Her face seemed tired yet open as she greeted me in the doorway of her apartment. A toddler peeked around her skirt at me with wide, bright eyes. In that first exchange, I learned that her name is Masoka and her son is named Daudi. Masoka’s face will forever be for me the face of the refugee. Until that morning, I had never known a refugee longer than a couple days.

I and another ESL volunteer had knocked on her family’s door, having seen their apartment number on our list of refugee residents of the apartment complex where we would be holding English classes starting the following week. That morning, we were going door-to-door to meet the refugees and give them flyers with the details. It didn’t take long with Masoka to realize that for the very reasons that she could benefit from an ESL class, she and I could not have any kind of conversation. We had no language in common. We resorted to hand gestures and even then, we quickly hit a wall. At that point, Masoka’s tired, confused face broke into laughter and she grabbed my hand to shake it. I laughed with her and wondered if in her world, even the presence of a smiling face at her door could be significant.

Where are the people who will show up with a smiling face?

Masoka and her family are Congolese refugees who had arrived in the US seven months prior to our first encounter. That meant that when I met them, they no longer had a case worker assigned to them, having surpassed the initial time period when refugees have anyone assigned to them. They had originally been resettled in the north of Dallas where they had gotten connected with a Swahili-speaking church. More recently, due to their large family (six biological children and a niece that live with them) they were relocated to this apartment complex in south Dallas. Masoka was pregnant. This background information on her and her family came in bits and pieces over the months that followed our first encounter.

I met others that first day, a family from Eritrea and another from Syria. What they all had in common was extremely minimal English. Other than their country of origin, it was near impossible to learn much of their stories. Bits and pieces were shared in the little English they knew, amidst strings of languages I don’t understand and much gesturing and frustration, as they tried to communicate with me and as I tried to guess at what they were saying. Bombings and death of family members that they had witnessed in their home country – these things were pantomimed. And I was left trying to respond and express my sorrow for them in inadequate ways. As the English classes began the following week, the individuals that we had met became part of mixed classes – students from Congo, Eritrea, Syria, speaking at least four different languages. As we began to help them learn English, their individual stories receded into the background and remained largely a mystery.

Masoka and her husband and toddler came to ESL class. I was so happy when I first saw them there. For all I knew, my attempts to communicate with her and invite her to class had failed that morning I met her at her door.

It is humbling and frustrating to not be able to communicate with people like Masoka. Other than that presence of a smiling face, I have felt pretty useless to her in the face of all that she has experienced and that she and her family deal with now as they learn to live in the US. When I first met her, I had little concept of what they were dealing with. Then one day after class, I noticed her trying to say something to the apartment manager at the leasing office, next door to where we held classes. Masoka of course didn’t have the English words to communicate, and the manager had no idea what she was trying to say. After watching them struggle for a while, I jumped in and tried to help, to no avail. We got the sense there was a problem, but we could not figure out what it was. Finally, I offered to go back with her to her apartment so she could show me what the problem was. Once back at her apartment, she showed me that there was a problem with the key and lock. It was a simple matter to fix and was mostly due to the fact she wasn’t used to that kind of door.

As I thought about it later, I realized that beyond a smiling face, it is time that they need. It takes much more time and patience to communicate when you don’t have a language in common. When there’s a problem, it involves going with them and their showing you if they don’t know the English words to simply tell you. When it’s not something concrete that they are trying to tell you, it involves sitting with them and listening, patiently gathering the bits of information that you can, sometimes waiting until there are family members around with a bit more English.

Where are the people who have time?

Then one day, Masoka didn’t come to class. Her husband told us a few days later that their baby had been born, a girl named Neema (Swahili for “grace,” as I’d later learn). The other volunteers and I shared in their joy, visiting them and bringing them gifts and supplies donated by our respective churches. Masoka and her family were so appreciative.

