Considering Culture

When I was taking a missions class at Harding, I remember Monte Cox drilling into us a teaching from Paul Hiebert.  The idea is that it is easier to bring the gospel as a potted plant from one culture to another than to bring the gospel as a seed, plant it in the new culture, and allow it to take root in that culture.  I have learned so much about cultural differences during my time in Peru.  Many days, those cultural differences cause me to really dislike this culture.  I want to throw my hands up and shout, “Why can't you get this right like MY culture!?”  I realize that statement makes me totally ethnocentric.  But over time, as I have grown accustomed to many of the cultural differences and better understand the reasons behind some of these differences, I have a greater appreciation for where these people come from.

Teaching the gospel message to people in a different culture has taught me so much about the gospel message.  Does that make sense?  There are so many unspoken rules from the church culture I was raised in, and living here in Peru has caused me to question many of those unspoken rules.  Does an unspoken rule line up with the original gospel message, or is it influenced by the culture?

This post is not about answers.  This post is something that I have been thinking about for awhile and need to type out.  I have struggled a lot with what matters.  But one of the biggest lessons I have learned is that my perspective on someone else's life matters a great deal. If I do not understand their culture or background, I need to back up and try to understand.  I cannot dismiss the actions of someone just because they don't live or make decisions as someone from my particular background.  So much of grace is understanding that we are all influenced by different factors, and if I take relationship ministry seriously, I will try my best to understand that background.

One example is time.  Punctuality is expected in my home culture.  If a person is repeatedly unpunctual they are thought of as rude.  Greg recorded some results from a survey our interns led last summer (a questionare that many Peruvians answered).  One of the results was very interesting and eye-opening to us.  Our team understands that punctuality is not the Peruvians' strong suit.  And we have all been very frustrated with church members that arrive late, sometimes later than late.  But in this questionare, Peruvians were asked when punctuality matters.  They listed things that are institutional: school, work, etc.  But if the event is familial, punctuality doesn't matter.  We have tried very hard to make the time the church spends together as familial.  So after examining these results, we find it flattering that so many are not punctual.  They don't see it as something they HAVE to show up to.  They see it as meeting with family and as something they WANT to do.  That is a blessing to see, but only after diagnosing something very different in their culture that at first was so easily dismissed in these North American eyes as rude.

I was not planning on writing a super long post on missional context and the like.  I was actually on a crowded public bus today reflecting on how much I have learned about people here and realizing that people all come from different stories.  So many times I am impatient with someone and their actions, but if I take the time to understand where they are coming from, I am not so impatient anymore.

A lesson I learned while teaching at a Title 1 middle school in Marion, AR from a Ruby Payne motivational speaker:  teachers can assign lots of homework and lots of extra reading for their students, but just realize that some kids come from very poor homes.  The only light that their parent(s) will turn on at night is the light from the television.  How well would you read in front of that?

A lesson that I learned from a student in my first year of teaching (I will refer to this student by a different name, Hope):

My team of teachers were all meeting to discuss any problems we had  with discipline or particular students.  Every teacher had an issue with Hope.  She was sleeping in everyone's class.  The team of teachers was ready to take a strong disciplinary action against Hope.  I spoke up in the meeting and said that I would really like to talk to Hope one-on-one before we did anything.  After class the next day, I asked Hope to stay behind so that we could talk.  I asked her directly why she was sleeping in her classes every day.  She apologized and went into a story I will never forget.  “Mrs. McKinzie, I have to stay up and feed my twin babies.”  She went on to paint a picture that no 13-year-old should ever have to paint.  Hope and her sister and two infant twins were basically on their own.  Their mother received food stamps but would sell them in order to get money for drugs for herself and their step father.  I asked Hope what they fed the babies if there were no groceries in the home.  “Sometimes there is a little bit of sugar, and I can mix it with some water and make sugar water.”  This story absolutely broke my heart.  My first thought was that Hope could sleep in my class anytime she needed.  She was helping to take care of twin infants through the night, and no wonder they were crying!  Hope's story does not end well.  I ended up having to report her situation to Family Services and later we learned that the step father was molesting the girls.  But that made me think twice about immediately getting on a student's case for sleeping through class.  I needed to understand where she was coming from.  Hope and I lived in the same “culture,” and yet her home culture was so different than what I came from.

In my last four years in Peru, here are some examples of situations that have caused me to shift my perspective on judging someone's situation:

  • The young Christian woman that accepts Christ and never attends the meetings.  But then I learn… She has no support from her male chauvinist husband.  She wants to attend the Sunday meeting that takes place during lunch (the most important meal of the day and when our home church decides to meet), but she is expected to cook the meal for her husband and serve him.  How do you get her to participate in the Sunday meeting with the church?
  • The woman that is single and doesn't seem to be dedicated enough to attend our church meetings on Sunday.  But then I learn…  Her husband ran off with another woman and left her with 3 children to care for.  She works Monday-Saturday, 7 am to 7 pm.  She takes her 2 year old to work with her every day.  She makes next to nothing.  Sunday is her only day of rest and the only day for housework.  She has to hand wash all the clothes and have time for them to dry before the next day.  Sunday is also her only day to go to the market and buy the items her family needs for the week.  The church meets on Sundays and the meeting is usually 3 hours.  How can this woman be responsible to her family and still be responsible to her spiritual family when they come together and meet?
  • The man that never shows up on time and never calls that he will be late.  I would never understand the public transportation system unless I rode it.  So I learn… Sometimes a person has to change from one bus route to another (with 10 minute waiting times in between).  Sometimes the road work reroutes the buses on extremely long or clogged routes making the time double what it would have been.  Normally, a route may take 1/2 an hour.  On top of all of that, the man can never afford to keep minutes on his phone so he can't call.  How can you reprimand someone like that for being late?
  • The church members that seem to disappear from our meetings February-March.  And then I live here awhile… February-March is the heaviest time of the rainy season.  Many of the houses in this desert city are poorly constructed to hold up against heavy rains.  When a heavy storm comes, a family has to constantly work to sweep the rain away from the doors, empty buckets from leaks, etc.  What would you do if you knew that all of your belongings were getting soaked if you left the house?
I could go on.  So many of these examples are related to church life, but I have found myself backing up and trying to understand people better when engaging with non-Christians open to the message of Christ.  What is the best way to explain “freedom in Christ” to a woman that is “enslaved” by the expectations of her chauvinist husband?  On one hand, how much more liberating is this message!  On the other hand, how do I teach someone to follow after Christ with all of their heart, participating with their spiritual family when they are in a situation so different than my own?
Like I said, this isn't a post about answers.  I have arrived at some conclusions in many things, but what this thought process has done to me is to humble me.  A teaching on church life that I know transcends any and every culture comes from Jesus's conversation with his disciples (John 13:34-35).

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

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Considering Culture

One thought on “Considering Culture

  1. Marlee says:

    I think this a great post. I hope I can take what you said and be more understanding and A LOT less judgmental!

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