…and how much? These are my questions on Missional Mondays when I want to share Africa with my readers and loved ones.
Missionaries live their lives getting a taste of what it means to be a pilgrim, to be in this world but not of it. No matter where we are, we don’t completely fit in. We are people of two cultures–the one we came from and the one we’re trying to assimilate for the Gospel’s sake.
The culture we’re living in (I’ll call it “Culture #2”) does not understand us–and really doesn’t usually try. And when we go back to our own culture (“Culture #1”), we can’t remember what it was like to only know American culture. The longer we’re away, the harder it is to converse on what seems like narrower scopes every time we go “home.” The only people who can really understand what it’s like to know both cultures are your teammates (if you have them), and oh the letdown if they don’t understand–or worse, if they do understand yet disagree with you!
If we tell culture #1 about the culture we live amongst, we walk a thin line of whether or not to say this or that and how much to describe. If we say more in an effort to really explain and increase the hearer’s understanding, it can come across as complaining, self-pitying, unloving, judgmental, critical, politically incorrect, or perhaps fault-finders might even use terms like “hateful” or “racist.” That is, if we didn’t already lose attention to their iPhone’s incoming text message.
Or even worse is when you try to explain this or that facet of culture #2 to a person from culture #1, and in the greatness of their misunderstanding and inability to form a concept of a worldview and culture outside their own, they proceed to inform you–the missionary who has loved and lived among those people for X amount of years–how you don’t understand and the situation is really like this, and what you ought to do, say, or think.
Perhaps this happens, and perhaps this happening has become more normal, because of the popularity of social media and Blogland, where everyone has a say, whether they know or understand much of what they’re talking about. But that’s another topic. Which leads me to yet another angle of how a missionary feels self-muzzled: if you summon the bravery to attempt to subtly (or openly) talk to culture #1 about perceived errors inside it (potential or real) that you feel your stay in another culture has enlightened you to, it’s like you’re speaking another language. There just seems to be a disconnect in understanding your bottom line.
I was asked to speak at a ladies’ missionary society when I go “home” on furlough, and I haven’t decided what to speak on yet. I thought about speaking on “Things I Usually Don’t Tell Americans Because I Think They Won’t Understand,” but I’m not sure they would understand. 🙂 And I’m not sure I can even formulate it or should try after 8 years of service. Maybe it’s something I will be better and wiser at after 20 years here.
Usually missionaries resort to safer subjects, as I generally have on Missional Mondays–something concrete like what we’re actually doing or something blasé that doesn’t completely communicate our challenges, thoughts, or lives. I would like to give a clearer picture than that, but when you’ve been misunderstood a couple of times, especially on your first few times even attempting the communication, you get shy.
I had a best friend in college with a Southern accent. I felt like she could get away with saying whatever she wanted in that sweet Southern drawl. She’d tell her roommates, “Y’all jest need to pick yer stuff ah-up!” and they’d practically hug her and take her out for ice cream; whereas I would say, “Um…would you mind…moving that pile a bit when you get a chance?” And the hall leader would have to be brought in to clean up after World War III.
So maybe that’s the solution. I’m going to try to write more about our views on culture and ministry in an African setting when I have the time to re-read and re-edit my rough draft a 1,000 times first ;), and y’all jest need to read it with a Southern accent, ‘k?