As I visited them, I began to sense that baby supplies were a drop in the bucket of what they were facing now with a newborn in a strange country. Masoka had walked with a limp before the birth, and she was expressing pain in her legs. She had difficulty coming down the stairs. Her husband was expressing concern for her. She was also motioning that she was having issues nursing. Was she able to get to a doctor? What hospital would see her? Would she and her husband know when to take their baby for regular check-ups? How would they pay for formula? How would the baby get registered and added to the family’s benefits plan? I was clueless as to how these things work in my own country. The family had long ago surpassed the time period when they have a case worker who checks on them in such matters. Masoka was obviously an experienced mother. I knew it was their family’s strength and resilience that had gotten them this far. On one hand, they didn’t need me, and it was just as well because I felt so useless. On the other hand, during my visits with them I was trying to show them friendship and care. I began to feel a responsibility to them, as a friend, to do whatever it was that I could, even if it was just sitting with them.

Where are the people who will go sit with those who need a friend?

Over the course of the weeks following Neema’s birth, her parents and I discovered (often together) how to navigate some of those things they were facing. I connected them to Swahili-speakers, to a woman who knows about lactation, to the state hotline to call to add a family member to a benefits plan. And the days I couldn’t do anything for them, I’d simply sit and pray with them. It has been a humbling and eye-opening experience.

The other day, I was running near a lake when, for some strange reason, it felt like I was back in West Africa. It was something in the warm breeze and the sound of the water and the sun hot on my face that made me close my eyes for a second and think, “Wait, am I in Dallas or somewhere along the coast of West Africa?” And I felt my gut lurch at that thought. “Am I ready to go back?” I wondered.

In less than two months, I’ll be returning to “the field.” My flight is booked, and July 2 I’ll go back to West Africa.

After being in the US for a year-long home assignment, it is with mixed emotions that I prepare to return. It is there that I feel alive in the sense of doing what I was made to do. But it is still here that I feel comfortable. It does not yet feel like I am going “home.” It feels right to go back but not altogether easy.

A year is long enough to settle back into American rhythms and coping mechanisms which I do not have in West Africa. I will have to switch back into that other mode I learned to operate in while in West Africa. I have to trust that I will settle back into those other rhythms and coping mechanisms.

And my fickle, forgetful heart has to trust that God will provide for my every need there as He did when I was there before.

In his book Soul, Self, and Society, Rynkiewich asks the question, “What will it take to be in mission with Postcolonial people?” I have been pondering the thought-provoking list of principles he then shares. Here are those ten principles he offers as a possible answer:

  1. Kenosis. Empty yourself. Do not grasp your own ideology, privilege, or authority. Identify with the other.
  2. Guest. Receive hospitality. You are the guest; the other is the host. Learn what that means in Scripture and in the cultural setting.
  3. Forgiveness. Seek the forgiveness of the other for the privileges you and yours have received from unequal colonial, neocolonial, or globalizing oppression.
  4. Good news. News is good when the recipient thinks it is good. Identify with the poor and oppressed. Discover what good news would mean to them. Speak of God’s great love in Jesus Christ, and follow with practices that are good news.
  5. Reconciliation. Learn where people have been hurt and are hurting. Seek to mediate God’s reconciliation in those situations. We have a message of reconciliation, and we have a ministry of reconciliation.
  6. Justice. Study the structures and behaviors that give rise to injustice, then become an advocate for the poor and oppressed.
  7. Settle down. The poor and the oppressed have had a succession of do-gooders pass through their neighborhood, and most have kept going. Stay in the place that God has sent you, pray for ‘the good of the hood,’ and work for the community.
  8. Relate. The poor have heard ‘good news,’ but there was little good in it. Develop relationships that honor the other.
  9. Submit. Submit yourselves one to the other. The other has a vision, a goal, a plan. Discover what it is and what your place in it can be.
  10. Give. The measure of a religion is not what it does for its own adherents, but what it does for those who are not adherents. Be clear that what you do, you do because of Christ and for the other, and not for yourself. Give yourself.” (p. 97)

There’s a language learning method called “Growing Participator Approach.” I’ve written about it before (like here), as this is the strategy that SIL International recommends for their members who need to learn languages once they’re on the field. I received training in the method during pre-field training at GIAL. I also participated in a refresher workshop during my first term in West Africa.

