Sunday, August 18, 2013

pb&j, with a side of curry

It was the middle of the night, and the sand beneath my feet was just beginning to cool. I stepped off a small boat, onto an island, and a dreamlike scene unfolded before me. It was so dark, the Senegalese faces around me seemed almost ghostlike, with their white, flowing boubous (traditional African outfit) literally glowing.  I was dressed in my best Senegalese finery, and my language skills were decent by this point in my 2 yr term, but I still did not feel prepared for this situation. I had been the only white person in a group many times before, but not like this. To this day, I am not sure why we were even invited, but the family I was staying with at the time was going, and brought me along, and my summer volunteer. It was a very special religious event, that lasted all night long. Tents were set up for praying, teaching, and chanting the Koran. People relaxed in small groups, taking breaks from their spiritual endeavors to nap, drink tea, or eat a snack, before rejoining a ceremony. The joyful, noisy, friendly Africans I had gotten to know and feel comfortable had transformed themselves into serious, quiet, reserved pious Muslims. I knew only 2 people there, and they left us to fend for ourselves as they participated in the required events. Everywhere I looked was a minefield of cultural faux pas waiting to happen, and I was incredibly nervous and uncomfortable. It was a looooooong night. But that night will live in my memory forever, and I would never trade a moment of it!

Isn't this everybody's worst nightmare? To be in an uncomfortable situation, to not know how we should act, what we should say, maybe even what we should wear or eat? To not understand anything going on around us, not be able to communicate. Be scared, embarrassed, nervous.  Most of us completely take for granted how comfortable we feel in our own culture. We don't even know how much we know! It is so ingrained in us, we don't have to second guess each decision we make. Its good to feel safe, to feel like you know what's going on, and to be able to communicate so easily. But that may not always be the case, even if we stay right here in America. The nations have come to us, even if we don't interact with them on a regular basis. So even if we feel comfortable, chances are there are people close to you that feel exactly as described above. 

"In light of current world tensions, there is an unprecedented need for American Christians to meet, befriend and connect with those from other nations who now live within our borders. Most recent immigrants have never been invited into the home of an American who truly loves and follows Christ. As a result, few American Christians know them or understand their cultures." - 

Maybe you have a colleague from another culture, maybe a neighbor; or maybe you occasionally order food from an authentic ethnic restaurant! Maybe you feel a stirring that God wants to use you to be his mouthpiece of grace and reconciliation in some of these cross-cultural relationships. There is so much to be enjoyed and gained by broadening our horizons and friendship circle to include those we may not normally gravitate towards, because of certain barriers such as language. A few tools to use to help us overcome these barriers:

