Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Happy Anniversary…To…Me!

One year ago today I began my new life as a missionary in Iquitos, Peru. I cannot believe it has already been a year. My how time flies. As I reflect on the past 12 months, a lot has happened, but today I find myself thinking about the funny stuff - the humor that has made the tough days easier, the good times even better, and has ultimately made this foreigner feel like she is at home. So I'll share with you a few glimpses of the lighter moments of this last year:
  • Countless nights I've been unable to sleep because my German Shepherd and Yellow Lab ran a cat up a tree and decided the best course of action was to sit at the base of the tree and bark to lure it down again, totally unmoved by my 3 a.m. threats to cut their tails off if they didn't hush.
  • The morning I went out to feed the maccaw only to find it hanging upside down by one foot after getting its leg wrapped up in some twine; it later bit both me and Villa as we were trying to get it unwrapped - some kind of thanks for saving its life.
  • Learning that the word "foca" means seal, as in a sea animal, and that the word "foco" means light bulb, and being told that it is not possible to purchase a foc'a' at the hardware store.
  • Over all the noise from the motokars in the street, hearing a horn playing, of all things, Dixie. I felt like I was being secretly video taped for a bad episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.
  • Visiting with the wife of one of the pastors after she had surgery - and just in case I didn't believe that she'd actually been operated on, she called for her daughter who brought out a large jar which contained her uterus.
  • Consulting with Villa on his "plan of war" to catch the neighbor who insists on putting his trash in front of our house instead of his own.
  • Observing the high class tastes of my Yellow Lab, Dolly, as she dives in the pond behind the house to retrieve snails; she then diligently works to crack the shell and extract her very own doggy escargot.
  • Coming back to Iquitos after a visit to the U.S. to find my washing machine would no longer work. Further investigation by the technician revealed that a couple of mice had taken up residence inside the machine while I was gone and chewed through most of the wires.
  • Watching Villa make what he referred to as 'poison sandwiches' to put in the storage room to kill our pet rat.
  • Shining my flashlight on the pond at night to locate the orange eyes of the alligator my friend Todd put there; then, witnessing its demise as one of the elders from the church next door removed it after I promised he could take it home and have it for dinner.
  • Laughing uncontrollably with Villa in church the next day when the preacher used an alligator story as an illustration in his sermon.
  • Rescuing a toad frog after Dolly, the Yellow Lab, decided he might be a toy for her to play with and was pawing him to death.
  • Chasing Dolly around the yard every time mail is delivered if she gets to the gate before I do. Let's just say that when she greets the mailman, the yard is soon decorated with very small pieces of water bills and bank statements.
  • The day I forgot the gate was bolted and didn't have my key to open it for one of the pastors. He didn't know I could see him through the peephole and later told me he thought God was speaking out loud to him in a woman's voice when he heard me calling his name telling him to wait for me to get the key.
  • Getting up in the morning to find feathers all over the door mat after Tamy, my German Shepherd, decided to have a bird for breakfast.
And these are just a few of the lighter moments that have made this one of the most amazing years of my life. I wish I could put into words everything about this time that has forever changed me. Not only do I have a much greater knowledge and better understanding of my Peruvian friends, but also of myself, and especially God. My 'head knowledge' has grown, and my 'heart knowledge' has deepened. I am totally humbled by this incredible opportunity that I have been given.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Poignant Quotes

Cross-cultural relationships can be tricky, even difficult, but they can also be some of the most rewarding. It doesn't matter if those relationships are established among different cultures within the U.S., or if they develop as a result of foreign missions experiences in other countries. Any time people of different cultures, ethnicities, family backgrounds (or whatever else may be the basis for the differences) come together, unless there is an effort to get to know, to respect, and to understand each other, conflict will ensue. I do think, however, that if you are traveling to another country for the purpose of mission work, disaster relief, or any other area of service to those in need, especially if you are North American, you have a responsibility to step out of yourself and see things from the perspective of the locals you've come to serve. For many years now, long before I ever moved to Peru to live and work in the foreign mission field, I've been reading everything I can get my hands on about cross-cultural ministry and relations. Not surprisingly, there are threads of similarities, common themes that run throughout the literature, and we, as North Americans in search of ways to serve humanity, would do well to heed the suggestions and warnings made by those who've both walked the path before us, and remained behind to clean up the messes we make, however unintentional those messes may have been. For it is only when we step outside of ourselves that we can truly serve.

I recently read for a second time Duane Elmer's book Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Serving the World in Christlike Humility. I will share the bibliographical information on the book at the end of this blog post, but first I want to share what I think are some of the most poignant points of the book. These statements and passages have now made me uncomfortable twice, causing me to stop, to think, to ponder, to evaluate. If you are involved in cross-cultural ministry, whether in the U.S. or abroad, I hope you, too, will take the time to consider how the following quotes might apply to you. After all, our goal is to propagate the pure Gospel. My personal goal is to do so with as little interference from me as possible.