The Growing Participator Approach method was developed by Greg Thomson. One of his mottos that sums up the philosophy behind it is, “Don’t learn the language! Rather, discover a new world, as it is known and shared by the people among whom you are living.” (Thomson 2007) If you might be interested in using this method, there are lots of great resources on this website.

I was recently reading over again some of the materials describing the method and its parts. In particular I was reading about the fourth of the six language learning phases, called “deep life sharing.” As I read the following description, I reflected on what I’ve experienced in West Africa as I’ve discovered the world of Wolof.

When we first begin living in a host community, we experience everything as they stories. After all, our most powerful means of thinking is our language and the concepts it includes, or rather, our languaculture—the “things themselves” and the actions that involve them, and the ways they are talked about, and the intermingling of actions without words, and actions with words, in a continuous flow of human life. We have no hope of leaving our own languaculture back in our home country. It is the only way we can make much sense out of our experience at all. But over time, we want host people to nurture us into the story that they are living, and the stories that they are telling. It isn’t a matter of replacing labels from one language with labels from another language. Rather, it is a matter of discovering a whole new collection of story building pieces, and possible stories built from them, possible ways life can go. … As we go through the phases of the Six Phase Programme, we are nudged more and more into the story that host people are living. By the end of Phase 5, we hope that we are living their story with them, though still plagued by our native “accent” (not just an accent in our pronunciation, but also in our understandings)… We can thus see Phase 4 as pivotal in this regard as well as in so many others. It is the phase of the great cross-over, going from living life among host people largely as a they story, to living the host story with host people. (Thomson 2007: 43)

Thomson also writes,

To make a long story short, we recognise that people grow in their “language ability” through participation in the host people group. We see host people as living a shared life, and ourselves as being nurtured into it, or apprenticed into it. Talking and listening are a huge part of the life we are being nurtured into, but there is not a thing called language that is independent of the ongoing process of talking and listening, or independent of the stream of actions and experiences in which talking and listening are embedded. (For sure, there are mental processes that go on inside the heads of the talkers and listeners, and we do keep those in mind as well, but those processes develop primarily as a result of the external activities of participation in the host languaculture.) (Thomson 2007: 33)

And finally,

Being nurtured into a host people group is a priceless privilege. Treat it as such. (Thomson 2007: 37)

It sounds wonderful. And it is. And it is also difficult. Thomson describes the difficulty in words like “long,” “tough,” “slog,” “struggle,” “pain,” “slow.”

I found something I wrote late in my first term in West Africa, when I was probably somewhere in the “deep life sharing” phase of learning Wolof. Perhaps it gives a glimpse of that difficult growth which happens with the priceless privilege of relationships with host people.

Did what I find here repulse me? Or was what repulsed me the things I realized about myself here? 

I fought with you about what you made me feel I needed to be. But maybe you saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself, maybe you were drawing something out of me. Was I fighting you? Or was I fighting what you expected of me? Or was I fighting myself, something in myself that I didn’t want to be? 

I tried to show I cared about you in my way, in the process tripping and stumbling over myself and my words and my cultural baggage. But you graciously hid that you minded. Then you tried to show me you cared about me in your way, leaving me feeling frustrated and uncomfortable and lonely. But I hid that I minded, and I tried to return it. I knew you were doing your best. And I hope you know I was doing my best.

Whose expectations were more unrealistic? Yours of me? Or mine of you? 

You never seemed very interested in the work I was doing… But the days I did what seemed so insignificant — putting on my shoes and traveling to your house, sitting down and doing nothing but spending time with you and yours — that’s when you noticed and were interested and appreciative.

Quotes taken from:
Thomson, Greg. 2007. “Growing Participatory Approach: Resource packet for Phase Four.” https://growingparticipatorapproach.wordpress.com/phase-4-the-big-middle-phase/.

I’ve gotten a small taste of cross-cultural partnerships since working in West Africa. When Christians from different countries or cultures decide to join in ministry together, money issues inevitably come up. So I’ve been meaning to read for some time this book on that very subject:

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In January I finally got around to it and highly recommend the book for any individuals or churches involved in cross-cultural ministry.

