by Jacqueline Scott

When we head into another culture to live among the local people, our hope is to understand them at least enough to become someone they will listen to. But the reality is that we are clueless, especially when their culture is very different from ours. It’s good to recognize that. It’s where we have to start. After all, we’re the guests in their country. When they look at us like we’re from Mars because they can’t understand a word we’re attempting to say in their language, we need to laugh at ourselves with them. That means getting over any feelings of self-importance. This was time consuming and exhausting for me. I thought I was pretty important.

In his book Cross Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer offers perspective on what it means to serve someone in another culture, then outlines the process of serving others cross-culturally. He suggests six steps: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, and serving. But it’s easier to rush into someone’s world, do what we think they need most, feel good about ourselves and our sacrifice, then rush home — often having done more damage than good.  So, our first years in Central Asia were largely about being close enough to people to learn about them and build trust so that our serving could be mutual and meaningful.

We shared a courtyard with a young local family. The house was small with two stories and two bedrooms.  Our four kids were in bunkbeds in one bedroom. The small yard was a God-send for our young energetic family, especially when the alternative was a playground strewn with broken glass and questionable characters. Though this yard was a combination driveway, garden, dog pen, storage, and place to dry clothes, it offered ample opportunities for our kids to play.  

One day Zoya, the young wife across the yard, was over and we talked about our kids. Happy that I was finally getting along in Russian, I asked if she thought she would have another child since they only had a little boy the same age as our youngest. She flippantly answered, “Oh, I’ve already thrown so many away.” I looked at her, hoping I misunderstood. But I knew that word. The one that was used when you throw away garbage.

It pierced me. There was no sign of conscience or concern that this practice might be wrong. In the Soviet times it was their method of birth control; they knew nothing else. In that moment I knew I was much farther away from understanding them than I even thought. I had so much to learn about the core of their beliefs.  

We would always be anomalies to them. Somehow though, it didn’t keep us from loving them or them from loving us, or from them wanting to hear why we came and what kept us there. They were so hungry for meaning, yet they were trapped in a convoluted belief system that denied God. Our neighbors had grown up in that belief system. It takes time to unravel long-entrenched falsehoods in order to see Truth. 

Too often we are clueless as to what assumptions we bring to life. We aren’t really aware of the bottom lines that we hold as self-evident, the axioms. And sometimes the people we serve aren’t aware of their assumptions, either. As one of our Soviet friends considered faith, she came to realize that she readily accepted axioms or “givens” in math.  An axiom is a basic proposition of a system that, although unproven, is used to prove the other propositions in the system. Every belief system has to start with a basic proposition. Once she accepted God as the “given,” she was free to really believe Him. And her life was lifted.

Becoming part of a different country takes you far from your old world. You are challenged and changed beyond anything you expected.  Your view of yourself and God morphs. Then, when you head back into your home culture, you feel clueless all over again. At times you even feel like a social martyr; you are always a stranger, an anomaly. You’re left out of the plans because you won’t be there, or you’re held at a distance since you’re not in on what they’re talking about. Some cross-cultural workers face this more than others. Though I love our times in our home culture, there’s an underlying feeling of “it’s not mine anymore.” So, we’re an anomaly here and an anomaly there. Where’s our home? That is a struggle for us and even more so for our kids when they navigate their passport countries. 

But I find comfort in Hebrews 11 where it actually says “God was not ashamed to be called their God” because they were looking for a heavenly city. Their hope was in a heavenly home. I find myself wrestling with this regularly. I’m working on putting my hope in a heavenly home while using my earthly home for heavenly purposes.


Jacqueline Scott is author of Your Life is Re-markable! She was captivated by God at age 12, became an RN, got a BS in Bible, and then a Masters in Leadership Studies. While in university she met Dan, and in 1986 they both headed to Bolivia, South America to save the world. She had four kids instead. They moved to Central Asia in 1994 in leadership with a non-profit agency. Currently credentialed as a personal and leader development coach, she works with individuals and groups in person and on-line. You can find her online at SoulFit.

Guiding Cross-Cultural Principles from Public Health

Muslim women's health

I work in public health. As opposed to being a nurse in an emergency room or intensive care unit where care is focused on an individual patient, as a public health nurse I look at whole populations and health projects that will ideally make entire communities healthier.

