The Hardest Thing About Living Overseas

People often ask me what the hardest thing about living in West Africa is.

Is it being away from family and friends? Is it the “strange” food, specifically the lack of cheese and bacon? Is it the bad roads? The unstable electricity? The lack of clean drinking water in your faucet? The lack of healthcare? The different languages? The snakes or the mosquitoes?

The truth is, it is none of those things. Don’t get me wrong, those are very real challenges (even the one about the cheese) but if you want to know the one thing that makes living in Liberia hard…the one thing that keeps me up at night and makes me question whether I belong here or not and makes me feel so tired and weary and like I just want to give up and go home…it is the gray.

Learning to navigate all the gray.

Growing up I used to be so confident in my view of the world, my opinions, my beliefs, the way things were and that was because I so clearly saw a lot of my world around me as black and white. There was right and wrong and there was good and bad and there was nothing, absolutely nothing in between for a rigid and “holier-than-thou” youth-group-going rule-follower teenager like me.  Everything had an explanation and everyone and everything about the world could be categorized, organized, explained, even God Himself.

Viewing the world as black and white is comfortable, isn’t it? It makes it so easy to understand things and so much simpler to process our experiences, to quickly and efficiently judge our actions and the actions of others (though I know this isn’t my business), to categorize people into little boxes, and organize our ideas and responses to certain situations … “if this is the problem, then this is the only option” or “if a person does this, then they are that” and so on and so forth. It allows us to escape thinking about how our outlook on the world may possibly be…incomplete…or dare I say, wrong!

As I grew up in the US, one of the most diverse countries in the world, there were obviously plenty of things to challenge my mindset and my understanding of the world every day, thrusting me into the land of the gray. But at the end of the day, I could always look around and find plenty of people who looked, believed, behaved, or thought just like me and if I tried hard enough, I could always use this bubble to escape the gray….entering back into the land of crisp lines and black and white. 

Being in Liberia, that’s just not the case. For starters, 99.9% of the people I see or meet every day are very different from myself in terms of looks, culture, beliefs, etc. I meet so many people here whose way of life and thinking are so different from my own. Their childhoods are wildly different from my own, their pain/suffering is much deeper than I can comprehend, and their values systems about family, money, community, gender, education, truth, and spirituality/faith are more complex than I can still explain. Every day I feel like I’m walking deeper into the gray. Everyday my mind is swirling and I am overwhelmed with questions like:

  • Am I missing something here because I am looking at this only through my cultural lens? How does their culture, religion, race, poverty, beliefs, pain/trauma, personality, background shape their values and thus affect their actions? How does my wealth and privilege and nationality affect my own?
  • Are my thoughts being influenced by underlying prejudices? Am I making assumptions about or devaluing someone because of their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or education level? If I am, why? And how do I stop?
  • How do I know when the tension we are facing/feeling is simply related to cultural and individual differences and not a matter of right or wrong (as defined through scripture)? 
  • Is what I’m doing truly out of compassion or my desire to control situations and produce tangible results? 
  • Should I give money to this person/situation? If I am giving money, why am I doing it? Because I trust God or because I don’t? Is there another way?
  • How many times do I watch someone fail rather than stepping in myself to help? Am I creating dependency by doing or giving too much? Am I becoming lazy/jaded by doing or giving too little? When should I say “no” and when should I say “yes”? 
  • How do I know when to adjust my behaviors/action to fit into and show respect for the culture when it’s ok to just be myself? At what point do I lose myself and my own identity for the sake of respecting culture, a culture that often undervalues my own voice as a woman?
  • Where’s the line between grace and justice? Where is the line between letting someone’s past experiences or poverty become a crutch and holding them to unrealistic expectations and setting them up for failure? How can I even know if I’ve never walked in their shoes?

Maybe you can relate? Maybe you’ve asked yourself some of these questions before in your own everyday cross-cultural experiences? Maybe you’ve even had to ask these questions as you navigate conversations with someone who on the outside may look just like you, but who comes from an entirely different cultural background? 

It can be so exhausting to enter into this gray area, the area where answers don’t always come or aren’t clear immediately. It can be mentally draining spending so much time turning these thoughts over and over again in my head, especially because more often than not it is during these times that I am also confronted with my own sins and misunderstandings of who God is and who I am in His Kingdom. 

The world is not what I thought it was, people are not always who society told me they would be, I’m a much bigger sinner than I had feared, and God’s love is so much deeper than I could have ever dreamed.

What someone does doesn’t always define who someone is. Just because someone’s opinions, ideas, or feelings are different than my own, does not mean that they are automatically wrong or that they as human beings are any less valid or valued by Our Father in Heaven. 

