Do Local People Have Anything to Teach Us?

by Stacie Ellinger

We moved house ten days ago. We are in a beautiful, leafy part of Adelaide, Australia. The summer sun enters through the many windows, creating an open, airy, bright feel. There are local playgrounds. The street cleaners have cleaned the street twice since we moved in. The footpaths are flat and wide enough to walk on. 

It is such a contrast to the Cambodian open-to-the-street house that we lived in for five years. I’ve been reflecting on the difference between the two neighbourhoods a lot over the last few days. Superficially the environment here is “nicer,” it’s definitely cleaner and quieter, and there is less chance of things being stolen here. 

Yet I find myself missing our community in Cambodia. I miss my kids playing on the street with the neighbours. I miss chatting to the recycling collectors as they collect our cereal boxes. I miss the ladies doing cross-stitch together in the late afternoon. I miss the fact that when we moved in, the neighbours introduced themselves and brought over food. 

It’s been ten days since we moved in here, and I am assuming the houses surrounding us have people in them. I haven’t seen any of them. 

It seems like a total cliché to say that I miss the community in Cambodia. It’s the one thing that all short-term and long-term missionaries who return from Southeast Asia say. “I learnt so much about community, about eating meals together, about living intergenerationally.” And even though there is an element of truth in that, I wonder if it comes up so much because it’s the one thing that we westerners are “allowed” to say that we have learnt from Southeast Asians. 

Ok, that’s a big statement, so hear me out. 

The act of going overseas for missions comes with an unspoken list of assumptions. Assumptions from the people going about their ability to live cross-culturally, assumptions about their giftings, skills, and knowledge about the Bible. Assumptions from the people who are staying about the sort of activities the people who are going will do. Assumptions built upon stereotypes and pedestals and upon our historical knowledge of “missions” and “missionaries.”

Even if I acknowledge that God is already in the country where I am going, I still carry the assumption that I have some theological insight or understanding that they don’t. An assumption that I have something to give and that they need that something. When unchallenged, assumptions like these bring attitudes of superiority, and when added to the historical complexities of colonialism and the current global wealth inequalities, they become fertile ground for “white saviourism.” We carry the idea that our education, our knowledge, our wealth, and our theological perspectives are crossing cultures to be given away, generously and freely, to those who don’t have or who don’t know. 

So back to my big statement. 

Criticising the western understanding of community is a bit in vogue. We know that isolation is increasing among western nations. We hark back to the good ol’ days of the 1950s (the sitcom version, not the realistic 1950s of post-war PTSD and racial segregation). We talk of missing nuclear families, of the rise of individualism and self-promotion on social media, of the financial struggles of working 2+ jobs, of the over-scheduling of wealthy kids’ schedules. Coming back from a Southeast Asian country and saying that they taught us about community fits into that narrative, but it doesn’t ask us to actually critique our culture in new ways. It doesn’t challenge our understanding of the world. 

Opening myself up to be discipled by Cambodian Christians, allowing their leaders to challenge the significance I placed on my own personal life experience and education, and learning to read the Bible through a cultural lens different to my own took time and a level of humility I often struggled with. And it’s a journey that people “back home” seem less willing to hear about. It’s not a story about what I did or what I brought. It’s a story about learning where I was wrong, misguided, or blinded in my understanding.

Living in a society where allegiance to a patron — whether that be a political, social, or religious leader — influenced how you lived your life, whom you called on when you were sick, or whether you had financial security completely changed how I viewed Jesus’ interactions with his disciples, their confoundment at his death, and their empowerment at Pentecost. As a non-American who has never had to pledge allegiance to anything (and who would in fact be mocked as an Australian for pledging allegiance to anything but a favourite football team), words like Lord and Kingdom began to take on a different meaning. In Australia, comfort and financial security are the biggest values that drive our society (as evidenced by our intense focus on keeping the covid pandemic out of our country and continuing life as “normal”).  

But what does allegiance to a Kingdom of identifying with the poor, of radical welcome, and of healing others mean for my financial resources? What do I do when my allegiance to another kingdom cuts me off from the way that society operates? How does our understanding of the Bible change when we understand honour and shame from the perspective of a culture that is more similar to the honour-shame culture of the ancient Middle East than the guilt and innocence focus of my homeland? 

One of my greatest challenges was building friendships. For example, in the church community I was a part of, it was not ok to invite just one or two people over for dinner to get to know them. That was seen as favouritism. Instead, I was asked to invite the whole church community. (Now, I’m not sure about you, but I am much better at hosting 4 people for dinner than 25. Or at least I was!) What do we do when our local community’s understanding of friendship requires us to completely change our previous understanding of friendship? Is one of them wrong? Is the other one right? Or are they just different? 

When we enter a new country as foreigners, whether intentionally or not, we are asking locals to understand us, to understand a bit of our culture and to understand how we think in order to get to know us. Is it too much to expect that the reverse will not also happen? That the locals might ask us to change? For those of us who come representing Jesus, we deliberately and vocally ask them to change their perspectives and understanding of the physical and spiritual world. As iron sharpens iron, surely, the locals’ understanding of the world can challenge our understanding. Their knowledge of God can reveal new things to us. And God can use that to shape our understanding of ourselves as our own cultural sins and blind spots are revealed to us. Surely our western practice of community is not the only thing that can be challenged by believers in the Global South.   

Cross-cultural service is not an invitation to go and do. It’s an invitation to go and be. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds as we learn from other members of the body. Our cultures and our experiences of God are as diverse as the climates and landscapes around us. When God calls us to not conform to the patterns of the world, He is inviting us to notice these patterns. To see which patterns block or harm others. To see which patterns stop the light from getting through. And like any pattern, we must acknowledge that the patterns of the world look different from a different vantage point.

By taking the time to immerse ourselves in another viewpoint, we open ourselves to see the bigger picture more clearly. We cannot do this on our own. We need others to be with us on this journey. The beauty of faith is that it is not a static place; it is an invitation to grow closer to God and each other as we press deeper into relationship. When locals and foreigners can join hands to seek the Kingdom of God together, we truly become the family of God on earth. 

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Stacie and her family served in Cambodia for six years before returning to Australia in 2020. She enjoys good books, good movies, and good chocolates and misses the heat of Cambodia terribly. Stacie now uses her aid, development, and missions background to run educational workshops for schools and churches about the complexities of poverty alleviation and ‘doing good.’ She blogs at www.walkhumblyinitative.com.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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