The author astutely makes the point time and time again that money issues in cross-cultural partnerships are often merely the surface manifestation of deeper clashes– between differing cultures’ values, communication styles, views of power, concepts of honor, etc. And so, though the book seeks to address the inevitable money issues, it does so by looking at the more fundamental issues of differing worldviews held by Christians of different cultural backgrounds.

Lederleitner’s most helpful point is made at the outset. She states that one of the most obvious signs that we don’t yet truly understand our partners from a different culture is when we speak of them or their ways with disrespect. On p. 34 she writes:

In order to work together well we need to listen to one another. We need to not only grasp how our partners feel and what they believe but also take the additional step to understand why such feelings and beliefs are wholly logical within a given context. If we can see the logic of a person’s worldview, if we can value it as being wholly reasonable given a unique cultural heritage and history, from that place of mutual respect and dignity we can find new and creative ways to overcome obstacles and work together. If we never take that step, at some level within our hearts we will continue to demean how others think and function in the world.

It occurs to me that this could apply to many contexts, not just cross-cultural partnerships.

What is our tone when we speak of our partners from cultural backgrounds different from our own (when they’re not around)? This may best reveal whether or not we “get” where they’re coming from and how well we’ll be able to collaborate with them. And of course, this is a two-way street.

Lederleitner also shares the following seven principles from Philippians 2 for cross-cultural partnerships:

  1. Intensely and actively look for the good in each other.
  2. Stay focused on the bigger issues you have in common.
  3. Take the extra steps and invest the time and creativity necessary to meet not only your own needs and requirements but those of your partner as well.
  4. Set aside your legitimate power and do not pick it up again.
  5. Know that God will reward humility and obedience.
  6. Expect that partnering well will take a lot of work, and that is okay.
  7. Know that if you choose to work in respectful and loving ways, you will shine forth with the powerful radiance of the glory of God. (p. 182-186)

And I needed to hear this inspiring reminder that she gives on p. 193:

How can we grow to maturity in Christ if we do not work together? How will we ever overcome selfishness and sinfulness if all we compare ourselves with are those who look and act just like us? We partner and work with our brothers and sisters around the world for reasons far deeper than any specific ministry outcome or objective. We partner cross-culturally because in the deepest recesses of our soul and being we need one another to become the people that God created us to be!

Lederleitner covers a wide range of topics. As I reflect on things I’ve experienced and seen in West Africa, I found her treatment of the various issues quite insightful. She puts things better than I ever could, so if you’re interested but need more to whet your appetite and read the book, more excerpts are below:

on individualist vs. collectivist cultures: “Individualism is a luxury that can only be maintained if there is a healthy, growing economy and a well-developed national infrastructure. Since many people take those things for granted, we misunderstand others who approach life without those safety nets. … To the individualist Christ admonishes us in Matthew 6:24 that we must love God more than money. To the collectivists Jesus says in Matthew 10:37 that if we do not love him more than our family members, we are not worthy of him.” (p. 38-39)

on the currency of face: “A core concept in many collective societies is ‘face.’ Many people in individualistic cultures make the mistake of assuming it is the same thing as reputation. However, its meaning and role in society is far greater. Individualistic cultures navigate life by utilizing a currency of money, but collectivistic cultures navigate life by using a currency of face. … The best comparison I have found to explain the seriousness of the concept of ‘losing face’ is to compare it to a person in an individualistic culture who has just discovered that a criminal has stolen his or her entire pension fund.” (p. 45-46)

on the stock put in words: “Some cultures are low context, which means they rely heavily on words, both written and spoken, to discern meaning. These are often cultures that are comfortable with more direct methods of communication. They are also often those with a more individualistic and egalitarian worldview. Many others are quite different. High context cultures place very little stock in words. They often do not believe what people say. Instead, they look to the context or actions to determine meaning.” (p. 47)

on standards of stewardship: “We want honesty, integrity and sacrifice on the part of our non-Western partners. We want them to be meticulously good stewards of the funds we give to them. However, are we applying that same standard of excellence, care and stewardship to the funds God is entrusting to us?” (p. 54)