The more we get out of our comfort zones and intentionally engage, listen to, and get to know people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves, the more opportunities we will have to screw up…yes, that much is definitely true. BUT ALSO the more we will learn about ourselves, each other, and God…and that’s a good thing…a really good thing.

The world is so much grayer than I originally understood and I’m learning I learning to be ok with that. 

You see, I’m beginning to understand and even believe that the gray is ultimately where the sweetest parts of life happen. The gray is where we are stretched, molded, pulled, squished, smoothed, shaped, and changed. The gray is hard and painful, but it is where healing happens, where relationships form, and where barriers are broken down and prejudices torn apart. The gray is where the threads of our common humanity and our oneness is made clear and tangible, if even for the briefest of moments. The gray is where questioning/doubts/fears have the room to breathe.

The gray is messy, but the gray is exactly what Jesus entered into when He stepped down from Heaven to live among us in this fallen world. The gray is the area where God invites us in and promises to walk with us, revealing to us both the brokenness and beauty of His creation. The gray is where we are emptied of everything we thought we knew. It is where we realize our inability as created beings to know all the answers, thereby forcing us into the arms of the One who does. 

These days, rather than trying to run away from it, ignore it, or control it, I’m learning more about what it means to actually enter into the gray and embrace it for all that it is. 

May God grant us patience, grace, wisdom, and courage as we enter into and traverse the gray of life together.

Rice Christians and Fake Conversions

I remember our first year on the field literally thinking, “No one is ever, ever going to come to faith in Christ, no matter how many years I spend here.” 

I thought this because for the first time in my life, I was face-to-face with the realities that the story of Jesus was so completely other to the people I was living among. Buddhism and the East had painted such a vastly different framework than the one I was used to that I was at a loss as to how to even begin to communicate the gospel effectively.

And so, the Amy-Carmichael-Wanna-Be that I was, I dug in and started learning the language. I began the long, slow process of building relationships with the nationals, and I ended up spending lots of time talking about the weather and the children in kitchens. And while over time, I became comfortable with helping cook the meal, I saw very little movement of my local friends towards faith.

But, then we started hearing about Western teams that came for short term trips or long-term missionaries who visited the villages around the city where we were living. Sometimes they would do vacation bible schools for the kids, other times they would show a film. Sometimes they would do a sermon or go door-to-door. Other times, they would help build a bathroom or a water well or a new church. (And these efforts were definitely noble, costly, and helpful on many levels.)

But the surprising thing for me was that these teams (both long and short term) seemed to come back with conversion stories. 

These Americans — many of whom didn’t know the language and hadn’t studied the culture– often came back thrilled to have witnessed several locals seemingly convert from Buddhism to Christianity.

After three days of ministry.

Here I was learning from living in the culture, that the leap from following Buddha to following Jesus was seemingly a gigantic one, yet it seemed that every time I turned around Western teams were having wild success in convincing nationals to make it.

And they would tell their stories or I would read them online, and I would immediately begin to shrink a little, or a lot.

What was I doing wrong? I obviously suck at being a missionary.  These were my logical conclusions.

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About six months into our time overseas, I first heard the term “Rice Christians.”

The term is used among the missionary community to describe nationals who make a profession of conversion (inauthentically or without true understanding) in order to get the product (clothing, food, rice) that is being delivered by the Western worker.  It seems that if you add the strings attached to the given supplies with the “don’t cause conflict or disagree” cultural value of the Asian country where we lived,  a subtle social game can quickly develop.

It could go a bit like this: uneducated villagers, a little (or a lot) in awe of the white American, are provided with goods they desperately need, entertainment that encourages their kids, and attention by the wealthy Westerner, all of which they gladly accept. And at some point over the course of the event, the Westerners share honestly about their religion and eventually ask for public professions of faith.

And, seriously, what’s an impoverished person, raised in a culture of respect, supposed to do in light of  this turn of events? In many ways, isn’t agreeing with the views of the outsider the most polite and most effective response for the national– the path that both provides for their families while still showing respect for their visitors?

Perhaps, perhaps they become Rice Christians for the day.

And maybe we missionaries don’t really give them many other options. 

Note: I am by no means saying that the gospel can’t move mightily and quickly among a people group. I’m not saying that we should all begin to doubt the faith of those that come forward in evangelistic outreaches, either. I’m also not throwing short term missions under any kind of bus because I’ve seen this in both short and long-termers. I am saying, though, that perhaps we need to consider the position we put people in when we enter their worlds with gifts and programs. And perhaps we need to re-evaluate some of our “numbers.” 

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Thoughts on this? What is your opinion/experience with pairing the gospel with humanitarian aid? Can that become manipulative? In your area of the world, are people quick to receive the gospel?

 Laura Parker, Co-Founder/Editor, Former Aid Worker in SE Asia