Confession #74: Cultural Intelligence, Long Term Relationships & The Gospel
I can’t remember how many times I had been to Haiti before on this particular trip, possibly three or four. I was a strong-willed and determined college girl who was out save the world. I was passionate, but boy was I ever naïve.
There was a boy, around my age, who I remember speaking with one evening on this trip. We sat on the porch of a building for an hour or so talking about his dreams for his future- all of which were grander than the reality he could afford. Attend university, become an engineer, and visit America- he spoke of these dreams so fluidly, so well rehearsed. Without thinking that my words would actually have an effect on him, I encouraged his dreams. I recited the go-to phrase: You can do anything you put your mind to. And then, while his confidence for university and becoming and engineer were miles high I made an even bigger mistake. I told him when he makes it America, he could come stay at my house and I would show him around our city.
Maybe you can’t see the problem and you are wondering what the big deal is. And that is ok. My mistake appears so minute at first. It wasn’t until years later that I suffered the ramifications of this conversation.
This boy never grew up to go to university. Never became an engineer. And as of current, he has never visited America. And last year, he wrote me a letter- a letter that stated how mad he and his family were at me for never helping him get a Visa to America like I promised him so many years ago. And because I had failed to do so, in their minds, I had contributed to his inability to succeed.
Now, as you can plainly see, all I did was hypothetically invite this guy to my house. As a young college student, I was honestly just trying to be friendly and carry on the conversation. But as someone who was quite unaware of the power of words here in Haiti, my invite to my house translated to him as a guaranteed assist to America. And although I had long forgotten that conversation, he held tight to my (unbeknownst to me) promise. And after so many years of waiting for me to follow through, his anger and resentment towards me for breaking my word finally came out- and it wasn’t nice.
I share that story with you all for one simple reason: we must all be careful. Passion, good motives, and a love for Haiti aside, that one simple conversation caused one person (and his family) a lot of grief. For years, they waited for me to help their son go to America and “visit my house”, but that help never came.
But how could I have known? After all, I was just being friendly. Anyone could have made that mistake. Right?
I took a few more trips to Haiti following that one, and have lived here now for three years and I will say this much: Mistakes such as this one can be prevented. Helping without hurting is possible. And caring for the orphaned children all over the world is something we can be a part of under the right conditions and in the right manner.
It is the “right manner” in particular that I want to focus on for this final post.
Since I am someone who does really well with lists, I am going to make things easier for myself (and hopefully you as well) and list my 6 suggestions for how we can serve orphans in a cross-cultural context
1. Know the culture and the people. It sounds simple, but this is one of the most difficult tasks. Nevertheless, I can’t emphasize this enough. YOU NEED TO KNOW EVERYTHING YOU CAN ABOUT THE CULTURE YOU ARE GOING TO GO SERVE! In his book, Serving with Eyes Wide Open, Livermore goes into great detail about four areas of Cultural Intelligence one must try their hardest to obtain before committing to a short-term mission. I am unable to go into an exhaustive length of detail on these four areas on the blog. If you are a short-term missionary, however, I highly suggest reading this book for more information.
“Knowledge Cultural Intelligence” – Do your research. Attempt to expand your understanding of the culture you are going to and how it differs from your own.
“Interpretive Cultural Intelligence” – Study social cues you may encounter in the country of you destination. What do you need to know beforehand that so you avoid controversy?
“Perseverance Cultural Intelligence” – Be persistence in gaining knowledge about where are you going and whom you will be interacting with.
“Behavioral Cultural Intelligence” – Learn how to act appropriately in the new culture. Remember, what you may perceive as ok, my not be in the locals eyes.” (Livermore, 111)
Why is cultural intelligence so important beforehand? I think my friend Adrienne explained this best. “If you are a short-term or long-term missionary in a certain country, you need to do your research to gain a deeper understanding of what issues are cultural and which issues are spiritual. If you go into another culture, and something about your speech, dress, or attitude is counterculture, you may hinder your ability to bring people to Christ and you can potentially really hurt your mission.”
Although you could spend all day, everyday doing some cultural research before your trip begins, you will never be able to know enough. And chances are, some of your best lessons will be learned in the mission field, talking to the locals yourself, witnessing the things you studied, and immersing yourself in a new context. Glenn J. Schwartz in his book When Charity Destroys Dignity suggests that when you travel, keep in mind that you are not only going to serve, but also to learn. If you spend your time learning, then your mission will have a greater impact. (Schwartz, 247) In his book Cross Cultural Servanthood (one of my all time favorites), Duane Elmer says, “Serving people is not just doing what seems good in our own culture but seeking out the knowledge of the people, learning from them, knowing their cultural values and then acting in ways that support the fabric of the culture to the degree possible. After taking these steps, we will have served them” (Elmer, 114). I couldn’t agree more with Schwartz and Elmer.
Cultural intelligence goes beyond language, customs, social cues, and traditions. As Christian missionaries, it is also important to have some intellect in issues that may or may not be addressed within the churches. Churches in different countries have varying views on marriage, work ethic, dress, women’s roles, etc. (Schwartz, 248) Serving in Haiti, for example, the church is nested in a highly animistic culture. Voodoo here is a lifestyle for many. If an outsider is going to have any effect in ministering the gospel in Haiti, then they must first try to understand the church, it’s beliefs, and the culture that engulfs it. It is also important to avoid assuming they are wrong and you are right. If controversial issues as these arise, my experience has been to act like the learner rather than the teacher. Giving a respectful ear of attentiveness to their side of the story will be way more effective in your ministry than disagreeing and defending your point. Even if you know you are right, listen and learn.
