Cross-Cultural Missions: Just Be There and Love

smiling young woman listens to female friend

“She can speak a little English. Just speak really slowly.” With that, my friend left the room.

And there I was, staring at her beautiful friend, her dark eyes nervous in her olive face. I smiled. We swapped what words we could. We hit a lull. And then something unexpected happened.

“I heard it is your mother’s birthday tomorrow,” I said slowly.

She stared at me in confusion.

I thought she didn’t understand me, but slowly she said, “I don’t know when my mother’s birthday is.”

“Oh.” I smiled and laughed a bit. Now it was me who didn’t understand. If an American friend had told me that she didn’t know when her mom’s birthday was, it would probably just mean she didn’t have her iPhone calendar close at hand. But what my new friend meant was that her mom didn’t know when her birthday was.

And this friend didn’t know when her own birthday was either.

It’s not that she’s from an uncivilized place—it’s a country where women get university degrees in computer science, wear high heels, go bowling for fun, and notice if their friends’ eyebrows aren’t threaded well enough.

But I understood better when I met my new friend’s mother a few days later. She was timid and beautiful, sitting on the floor in a loose dress with her head covered, not speaking much. After a little while—through the translation of a friend—she quietly began to tell the story about how, when their city was attacked by outsiders years ago, she had to split up the family and they fled for their lives over the mountains on donkeys.

Some of the children went one direction with relatives, and some went the other direction with her. One child was born en route—she hiked while in labor, had the baby, and then kept hiking. Some of the children she didn’t see again until several years later, and they didn’t recognize her anymore when they were reunited.      

It’s been a story of fear, attack, and fleeing for generations. Few people know their real birthdays. It seems hard to relate when you put it that way.

Not That Different     

But at the same time, it’s easy. They’re beautiful people who love their families, their country, their food, and their friends just as much as I do.          

And it’s necessary. Duane Elmer wrote the book Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility after asking people around the world how they felt about people from the West who shared their faith with them. Their answer was that they always felt those people acted as if they thought they were better than they, and that made it harder to listen.

Our best intentions can become insults without our even realizing it.

Go Deep

So what do we do to work past some of that? The inclination is to shy away, but it has to be the opposite response—we have to be willing to go deep into their culture with a humble attitude. We have to be willing to sometimes sit politely for a long time in a situation where we can’t understand a word that’s being spoken—because their presence is an honor to us and we love them enough to show them respect in that way.

When we make mistakes, we try to move on and keep showing love as best we can. Paul said to the Jews he became a Jew, to the weak he became weak so that people could come to know the message of Jesus with as few cultural roadblocks as possible. And Jesus washed His disciples’ feet to show us how our status should look when we serve others.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is just be there—and love.

Grace Thornton is a writer who lived in England and the Middle East and traveled extensively into different contexts to meet people and then tell the stories of what God is doing in their lives. She is the author of Unshakable Pursuit: Chasing the God Who Chases Us.


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