  1. Smile It may sound too good to be true, but it isnt! It communicates the same thing in any language. And it means all that much more to a person who is not used to getting a real, sincere, look you in the eye kind of smile from someone. Add a handshake, and you're probably way ahead of the pack. (At least in Africa, handshakes are very important, and a must when greeting someone.) 
  2. Learn his/her name This also sounds simple, but often, if we cant pronounce something, we probably wont take a risk of saying it, because we'll do it wrong. And that would be embarrassing. But just looking at the nametag and asking, "how do you pronounce your name?" means so so much. Props if you can say it right the next time you see them! 
  3. Extend an invitation to your home I must confess, I have struggled in this one. What if they dont like my food? What if they are coming to be polite but dont really want to? What if they talk about me and I cant understand? What if they see how much "stuff" (although it isnt much) I have and think I'm wealthy and ask me for money? It can be really difficult to smile and just be relaxed in that kind of situation. There may be some awkward moments. But hospitality means so much in all traditional cultures. To invite someone into your home and share a meal with them communicates a great deal, and is crucial in building a relationship with someone. Dont stress about it; your guests know they are in America, you are American, and they expect your house, family, and life to be different from theirs. 
  4. Be a learner The other day, I met an African, and asked not what country he was from, but what tribe he was. You'd think I had brought a check from Publishers Clearing House, he was so surprised and appreciative. Such a small thing, but I guess no American he had come into contact with had brought that up with him. If there is a large population of a certain group of people in your area (and immigrants often end up in groups), take the time to learn a little bit about that culture, and the country from which they came. Yes, I know, they live in America now. And I imagine they are very happy to be here. But that doesnt mean they dont think about and miss their home country. Ask them about it. It will mean alot. 
  5. Be aware of boundaries Many cultures have stricter boundaries when it comes to things like male/female relationships. At least in traditional Africa (not necessarily the cities), if a man and a woman have a relationship, it is probably sexual, not just a friendship. I have found that being friendly is always good, but too personal, not so much. When in doubt, be extra careful. You dont want to send the wrong message. As Christ-followers, it is extremely important that we be above reproach, even if it is just perception. (Come to think of it, this might be a good rule of thumb for any culture, including ours! ;-)
  6. Buy a dictionary Oh, I'm getting serious, now! :-) There are so many people here who speak little to no English; either they are newcomers, or just haven't managed to grasp this language, especially if they immigrated as adults, and their own language uses a different alphabet. (Before you make judgments about someone having a hard time learning English, chances are they already speak a few languages of their own!) If we really want to reach our neighbors with the hope of Jesus Christ, we are going to have to put some effort into it. Yes, they could come to your church. Yes, they can flip their radio to a Christian station, or catch a preacher on tv. But rarely is that enough. Maybe God is already working in their heart, and you are in their path for a reason. Learning just a few words, to be able to speak to someone in their own language, might be what makes the difference in their life. (Handy dandy technology these days, you can find an online dictionary for nearly any language. Just whip out your smartphone or ipad, type in the word you want, and you're good to go. You may get laughed at for pronouncing it wrong. Thats ok! Just laugh with them, dont be embarrassed or self-conscious. They pronounce English words wrong too.) 
  7. Grab a baby! No, I am not suggesting you kidnap their   child :-). But children are a universal icebreaker. In Senegal, there was alot of sitting around.  We played with so many babies, all the time. (And there were alot of babies. When the law allows up to 4 wives, you do the math. . . !) Everybody can laugh at a toddler's antics, appreciate the universal language of a baby's babbling. If you have children, bring them with you. Instead of going to the park in your neighborhood, find another park, where immigrant children might play. Chances are they'll make friends pretty quickly, and there you go, an inroad to a family who doesnt know Christ!
  8. Share celebrations together Many of the people who live in America have never celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter. These are great opportunities to reach out to newcomers and invite them into your family's celebration. You can live in America and still not really see or understand what Christmas and Easter are about. Most people, no matter what their cultural or religious background, want to learn more about American culture. This is a way you can share about Christ in a non-threatening way, because it is also a cultural lesson. Likewise, those from different cultures have a rich heritage of their own celebrations, and from everything I have seen, would love to share it with you! It means so much to people that we would take the time to celebrate Chinese New Year or something with them, and a great honor to be invited to share in that special time. Don't worry about not subscribing to the religious/spiritual beliefs behind it. Just because you share a meal at sundown with those breaking the Ramadan fast that doesnt mean you are supporting what they are doing. It actually brings about opportunities for conversation that would not be had if we kept our distance. (Obviously, use the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to know how much to participate in.)
  9. Meet them on their turf There are many Sudanese who work at our Walmart. One elderly woman I had seen often. She was responsible for sweeping the floors, and every time I saw her, her head was down, and she was pushing that giant broom along aisle after aisle. I stopped her once to say hi, and ask where she was from. (Be prepared: nearly everyone I've met first responds with "Africa." I have to ask again to get any more specific) She told me South Sudan, and I got really excited, and told her my family might be moving close to there, across the border in northern Kenya, blah blah blah. She was completely unresponsive the whole time, didnt smile or anything. I went home thinking, ok, crazy white girl, party of one, aisle 10 please. The fact that I knew a tiny bit of information about her country did not make an impact on her at all. I continued to see her at Walmart regularly, and asked how she was, but that was it. Some time later, I went to an African church service. During the singing, many of the women gravitated towards the front as they danced and trilled. Amongst the joyful group, who did I see but my 'friend' from Walmart! She doesnt speak much English, but smiled at me and said hi. A while later again, Patrick and I were helping a friend move into a new place, an subsidized apartment complex that is about half African immigrants. I was holding the door open, and a very small, very black, very old woman comes through, hidden behind a giant hamper of laundry. Behind the hamper, I see a gold tooth glinting. It's my Sudanese friend! She was so surprised to see me, but very happy. She put her laundry down, gave me a hug, and asked about each of the children, asked what i was doing there, and I got to meet her family. (Who live 2 doors down from my friend.) I think you get the point. Learning someone's name and taking the time to really see them and appreciate their work might have been polite, but it wasnt until she saw me in her world that she trusted me, and let me in. If we are going to gain the trust to speak into people's lives with the hope of Jesus Christ, we have to go to where they are, not wait for them to come to us. 
  10. Be a bridge I hope that newcomer ministry is something you feel drawn towards, but still, no one person can help everybody. As much as I would like to find housing, find jobs, teach English and citizenship classes, even witness, etc to everybody I meet, I cant do it. But i can familiarize myself with what is available through other avenues. Our town has free ESL, GED, citizenship, workforce preparation, and other classes. A bus can pick you up, and there is childcare provided, and I can make people aware of that, and help them figure out how to register. I know which churches have services in different languages. You can easily get a hold of Bibles, Jesus films, and other evangelistic tools in any language you need, and carry them in your car. We can only build close relationships with a few people, but we can still help to meet the physical and spiritual needs of those around us, in the name of Christ. 
I know it seems counter intuitive to embrace an awkward situation when what we want to do is avoid it. But people are waiting on us to hear about Jesus. Its worth it. HE is worth it. Let's go to them! 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Coffee break, East Africa style

