Look Before You Leap

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Jumping to conclusions–it is quite a natural thing. All throughout the day, our brain is collecting information and constructing facts. From these “facts” we make thousands of decisions. In a high-paced, information-saturated, over-loaded culture, like the one I grew up in, we construct these facts and make these decisions probably faster than we ought. And there is hardly any margin in our lives to question these things.

I am really struggling to write this piece, because as I write I am questioning my ability to adequately portray something that has become an important topic of internal conversation to me. We have a saying on the ship. “It’s not wrong, just different.” It is a saying partly about life and nursing on the ship, but even more so about living in and embracing another culture. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I don’t know if I could ever snap enough photos or write enough words to describe a culture. Honestly, I know my knowledge of West African culture is minimal at best. Culture is multifaceted, and I only have two eyes.

If you look in one direction only, your neck will become stiff.
-Cameroonian proverb

What I cannot help seeing, however, are the differences.

My plea to anyone new to a different culture is this: don’t jump.
We are bound to identify different aspects of a culture, yes. However, we do not have to put those things into the “wrong” category. Is it unusual to our culture to use an unplugged electrical extension cord as a rope or clothesline–yup. Is it wrong–well, no. In fact, it works just fine. Don’t jump to conclusions.

Is it unusual to our culture to weave through traffic with total disregard for lanes and no use of turn-signals–yup. Is it unusual to stop in the middle of the street to buy new windshield wipers and get them installed while a line of cars build up behind you–yup. Is it unusual to our culture to see a woman pull her (entire) boob out in public to feed or pacify her crying baby–yup. Is it unusual to our culture to carry trays of delicious beignets on our heads–yup. Is it unusual to our culture for a neighbor to accompany a child to the hospital because no family are alive/available to do so–yup.

Although each of these things are different, not a single on is actually wrong. Some may even be better. If we are willing to enter a culture to learn and not to fix, we are much more likely to actually serve it well. We at Mercy Ships are here to serve the world’s poor, not to command it. Many, many things are different. However, we should ask to gain a heart of understanding.

Pride in our own ways will bring about more than just our own destruction, but those of others as well.

Seeking to hear and understand another person BEFORE we aim to teach them anything will make them more receptive as well. Re-evaluate your presuppositions of right and wrong–then walk and serve humbly.

Thus far, I have not truly written to my “home audience.” Many of my readers are from my home country and culture. So, how is any of the above applicable to you? This is the question I have been pondering:

Have I been too quick to assign right/wrong to the culture of those in our American “hoods”? I’m not saying that crime, unemployment, fatherlessness, and drugs are acceptable and good. These are the “bad” things we immediately associate with a “bad neighborhood.” [Although they, of course, are present to an extent in any/every neighborhood.] Regardless of the original intent of “project” neighborhoods, families are not using them primarily as temporary housing before saving up enough to “get on their feet.” People have become stuck here. Now, people willingly choose to stay. The life within the hood, has become a way of life to many–not a stepping stone TO a “better” life. As a result, these communities now have a culture all their own.

A mocker seeks wisdom and never finds it, but knowledge comes easily to those with understanding. Proverbs 14:6

Although there are fairly obvious “wrong” things we often see in these communities, there must also be some things that are simply different and NOT wrong. If we (Christians) are supposed to go into all the world and make disciples, how do we do it…THERE. These are the places right under our noses. We happily send missionaries to Africa, but where are the missionaries to the American ghettos? Hopefully they’re already there. Hopefully the work has already begun and is slowly starting to take root. Hopefully they are only behind-the-scenes because there aren’t any charity commercials talking about the needs in our own country (unless of course it’s about a scared, hungry dog–don’t even get me started).

As I seek to understand and serve with humility the needs in front of me here, I pray that those “in the field” back home would do the same. Wherever your own two feet are planted today, there is your mission field. I pray that, in faith, your feet would walk into unfamiliar places in your own backyard. I pray for hearts that seek to understand before mouths open to speak. I pray for receptive hearts that will answer your inquisitive questions. I pray for partners who are “locals” from the people group God has led you to serve. I could not do my job in the hospital (very well) without my amazing translators and local chaplains who understand the culture.

Programs and charities already exist that give money, computers, mentorship and other pleasant little gifts to “the inner-city,” but I have an inkling that what they need is something money cannot buy.

I don’t know exactly how this would look at home.
[Bringing hope and healing isn’t so easy, even with a fairly well-known surgical ship. Months and months of negotiations and preparation occurs before our floating hospital can sail into port.]
I have some crazy ideas that may be just that (crazy), but so was quitting my job and flying halfway across the world.

So…the sky’s the limit! Or is it?

I hope this post left you pondering and challenged as I am. Funny enough, I wrote this post yesterday afternoon before a meeting that provided the crew with a medical overview of the needs in this particular country and how we have actually asked the Cameroonians how we can best help them. Pretty cool. Steve Shwind onboard has done a great job of orienting us all to the culture at each Thursday meeting. To bring you a little chuckle, let me share this video with you that was shown at the start of our meeting. Years ago a band released a single to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia: A well-intentioned, but pretty ignorant song about Africa. In response, a band from South Africa released a parody video with changed lyrics that is both ridiculous and hilarious. It really shows you what it might be like to jump to conclusions and give “help” based on your own personal idea of someone else’s need. Check it out: Africa for Norway

Also, if you have heard of any events, churches or charities that are making a real difference in your local projects/inner-city communities, please comment about them below so that I or anyone reading this post can get educated and involved. Thank you so much!

3 thoughts on “Look Before You Leap”

  1. “Programs and charities already exist that give money, computers, mentorship and other pleasant little gifts to “the inner-city,” but I have an inkling that what they need is something money cannot buy”

    They need love! Continue in your amazing journey of serving the people you love!

  2. When I was young I volunteered with a group called big Sisters. We were each assigned or paired with a child from a disadvantaged family. We took our charge to functions organized by the group and interacted with them within other guide lines of the group. It was a way of taking them out of their hoods and letting them experience other things not available to them otherwise. It seems the more our government tries to do the less the people in our neighborhoods step up to do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *