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.
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…
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.
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?