I am a bit of a coffee drinker. True to the stereotype, I started drinking the stuff in college. It wasnt too long before it truly came to have a place of importance in my life! I like all kinds. The fancy kinds with the long names and 1,000 calories. The regular kind. the decaf kind. over ice. hot. blended. latte. cappucino. americano. it doesnt matter; i'll take it all. Over the years, it has increased in importance, unfortunately. Now it is an integral part of my morning routine. Evening routine too, actually. Last thing before I go to bed, I grind my beans, measure out my water, and get it all ready to go. When I stumble out of bed in the morning, in a ridiculously bad mood (yes, every morning, unfortunately) I just hit the button and we're good to go. As it brews, I use my BBC app to find out what transpired around the world while I slept, and in a minute I'm ready to head to the couch for my quiet time, with my gigantic mug of coffee. (The mug that, when Patrick gave me, I gave him a bit of an eye roll. Seriously, who is ever going to use this enormous, heavy mug? Its totally impractical. You can barely lift it, when its full! Well, yes, I use the enormous mug. Every. single. day. When it's dirty because I didnt run the dishwasher and I have to use another one, I am sad. Because I have to interrupt my quiet time more often to go refill my mug. But i digress.)

I do not care I get my coffee as long as it's strong. If I'm having a special breakfast, I wont eat it without coffee. If its sweet like pancakes or waffles, I will add milk but not sugar, but most of the time, I will. If I'm having dessert, I often make coffee. (Am i kind of like an old person???) My sweet husband got me an fancy coffee machine a little while ago, so I can make lattes myself. I crave lattes like he craves Dr. Pepper 10. (yes, even high maintenance people such as ourselves can be missionaries ;-) So often in the afternoon, especially when its cold, I will make my own latte, and save myself the ridiculous $4 they would charge me at the coffeeshop. All this is part of my elaborate coffee rituals. When I go away, I have been known to bring the small cans of Starbucks double shots with me, just in case the place. (Can I get an amen from somebody,  anybody, please, who is feeling me right now? Or, in the words of my good friend Beth Moore, "Does anybody know what I'm talking about?" ;-)

The other day, I broadened my horizons in a special way, and experienced the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. (It did not involve a big green sign and the words skinny, grande, and extra shot. Or pumpkin scone. Or any scone.) Some of my neighbors invited us over. We hung out on the back deck/porch/stairwell. I had noticed all the extension cords before, but wasn't sure what they were for. 
The coffee maker begins by roasting her own beans, in a small skillet. (My friend was using a small heating element here. Not sure what would be used in the absence of electricity.)

Incense is very popular, just as it was in Senegal. She had a few different kinds, as well as some potpourri looking things she put directly on these coals. 

I really got a kick out of the coffee grinder, because everything else seemed very traditional. I am sure that in Ethiopia, at least in the rural areas, it is done with a mortar and pestle type deal. But who would do it by hand if you dont have to, right? :-)

next, the freshly roasted, ground beans are put directly into this beautiful little pot. (Every Ethiopian house I have been into is sporting one of these. And I have to tell you, I may get one myself. It worked really well!)

After the appropriate amount of time, filled with conversation (limited, in this particular case!) and snacks the gracious hostess provides, such as popcorn, the wonderful smelling coffee is ready. It is a good thing I like really strong coffee; as you may have guessed, this stuff is STRONG! But she did add a few heaping teaspoons of sugar to the tiny little cup. Its really more like a shot of espresso. Or Arabic coffee. 

