by Alyson Rockhold
The brooms in Tanzania start early each day. A familiar “swish, swish, swish” emanates from every house. When I moved here, I was shocked that most women sweep their houses daily and mop the floors three times a week. At first, that routine seemed kind of ridiculous to me. So, I made the most basic mistake warned about in Missionary 101: Judging instead of Listening. I didn’t ask anyone why they swept every day. I didn’t stop to remember that Tanzanians are experts at living in Tanzania. I just stubbornly clung to what I knew to be true of housekeeping in America and tried to apply it here.
Then for weeks I complained that there was always grit in the bed. I bemoaned the fact that my husband’s allergies were getting worse. And I was dismayed to find that spiders were literally living in every corner of the house! When I grabbed a broom to knock down all the spiderwebs, I finally realized my folly. I could’ve saved myself a lot of aggravation and annoyance if I had started by listening to the people who live in this place.
As I was mulling over this lesson, I started re-reading The Poisonwood Bible, a fictional account of one family’s failed mission to the Congo. The first time I read this book, I was dreaming of the mission field. From that distance and without any experience, it was easy to stand in judgement on all the decisions that led to their downfall. Yet today, with plenty of my own cultural missteps fresh in my mind, I found this book to be a compelling reminder of the importance of being a missionary who opens my ears far more often than I do my mouth.
The book has a poignant example of the value of listening that begins when the father decides to dig a garden. His Congolese housekeeper tries to help him, but he ignores her every suggestion. He is convinced that he knows best, and he lets her broken English and lack of education be an excuse to cast aside her insights. The result is crop failure and a nasty rash from the poisonwood tree. Throughout the story, every time the father refuses to listen to his neighbors, his heart grows more hardened and his mistakes become more disastrous. Ultimately, his mission is ruined by his closed ears and hardened heart.
It makes me wonder if our ears and heart are somehow linked: Is our willingness to listen connected to our ability to love? The story of Isaiah’s call to missions has a lot to teach us about this. When God calls Isaiah to missionary service, he famously replies, “Here am I. Send me!” Years ago, as a new missionary, I used to love the thrill that came with claiming Isaiah’s words as my own. Now I wish I had paid more attention to what God says next. In Isaiah 6:10, God instructs the prophet to tell the Israelites that He will punish them by hardening their hearts and making their ears dull. This chapter has an important message for young missionaries: After your eager “Yes!” to God, continue in His service by keeping your hearts and ears open.
I’ve had to learn the hard way, through dust and spiders (and examples too embarrassing to enumerate here!), that my ears are two of the most important tools I have for cultural adaptation. I need them to learn a new language, to hear the stories of the people, to honor customs and experiences. I’m starting to see that there is a mysterious connection between my ears and heart, a powerful link between my ability to listen and my capacity to love. If the old hymn is true that They will know we are Christians by our love, perhaps also They will know we are missionaries by our listening.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church of his generation that “Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener.” I wonder if the same can be said of our generation. When I open social media, I see so much shouting, so many multiplications of messages, so many voices desperate to be heard. Is anyone truly listening?
In these divisive times, the ministry of listening can sometimes be misconstrued as a weakness. Yet, I believe that God is calling His people to have the courage to listen well and the grace to keep our hearts malleable to the wisdom of others. Sometimes listening involves sacrifice. I must lay down my privilege and pride to enter into dialogues willing to truly hear voices that may challenge and chafe me. Listening is a confession that “I don’t know it all,” and I need your words to guide and teach me.
I am begging God for the grace to cultivate the skill of listening as a form of spiritual hospitality that by “paying full attention to others and welcoming them into (my) very being…(I can) invite strangers to become friends” (Henri Nouwen).
Alyson has lived half of the last seven years overseas including time in Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia. Her resume includes such diverse experiences as teaching English, assisting with C-sections and making weekly cookie deliveries to the elderly. She’s so thankful to have a grounded, wise, hilarious husband to share the adventures with.