on how we view rules: “If we are from a culture steeped in democratic values, we tend to be more absolute in our view of rules, and we feel all must carry them out fairly and consistently. However, much of the world does not function this way. They feel relational connections mean they are not bound by the same rules. … Universalism and particularism are the terms that deal with this phenomenon. … Trompenaars and Hamden-Turner write, ‘People from both societies will tend to think each other corrupt. A universalist will say of particularists, “they cannot be trusted because they will always help their friends” and the particularist, conversely, will say of the universalists, “you cannot trust them; they would not even help a friend.”‘ So for the exact same reason we can end up distrusting one another.” (p. 57-59)

on margin of time: “For people with a monochromic worldview, time is quite simply a commodity. It is an asset that should not be wasted or squandered. … Schedules and deadlines are critical, and anything that gets in the way is a nuisance. Another worldview is the polychronic orientation to time. … Storti explains that for polychronic people, ‘time is limitless and not quantifiable. There is always more time, and people are never too busy. Time is the servant and tool of people and is adjusted to suit the needs of people.’ … If we enter cross-cultural partnership with no margin of time, it will not go well.” (p. 62, 64)

on giving money to relieve one’s own discomfort: “In the United States, for example, we are notorious for thinking if we just throw money at something, everything will be better. We often do this instinctively because internally we feel such great disequilibrium and heartache at the disparity of resources. We give quickly, almost out of instinct, because we want that uncomfortable and unpleasant feeling to go away. Instead of living with that tension and allowing it to be an irritation in our soul that over time can grow into a pearl of great wisdom, we short-circuit God’s process for lasting transformation by giving money quickly and moving on.” (p. 89)

on dependency being an excuse: “When I hear ‘fear of dependency’ discussed in my own culture…at times I feel it is used as a smoke screen for people being unwilling to make a long-term strategic commitment to a specific area of the world. … We want to be ‘free.’ We want to respond when we want to respond. … Before we can adequately address the issue of dependency, we also need to do some serious soul searching and address the role our own self-centeredness might be playing in the debate.” (91-92)

“Partnering well will not come naturally for many of us. … The issue of dependency and the law of unintended consequences can serve as tutors, keeping us humble. The complexities can lead us to even deeper dependence and reliance on God and on one another so that we discover better ways of working.” (p. 97)

on fostering fiscal integrity: “In the West we often like direct communication styles, and we bristle at having a backdoor avenue for getting at the truth. We want ‘all the cards on the table,’ and we want everything to be upfront. However, in many cultures the best way to ensure good fiscal integrity is to form a network of contacts who can verify that the results being portrayed are true.” (p. 117)

on accountability going both ways: “For many cross-cultural partners, it is hard to know how to implement accountability structures and still model values such as dignity and mutuality. Perhaps this tension would not even be present if accountability processes always went both ways and were more holistically integrated throughout all of our work and ministry processes. In Christian ministry we often model worldly processes so that those with less power and resources are accountable to those with greater wealth and power. If we want to truly begin to foster dignity and mutuality, we need to gain greater sensitivity to the power dynamics in our partnerships.” (p. 120-121)

on forgiving and remembering: “Lederach writes, ‘The challenge of reconciliation is not how to create the place where one can “forgive and forget.” It is about the far more challenging adventure into the space where individuals and whole communities can remember and change.’ Da Silva writes, ‘Traditionally, forgiveness has tended to be associated with forgetting. … “Forgive and remember” seems like a wiser safeguard; it ensures that we remain alert to not repeating similar painful and unjust actions in the future. Memory makes the past available to us so that we can work through events and traumas without trivializing or denying them.’ An Angolan proverb says, ‘The one who throws the stone forgets; the one who is hit remembers forever.’ … As we forgive, both sides to be committed to remember, to listening to others and to expressing concern if a former bad habit rears its ugly head. We will not change if that concern is silenced.” (p. 130-131)

on the idolatry of being needed: “Innate in all of us is a desire to be needed. However, if we work from that motivation or ethos, any short-term gains in the partnership will likely be overshadowed by long-term dependency.” (p. 137-138)

on the inevitability of conflict: “Ting-Toomey writes, ‘Conflict exists as part of the human condition. It is an inescapable phenomenon in all societal organizations.’ … Weiss and Hughes write, ‘Many mistakenly assume that efforts to increase collaboration will significantly reduce conflict, when in fact some of these efforts…actually produce more of it.’ Working more closely in collaboration raises dissimilarities to an even greater pitch. Things can be more easily tolerated when we do not spend a lot of time together and when we do not have to actively engage together to get a task done. … Often when conflict arises we hold to a paradigm that one person is right and the other is wrong. In cross-cultural partnership, that paradigm is not helpful. Both processes might be ‘right’ given distinctive contexts. However, neither approach might work for collaborative efforts across cultures.” (p. 158-159)

