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Living as half a person: reflections on the first year (Part Three)

Red Twin completes her guest series on what life is like in the first year of living cross-culturally. Her experiences are from Central Asia but many of them resonated with us as well. Suggestions for how to support cross-cultural workers are in italics. Parts One and Two went up last week.

Being half-paralysed by missiology

One of the things that I am most grateful to CMS for, is the St Andrews Hall course. It is outstanding! And there are few other courses that compare to it worldwide. And definitely not in Australia. My thinking there was revolutionized, and I know that the speed with which my relationships have formed with Central Asians, are because of the lessons I learned there.

But what do you do, when you have all this knowledge about best-practice from experienced cross-cultural workers who’ve done the hard yards, and then you land in Central Asia, and your teammates say “I don’t want to dress like a local person because the best way for me to show people who Jesus is, is for me to appear as foreign as possible.” Or in South Asia when one experienced cross-cultural worker says “It’s fine to have a Christmas tree because it’s part of your culture” and another says “You definitely shouldn’t have one, because people here think that we worship them.” Or in Tanzania, where people say “I do my job and serve Tanzanians, but we’re better off if our friends are other expats.” Or in Egypt, where people say “It’s wrong to raise your hands when you pray. Christians pray with their hands folded.”

These people have been there longer than you. And they know the context better than you. But everything in you screams that they are wrong. And you don’t have time to watch for a few months or years and then make a decision. Once you make a choice about clothes / friendships / Christmas trees, it’s very difficult to go back.

And you end up completely confused. And conflicted. Do you contextualize to the local people who you are trying to reach? Or do you contextualize to the other cross-cultural workers with whom you have to live and work and who will attack you for doing things differently? For me, and for the people I’ve spoken to, you end up caught between the two, and it paralyses you.

You try to talk it through with experienced people on the field, or local church leaders (if there is a body of believers in your location) and find out that most of them have no idea that the issues you raise even exist. You find out that they arrived on the field without going to Bible College, and with no specific missiological training. So you see the train-wreck of local people’s misunderstandings about their behaviour.

And the worst thing is, that you’re sure that you’re just as bad. Because you’ve got training in understanding culture and adapting the Christian message for another culture, so you see all your mistakes. You feel like you’re sinking as you try to navigate the muddy waters of contextualization, and then you find out that your colleagues are skating along, because they don’t even realize the water is there!

My experience, and that of many of my new cross-cultural colleagues has been of intense missiological loneliness. We are so grateful to CMS for the excellent training we’ve been given, but we’ve all struggled to find people who could engage with us on those issues. As I’ve skyped back to CMS handler, or to my mentor who works at St Andrew’s Hall, through my tears of frustration and loneliness I’ve often commented “This is all your fault! I was clueless about missiology when I came here short term, so I was blissfully unaware of my mistakes.” That’s not the case now!

God works through half-people

Finally, let me finish by saying, as agonizing and frustrating as it is to be a half-person, God still works through half people. I remember doing a case study with my staff about a lady who presented to the clinic saying she had evil spirits. My staff all had various psychiatric explanations for what had happened, some better than others. When I suggested that we might need to at least consider the spiritual angle, they were stunned. One of them exclaimed “But you’re from the West. You don’t believe in spiritual things.” The next week, a friend from that group approached me to ask about a worrying report she’d heard of growing adherence to Satanism in a neighbouring country. The first thing I did was point that I wasn’t one of those Satan worshippers and she said to me “Oh I know that. But you know about spiritual things”, and then she listened keenly as I explained that I was not fearful of Satan or spirits, because Jesus was more powerful. A few days later, I was talking to a client, when she became uncomfortable and wanted to leave. My friend was there too, and the client asked my friend if I was a Muslim, to which my friend replied “No, she is a Christian, but she knows great things about God. You can trust her.” God is working! Even with my stilted language. Even when I’ve felt mildly miserable. Even when I’ve been totally confused about what to wear or how to act. God works through half-people, even in their first year!

That person who originally made that comment about being a half-person concluded with this statement. “Be welcome. Be half-people as long as you need to be. But remember, before the Lord, you are always whole.” What an encouraging message to hear – exactly what new cross-cultural workers, and I suspect experienced cross-cultural workers need to hear as well!

Image credit: Doll by Beth

Categories: Ministry & mission Written by Tamie

Tagged as:

Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

3 replies

  1. It’s been great to read these blogs by the Red Twin as I didn’t get to hear her talk on this topic at SE14. I look forward to discussing these issues further with her – and with all of you – so that we can better support all CMS workers in their first year/s and beyond. Thanks again for sharing.

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