Insights into Cross-Cultural Mission
This blog was first posted as an excellent and insightful three part series at www.commission.global/blog/missions1.
You can read parts 2 and 3 here:
The Journey Begins (Part 1 of 3)
“What are we doing?” I asked myself as I sat in the toilet onboard a British Airways flight to the Middle East with tears rolling down my cheeks. “What on earth are we doing?” It had suddenly hit me that, after months of planning and preparation, the day had finally come when we were leaving everything that we held dear and embarking on an adventure into the unknown. It was February 2017 and, whilst my wife and I had received numerous words and signs that it was right to pack up our relatively comfortable lives in the UK and move halfway across the world with only a few suitcases to keep us company, the realisation of what we’d decided suddenly hit. “God, you’d better be in this. We can’t do this on our own.”
Years before this moment, I had been awarded a certificate for the person most likely to live in their hometown until they die. Whilst this may have been a joke award at the end of a year volunteering with the church, the sentiment behind it was true. I loved where I lived and would have been quite happy to live there forever. God, on the other hand, had different ideas! The first inkling that I got was when a man with a respected prophetic gift visited our church and prophesied, among other things, that I would be a man of languages (This was definitely a surprise as I hated German and French at school), that I would learn two languages other than English and that this was because I would go to the nations and God didn’t want me to be dumb when I got there! Following this, in 2008 I was part of a short-term team that took me to the capital city of a middle-eastern country. It was during those three weeks working with Iraqi refugees that God put the people of that part of the world on my heart, so much so that the moment we returned, I wanted to jump back on an airplane. So much for living here forever!
In the intervening 9 years a lot of things needed to happen before getting on that plane! I met and married my wife, retrained as a primary school teacher (teaching is a far more helpful job when relocating to another country than working in an office), and went on a few visits to various countries in the region with my wife. Then, in autumn 2014, we met a couple who we had heard of but never met before and, after building a relationship with them over the space of 8 months, felt a heart connection and a sense that it was right that we support them in what God was calling them to – move to Lebanon!
“Why’s it not working again?” I shouted at no one in particular as all the lights went off and the washing machine spun itself to a stop. I’d lost count of the number of times that I’d had to go downstairs to the cupboard at the bottom of our building to turn on the electricity again after it had cut off and I was getting frustrated. Electricity problems in Lebanon are a daily occurrence for 99% of the population. Since the civil war in the 70s and 80s, there hasn’t been enough power being produced by the power stations in Lebanon meaning that people have had to rely on the privately owned generator companies which charge a fortune to cover the regular blackouts in the national grid. Not only do they charge a fortune, they also charge per amp that you draw. As we were paying for 5 amps, any time we drew more than 5 amps, the power cut off. We quickly learnt that meant that, when on generator power, we couldn’t use the washing machine and have the hot water on at the same time or that we couldn’t use the iron at the same time as hovering or that we couldn’t use the hairdryer at any point apart from on the eco setting which basically blew out cold air! And sometimes it just tripped out for no reason at all! After living in Lebanon for a month or so, understanding the electricity system became, for me, a major issue! I wanted to know what I could do and when I could do it. I wanted to understand why things wouldn’t work when I expected them to and when I could expect to have certain amounts of electricity. I wanted to be back in England when a power cut lasted minutes not hours! Culture-shock was definitely kicking in!
The first few weeks of setting up home in a new country had been exciting! We’d moved in to an apartment behind the building that our friends lived in (more on that later) and been shopping to get all the essentials – bed, sofas, kitchen appliances etc. We’d walked round various parts of the city and gotten lost multiple times, having to ask (with almost no language) how to get home again. And we’d started meeting as a small team of 5 adults and a baby, reading the bible with new eyes as we lived in a culture significantly closer to that of bible times. Most importantly, we’d starting turning the squiggles, dots and sounds of the Arabic language into something that meant something and we could actually, very slowly, sound out words and phrases that people understood!
We’d had some highs, like when we managed to direct someone to deliver a table to our house only using Arabic, and some lows, like when we paid almost double what the shopkeeper had asked for in a shop for some basic household bits because we got the numbers the wrong way round (he had said 35 not 53!) Through all of these things we were constantly learning and amazed at how people did things in a culture so different to ours but now it was getting to the point where I was just fed up! Things didn’t work like they did in the UK and it was frustrating! It was at times like this where we just had to go back to the reason that we’d come and trust that God would sustain us through the difficulties of adjusting to a different culture.
“Which one are you?” The man serving coffee asked me as I walked past his coffee booth. I’d seen him before when I was walking to the shops but never spoken to him and didn’t even know his name. “Afwan, ma fahemit (Sorry, I don’t understand).” I replied. Although this phrase was a common phrase we said multiple times a day because we genuinely didn’t understand the words that someone used, in this instance I did understand the words, I just didn’t know what he was asking! “Which foreigner are you?” The man replied. “The one in the big new building or the one in the old building behind it?” Now I understood – he didn’t know me (or even my friend) but he did know that two foreign families lived in the neighbourhood (maybe 500m up the hill from his shop) and he wanted to know who we were and why we were living there.
The fact that this man didn’t live nearby (although he had a shop down the road) but still knew things about me, the fact that I was married and where I lived initially surprised (and unnerved) me until I remembered that Lebanese culture is a more collective culture than we were used to in the UK. People knew what was going on and who lived in their communities to a greater level of detail than we expected and that meant that people knew us, or at least knew about us, without us ever having met!
This sense of community and us being the outsider was something that we quickly realised would never change. We could spend years in Lebanon, learn to speak Arabic like a native speaker and live and dress in ways that were Lebanese but we would never be Lebanese. It reminded us of the phrase that Paul uses, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” We were becoming something that we had never been before – outsiders – in order that some might be saved. Interestingly, seeing someone saved didn’t take as long as we might have expected it to…