On January 28, Genesis and the New Testament translated into the Oniyan language were dedicated. An SIL colleague in the country where I work shared these photos of the event with me (thanks, Sharon!).

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Right, N* the head translator and left, J* a member of the translation team

The people group that speaks Oniyan – the Bëliyan – live in the southeast corner of the West African country where I work. I first learned about them while doing research for a project assigned in my pre-field Scripture Engagement course back in 2013. By then I knew I was headed to this West African country and so wanted to do the project on one of the languages/ people groups of that country. I interviewed the Bëliyan pastor who headed up the Oniyan Bible translation team, Pastor N*. I also interviewed several SIL workers who made trips there for literacy work and pastors’ training; one named Jim had lived among the Bëliyan with his family for a number of years and knew them well. For a while, it looked like I might be assigned to work in the Oniyan project. That changed once I arrived in the country for my first term. Still, I think of them with fondness since learning about them was essentially my introduction to this country and its languages.

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Jim and his wife, Petey, at the Oniyan dedication

The gospel was first preached among the Bëliyan 40 years ago by Catholic missionaries. There are some Bëliyan Christians but they’re a small minority; it’s taken years of those few Christians living out their faith in the villages for Bëliyan to even believe that one can be a Christian and not give up his or her Bëliyan identity.

Years ago, early on during Jim’s work among the Bëliyan, he and Pastor N* asked the Bëliyan about what they believe. It was a survey, a kind of worldview assessment. They had two target audiences: the old men who were in their 70s or 80s and the young men in their 20s and 30s. They were especially interested in seeing if there was a change in worldview between the elders whose beliefs were shaped before the arrival of the gospel among them, and the young generation of Bëliyan who would have grown up with some exposure to the gospel through the missionaries.  So they asked them all kinds of questions about God, if He is personal, the spirit world, who controls things here on earth.

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The answers of the old men were much what they expected. The Bëliyan in general are very animistic in their beliefs and religious practices. They live in a remote part of the country and have resisted the influence of Islam, maintaining instead their traditional spirit worship, sacrifices at the sacred places, and use of fetishes to discern the future. But the members of the younger generation also answered in much the same way as the old men, which suggested to Jim and Pastor N* that perhaps their view of the world has not been as influenced by their exposure to the gospel as one would hope. And if the gospel was only preached to them in French or maybe in the trade language but not in their language – their heart language – this wouldn’t be surprising. This finding was added motivation for the Oniyan translation team to work to make God’s Word available to the Bëliyan so that their hearts may be reached and their beliefs transformed by Scripture.

After they’d answered all the interview questions, the old men were sitting around and talking with Pastor N*, having just discussed all these questions about God and the world. One of them said something that Jim has never forgotten. The man was so old that he’d gone blind, and the man sitting next to him was half-blind. He said, “We are so blind about the ways of God; we understand so little. And if there’s a blind person walking towards a huge thorn bush or towards a cliff, you should stop him and keep him from going over the cliff.” And then he looked at the pastor and said, “Don’t forget about us.”

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God hasn’t forgotten the Bëliyan. May God’s Word spread among them, and through the Oniyan Scriptures, may they come to a deeper understanding of God, the world, and themselves.

*This country is a sensitive location. To protect the identities of national Christians, I don’t include their full names.

That’s the title of the GIAL course I started yesterday. After our first class session, I’m excited and grateful for another chance to learn and study. It’s an anthropology course. It will give me further training for living among the minority languages and cultures of the West African country where I work. I look forward to diving into these books!

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