually fellowship and shaming.

          • Elizabeth Trotter

            Richelle, that’s how I once heard some long-time missionaries to Africa explain polygamy as well, that a man who came to Christ after having taken multiple wives should not leave vulnerable women to fend for themselves but should continue to take care of them, while at the same time teaching people who haven’t yet taken multiple wives, that doing that is not best. It was very interesting to hear you say the same thing. I think in my former, non-missionary life, I wouldn’t even have thought of such tricky situations!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Kimberly, wow, never thought that people might need closure with Herod’s death during a Christmas play. Such a good insight into other people’s lives, and an important part of the Biblical story as well. You have broadened my understanding today — thank you.

    • ErinMP

      Love it! I would also be interested in your take on the polygamy because I struggle with that, but I see perhaps in certain economic situations etc it is a….good thing?? Confused!

  • Hilarious! What a great quote. Cultural context and connection makes or breaks us. Just this morning a couple Bolivian women took me out for coffee and during the course of our conversation one of them alluded to the importance of understanding a few recent occurrences through the lens of the cultural way of dealing with things. Twelve years into this thing and I am beginning to get the feeling that these simple reminders and nudges from the people here are never going to go away completely. I am grateful for the forward nature of this culture to keep me learning and adapting. The admonition from this lady came on the heels of some alleged gossip and back-biting. She gave the example of this kind of thing as a part of human nature for all time – like in the example of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and their discordance within the same family. That’s the first time I have heard that bible story used to explain these relational difficulties. We keep learning, right? Thanks for a great post, Richelle!

    • Richelle Wright

      Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work in a “forward nature” culture… although I’ve learned a lot about indirect confrontation and it has given me some skills I never even imagined. Hubs and I were just laughing the other night when we looked at each other, named one of our friends and commented that he would have handled something so differently than what we’d observed. What a blessing, however, to get those nudges and reminders! Love the application of the story of Moses, Aaron and Miriam! My amazement at the miraculous ability of God’s Word to apply across/to/through all these cultures just continues to grow!

  • Ellen

    We were doing a Bible study on marriage for adult singles. When we got to the passage regarding “A husband should love his wife as his own body” the young men in the group were immediately electrified – and one said – “That means that we should not beat our wives” – I had realized that this happened in the local culture, but had no idea how endemic it was. They set out on a mission beginning the next day going house to house to show the men in the community why they should lay this practice aside.

    One reason I think it is so good to lay out the Scripture and guide people to what the Holy Spirit is showing them rather than interpreting for another culture… Always surprises…

    • Richelle Wright

      What a neat example! Thanks for sharing it, Ellen!

    • ErinMP

      Wow, amazing! The power of God…

  • Lourens Laureti

    Interesting, cross cultural outreach has its hardships doesn’t it.

  • ErinMP

    That is so interesting! I had a somewhat (though less intense) similar experience when I was leading a group of high school kids. I was basically a sub, just filling in for the main leader, but at the time lived with the kids in the dorm. We were in Thailand, going to an international school, and they were from either Thailand or South Korea. I chose a book about leadership and friendship, and in this book we hit on the discussion point of David and Jonathan. The Western author thought Jonathan was weak because he never fully left his father’s household, and indeed was staying in sin. The children were shocked. They all to a point began arguing (once I gave them repeated explicit instruction that they could disagree with the book) that no one could disappoint or leave or go against their father–some even thought he was sinful by even getting involved deeply with David instead of staying away from him. The others who agreed he should have sided with David pointed out that he was amazingly brave for helping David the way he did, but that he did it without sinning by not overtly going against his father or leaving his father. While the author said this was why he died in shame (I disagreed with this too), the kids said even if you must die for your family, it is better to die with and for them, even if they are wrong, than to shame them by leaving them or rebelling against them, and that if you must go against your parents for God, you must do so the way Jonathan did–quietly, without public shame, and you must never leave them or verbally disagree with them forcefully. I found their analysis fascinating.

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