Before moving to Kurdistan, I had the privilege of working on a women’s health project in the foreign-born Muslim community in Massachusetts. It was a merging of worlds as I watched God uniquely use my background in my job. We were generously welcomed into the community during a time when people could rightly be suspicious and concerned. Women and men willingly met with us, answering often difficult questions about health care and prevention.

I could speak and write for hours about this project, but recently as I was thinking about why the work went so well, I realized that the principles behind it are relevant to cross-cultural work around the world.

I wanted to share the principles that we used as we developed and implemented the project with the hope of beginning a conversation about working in and with  communities around the world.

  • At every level, involve the community.  Attempts to reach a population group without first knowing the group are often inappropriately designed and poorly received.  This principle is especially important when working with populations that represent a variety of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, each with varying belief systems and barriers, among other situational, historical, social, and economic differences.  An effective outreach program will need to consider those characteristics unique to each group and tailor its design accordingly, incorporating participation from representatives of the population in all phases of the program.  A good question to ask a community is: “Is this a prioritized need of your group, or is it a perceived need by outsiders?”
  • In every encounter, use diverse community partners.  Outreach programs that attempt to reach diverse groups can face obstacles such as not having sufficient knowledge, experience, or access to reaching and serving the community. Another mistake outsiders make is meeting with only one group and applying broad strokes from that group to the rest of the community. A culturally competent approach to outreach must include innovative and creative community partnerships in order to educate and serve the community.  Effective partners can be organizations, individual community leaders, educational institutions, media outlets – virtually any accepted and trusted avenue through which people can be reached and served.
  • With every message, educate whole families.  Because three quarters of the world relies on and adheres to a family system of support, decision-making, and problem-solving, educating people as individuals in isolation from their families may deter long–term, health-seeking behaviors and result in wasted time.  Accurate messages must be targeted to whole families, as well as to the entire population group, to facilitate an environment in which diverse groups can seek health care without barriers or fears. Outreach messages and strategies cannot and should not ignore the context of people’s lives.
  • Plan with, not for, the community. While this may seem simple, it’s not. If you really analyze some of the work that any of us do, we may realize that we plan for communities all the time. “Let’s do this!” we excitedly say! “This will make a huge impact!” And then we are desperately disappointed when our projects fail. Planning with a community means doing their project, their way. That’s hard, especially when we come as experts in our respective fields. Planning with instead of for means listening and asking questions, clarifying and rephrasing, all toward getting a better sense of how the project is perceived by the group we are working alongside.
  • As a guiding perspective, look to the long–term.  It takes a lot of time to do cross-cultural projects well. Our project took twice as much time as we thought it would. Building relationships, drinking tea, testing programs, asking for advice, drinking tea, getting feedback, revising, taking a step back when you want to take five steps forward, drinking tea….did I mention drinking tea? Relationship-building is a huge part of effective public health projects. Outreach programs should incorporate a long–term perspective with a willingness to invest time and resources in developing a positive and mutually trusting relationship with those groups over time.

Those principles served us well in the project I described at the beginning. As I have moved on to work in Kurdistan, I have needed to look back at them. I want things to move quickly. I want to work for change. I want. I want. I want. And then I take a step back and I think about the meaningful conversations that I get to have every single day. I think about the laughter and conversations I’ve shared as I’ve sat in the homes of Kurdish friends and colleagues. I think of the things I’m learning, the humility that is inherently a part of being an outsider in a new culture and being like a small child in everything from learning the language to learning how to shop. I think about the ways God has uniquely prepared me for such a time as this.

I stop and I think about the privilege of working cross-culturally, the privilege of learning from people who don’t think as I think or live as I live. I don’t want to squander the privilege by being culturally arrogant and thinking my way is better. Instead I want to breathe, slow down, learn, and drink tea. 

What about you? Have you used these principles in your work? How have you worked alongside communities instead of in front of them? I’d love to hear through the comments. 

Note on the photo – we had the opportunity to do an amazing photo shoot for this project. This is one of the photos that the focus groups then chose to go into a community curriculum. It is of me with one of the project participants.

 *Author’s note: Some of the material from this piece was adapted from Communicating Across Boundaries Cultural Competency Curriculum developed by NAWHO and adapted by Marilyn Gardner and Cathy Romeo.