Just like Senegal, there are 3 cups of coffee to be had, and each round of the coffee ceremony has its own name. This allows ample time for the real purpose: visiting! There is a small blue plastic tub on the right, with a scoop. She rinsed out the cups in between each round. 

I am definitely out of practice with my cross-cultural experiences these days. The past few months have been a good reminder for me. If you are pursuing a chance to step outside of your regular context, stay in touch. I will share what I've been (re)learning! 

Now, if only I could track down a country that has a 3 step ice cream ceremony. . . 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

birthdays and Beth

July 9. July 26. July 31. August 4. That's a busy month for us. Hannah's birthday fell on a school day this year. We are still in the process of establishing our family traditions, and I decided that a birthday is a good reason to cancel school. (As is the first good snow :-). We started with a special breakfast, then Hannah didnt have to do any chores, and she got to pick whatever she wanted to do that day. (My kids are easy to please at the moment. Their favorite activity is still going to the park!)

Followed by haircuts. When the hairdresser found out it was Hannah's birthday, she took extra time to style it really special. She looked like such a big girl! And Caroline got her first haircut. She looks a tad less Mowgli-ish. But still acts like a monkey ;-). 

After lunch we went to the pool. It looks like Caroline is wearing a weighted vest, like the kind I've seen in the gym. I promise I'm not trying to drown her! If I could use a leash I would, though. I have to literally run to keep up with that child at the pool. (Or anywhere, come to think of it.) Its a good thing Charlie stays where I leave him (shallow end), because Caroline requires a constant vigil. She will climb up to the top of the big slide and launch herself off before i can even make it down to the deep end. 

The girls received a birthday package from my Dad and Kim, and Caroline is very excited about her new dolly. Apparently that's its name, too. "where my new dolly?" "want my new dolly!" "NO! MY new dolly" - if someone else makes the mistake of picking up said dolly. 

My mom came down last weekend, and although this is, admittedly, a scary picture of both of us, I had to document. . . 

Beth Moore Living Proof Live! Oh my gosh, I was so excited. (I know many people think the hype is a little ridiculous, I mean she is just a real person. And this is true. So I apologize. But I really was extremely excited!) I think its funny I lived in the south for quite a while, and even Texas itself a few years, yet I had to move all the way up here to do this. I am not much for celebrity idols, spiritual or otherwise. I just have never experienced a Bible teacher who communicates the Word with so much passion. Beth Moore has made it her life's work to challenge every woman out there to seek God with all her heart, understand who He created her to be, and to be that person. Her all consuming love for the Saviour and the Bible is so inspiring and encouraging. (And it did make a tad homesick. All that talk about Lifeway, the south, the IMB. And the "y'all" :-) 
And Travis Cottrell led worship. I always feel like people probably shy away from me during worship, so as not to be affected by my over-enthusiasm. (I grew up very WASP, but sometimes I think I was black in another life. Or Pentecostal? ;-) Being in a large (4,000+) group like that, nobody cares or knows me. Or cares how I worship. I definitely went through the kleenex. No surprise there! It does make me think of being in heaven. 

Caroline loves her piggy back rides. If anyone is even close to her level, or even sitting down, she'll just come over and jump on you, with no warning. 

While my mom and I were gone overnight, Patrick made the most amazing birthday cake for Hannah. It was so good, 3 layers, completely from scratch. Even the icing! (which is the most important part, as everyone knows ;-) 

We hung out at the park with friends. 

And had a "smashing" good time :-). The kids beat on it for awhile, but it took Patrick whaling on it with his man strength to actually get it broken. I wish the battery hadn't run out of my video camera!

Pizza party on the floor. Why picture worthy? Some friends of ours were finally approved to move into a housing unit, and are living in their own place for the first time. We helped them move their stuff (which didnt take very long, as 2 bags of clothes can be carried in one trip) and are helping them track down some more stuff. Which is taking a little longer, but I think pretty soon they will have a nice home. Anyways, this is sitting on the kitchen floor, eating the first supper in the new apartment. (These days, i seem to add another cultural faux pas to my resume every day. Apparently they don't eat pork, and I gave him pepperoni pizza. Some non-Muslims also abstain from pork. Who knew?) 

That's all for now, folks! Next time we'll talk about our school year getting off to a great start!