"Many [locals] said that they valued the [foreign] missionary presence and the love they felt from them. But many said…, 'Missionaries could more effectively minister the gospel of Christ if they did not think they were so superior to us'" (15).

"You can't serve someone you do not understand. If you try to serve people without understanding them, you are more likely to be perceived as a benevolent oppressor" (20).

"We [North Americans] see them with less economic goods, less hygiene, less schooling, less housing, less infrastructure, less spiritual maturity, less knowledge, and less 'toys.' We believe that we can help them. So we set out to tell them how it ought to be done. By that, we mean how we do it in the West. This 'telling' approach…rarely works at all anywhere today. But…people see it for what it is: pride" (92).

"We [think] we don't have to get close to our hosts, even while in their culture…We'd be better off getting on with the task rather than 'wasting time' talking with people and sharing their life experiences…since we already 'know' what they need. We turn others into objects…[In doing so] we create dependent relationships. Others rely on us for goals, direction, resources, nurture and status. Such dependency eventually turns bitter because it daily robs people of their dignity" (94-95).

"Unless we too connect deeply with the people of our host culture, we will neither see nor interpret their situation accurately: their pain, their values, their structures, their social limitations, their dreams…our well-meaning help won't fit their reality. The Christ we show them will be more North American than the true Christ…" (104).

"Witness not grounded in the local cultural realities has historically led to the claim that Christianity is a 'white man's religion' or 'foreigners' religion.' Jesus fits comfortably into all cultures, but we have to learn how to express him in the local context…We must also be careful not to mistake our own cultural values with biblical truth" (109-110).

"God says that truth is available through the Scripture and through creation…That means we may learn about God as we learn about other cultures. He has not revealed all of his knowledge and wisdom to the Western cultures alone or to any one culture. But each culture can make a significant contribution to our understanding about who God is and how he works in this world" (131).

"By choosing to be a servant, we relinquish power, control, and unilateral decision making in favor of listening, learning, and understanding, and emerge with a decision that reflects the wisdom of God and his people" (172).

I love foreign missions. I am in awe of those who serve abroad, giving up country, family, home, and numerous luxuries, whether for only a few years or for a lifetime; I aspire to be like them. I think short-term mission teams are great; they have the capacity to add to the body of Christ, but also to spiritually grow believers in both the host and visiting countries. I think Christians are at their best when they are reaching out to help those in need. Unfortunately, though, we (by 'we' I mean North Americans - gringos, if you will) do assume an air of superiority, most of the time without even realizing that is what we are doing. The attitude may be wholly unintentional, yet it is entirely devastating. I've been guilty of it myself. But (as our friendly highway patrolmen like to say when pulling us over) ignorance is no excuse. If we wish to be true disciples of the Gospel, we must make a conscious effort to leave behind all of our notions of how things 'should' be done, ideas about intelligence being directly related to levels of education, preconceptions about how worship 'ought' to be conducted, and schedules that are inflexible, leaving no room for relaxing and socializing - check these things at the U.S. border; you can pick them up again when you re-enter the country. Additionally, we must let go of the fears that plague us and either keep us from going, or hinder God from working through us, such as: fear of flying, fear of spiritual inadequacy, fear of language barriers, fear of unfamiliar foods, fear of insects, fear of hot/cold weather. If God has called you to go, He will equip you. As more than one friend has told me during this first year of my service in Peru, God does not expect us to be perfect, just faithful.

May we all, like Jesus, have the heart of a servant.

Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Serving the World in Christlike Humility
     Downer's Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press,2006.
ISBN - 10 0-8308-3378-1 or ISBN - 13 978-0-8308-3378-8

Recommended Reading

  • The Bible
  • Serving with Eyes Wide Open - Doing Short Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence - David A. Livermore
  • Cross-Cultural Servanthood - Serving the World in Christlike Humility - Duane Elmer
  • Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) - Robert D. Lupton
  • When Helping Hurts-Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself - Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  • Shadow of the Almighty - Elizabeth Elliot
  • Messy Spirituality - Michael Yaconelli
  • The Irresistible Revolution - Shane Claiborne
  • Peace Child - Don Richardson
  • If God Should Choose - Kristen Stagg
  • In the Presence of My Enemies - Gracia Burnham
  • Inside Afghanistan - John Weaver
  • Same Kind of Different as Me - Ron Hall and Denver Moore
  • Through Gates of Splendor - Elizabeth Elliot
  • End of the Spear - Steve Saint