In summary, gaining knowledge about the culture you will be serving is mandatory if you want to be effective. Keep in mind that knowledge does not necessarily equal understanding. I have served in Haiti for 10 years now and have lived here for three. I know a lot about the culture of Haiti, yet I will never fully understand it. Without being a born and raised Haitian myself, full understanding of why they do what they do and why they believe what they believe is out of my reach. But I owe it to those I am serving to seek knowledge about their lifestyles, believes, and customs. Short-term missions teams need to do the same as well.
2. Choose the organizations you work with wisely. Do your research not only on their credibility, but their philosophies as well. If they work with orphans, how so? What is their definition of an orphan? Do they focus on orphan prevention? Do they attempt reunification with families if possible? What is their stance on adoption/foster care? What are their policies on gift giving? What are their long-term plans for the kids? Wisely choosing an organization is fundamental. Coming alongside a strong organization with strong values from the beginning with help train as you work oversees.
3. Watch your words and your wallet. Learn from my mistakes. Watching your words is crucial- especially in another culture- especially with children. Too many times I have heard visitors tell a child they bonded with over a trip that they were going to try to adopt them. And too many times that child never heard from them again. And the child hurts. Words can hurt- even if well intended. Rule of thumb: Don’t make promises/don’t say things that resemble promises. Because if you do, that child will always remember what you said, and hope for it day and night. And if you don’t follow through, the pain from those words is left for the long-term missionaries to heal. Watching your wallet is also critical. I’ll make this one simple and say this: Before you give anything to anyone, ask your long-term missionary for advice. Let them guide you with the best practices for their mission/community/church. And please, respect their advice. I have dealt with too many situations where people chose not to take our advice (i.e. giving double the money we advised them to give, wiring money to kids in secret because we wouldn’t allow the gift in person, and giving kids expensive gifts and asking them to hide them from us) and it ended up causing a lot of long-term problems in the end. I admire the way my friends Ronnie and Stephanie handle money matters with their teams. They always bring some money to give away if needed, but they never share a dollar without the permission of a missionary who may be able to give further insight into the particular situation. And if possible, they try to pass the money through a church or local leader. This way, the money isn’t coming directly from them, but can appear as if the locals are providing for the local need.
4. Teach them to help themselves and empower them to help their own country. Someone commented on my first post to this series and said he believed the first place to start to end the dependency issue is to teach the people we are working with not only how to help themselves, but to help each other. And you know what, I agree. Just think, if all short-term missions came with the objective to train and empower the locals to help their own country rather then just do for them, how much more progress could be made. And that kind of training needs to start with children. They need to know they are capable to make change. They need to know we are here as a support and as cheerleaders in the process, but that ultimately the job is theirs. This is their country. Let’s use our blessings to empower them, strengthen them, and motivate them. While “handing over the line” as I mentioned earlier this week, let’s stay in the boat guiding them and rooting them on. But let’s train them to do the work instead of doing it for them. They are capable. They can do it!
5. Establish and maintain long-term relationships. If you read my post yesterday, you will understand when I say that long-term, committed relationships is what kids like ours need the most. They need their brothers and sisters in Christ to get to know them, to listen to them, to talk with them. They need an extended family who is bonded by the blood of Christ and who will never leave their side. They need love. They need encouragement. They need wisdom and advice. They don’t need stuff. They don’t need us to come fix them. They don’t need rescued. They just need us- and the Christ that lives within us. Hunter and I were talking just the other day about how the Haitian friends we have kept the longest are those who we have never given money to before. And I think that speaks volumes. Our teens at Emmaus House, and many others like them, they needs long-lasting friendships. And money, especially when it is only given one-way, and especially when it is given cross-culturally, can have a way of tampering with those relationships.
6. Make the gospel your focus. It sounds so simple, but it can be easy to lose focus of this on a mission trip especially when you get busy with work and projects. God sends us into the world to be His light. He sends us to share His love. And He sends us to spread His message. If God’s purpose isn’t our focus, we need to take a step back and observe. The Lipscomb Track and Cross Country team was always one of our favorites to work with back at the orphanage. They knew they were coming for the gospel and it was evident. They purposefully made conversations with our kids about Christ, shared their testimonies, taught our teens how to share their own, prayed with our kids, shared the Bible with them, and loved our kids as if it was the most important task they had ever received. This is how we need to be- focused on the gospel and ensuring those we work with can see the love of Christ within us.
Writing about short-term missions or best practices for orphan care or how to serve cross-culturally can be a never ending discussion. This series is just one of many writings on the topic. Missionaries much more experienced than myself have been writing about this for longer. THESE GUYS are some of my favorites. The book list I could share would be endless. Below are my favorites. And chances are, if you ask me how I feel about things this time next year, I will have grown (hopefully) and will have new insight and ideas towards the matter.
Just remember that Jesus told us to go to make disciples. He didn’t tell us to go paint, play, build, or heal. These things, although good, are not the reason why you should go on a mission trip. You go to bring others to Christ. If you are a doctor going to help people’s physical pains, do so with the underlying cause of planting seeds in your patients. If you are going to paint a building, do so with the intention to plant seeds with the locals you will be working with. And the list goes on.
I will conclude by saying this: Orphan care is tough. Adoption, foster care, mentoring, tutoring, counseling, and everything else in between. After all, we are dealing with precious little lives who have been abandoned, abused, and hurt. And if we are going to work with kids such as this, even if just for a few weeks at a time, even with just a package, let’s make sure we are giving them the best care possible. And sometimes, the best care isn’t always the most fun care. It isn’t alway the care that makes good pictures or comes in pretty packages. But it is what the kids need. So let’s work together together as a church to provide them just that.