Cities attract a large diversity of people, but we usually think of cities as singular things: centers of art or sporting events or decay. We like to organize our world into neat, separate categories.
In a TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story” (fmchr.ch/tedadichie), Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells of her American college roommate who was shocked and surprised that Adichie knew how appliances worked and did not listen to “tribal music.” As she points out, we often think of entire groups of people as having a single story.
Some newcomers have been part of a preliterate or impoverished group and some are from a rural setting, but there must be room in our thinking for more than one story. Of the 1 million visas issued to international people to live and work in the United States, only 10 percent of those are issued to refugees or asylum seekers, according to 2013 data compiled by the Brookings Institute. As we approach newcomers, it is not with a one-size-fits-all strategy.
There are many stories of how people come to be internationally mobile. Remember the story of our own faith is filled with international relocations: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Naomi, Daniel, Priscilla and Aquila, and many others moved across borders for a variety of reasons.
The Bible records God’s people not as the dominant, prevailing culture but instead as different from the cultures all around them. Christians started out as a persecuted minority in the major cities around the Mediterranean Sea. Christianity has a history of outsiders: people who do not belong to the culture in which they find themselves. Relocation impacted the way they understood Scripture, engaged in ministry and interpreted themselves as the people of God.
God worked through international relocations in the spread of the gospel. Relocation has been His pattern all along. As we work to spread the gospel across cultures, we should be aware of attitudes that may be unhelpful:
“I don’t have a culture.”
An accent may be the first thing we notice about a newcomer. Our own accent identifies our home region, but we hardly notice it. In the same way, we often fail to realize that we are part of a culture. In “Learning from the Stranger,” David Smith cites research that shows our culture begins to impact our preferences even before birth. The accent we hear, the words we choose, the space between those words, and the echoes of meaning behind them are informed by culture.
Culture is the system by which we organize our behavior, our world and our place in it.
Honestly, we need this system. As Kevin J. Vanhoozer points out in “
Everyday Theology,” a culture is neither good nor evil. It is a framework of beliefs and social norms. A different set of social norms is also neither good nor evil. No one culture is poised to be more “Christian” than another culture.
“We don’t have anything in common.”
God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:27 CEB)
As Christians, we realize that every person on Earth was created in the image of God. As image bearers, we have much in common. If we start with the desire to know and be known, we can approach the other in a way that is both respectful and humble. Look for roles and identities we share: coach, parent, worker, traveler or learner.
“We are responsible for the other.”
While we may feel that this is a helpful attitude, it is actually a hindrance. Inherent in this attitude is that the majority culture must always be the teacher and the minority culture must always be the learner. It approaches the other as deficient or as a “younger sibling” In reality, we are all incomplete image bearers of God. We have strengths, experience and knowledge to offer just as we have the potential to learn from the strengths, experience and knowledge of another.
Jesus warns us not to call anyone “father” except our Heavenly Father (Matthew 23:9). Just as we are in direct relationship with our Father in heaven, Christians from other cultures are also in direct relationship with God. We dare not situate ourselves as their go-between whether by direct assertion or indirect implication.
This is not to say that we are exempt from loving our neighbor. At times we may have the privilege of administering aid to another, just as at times we need assistance.
How do we move forward? First, find out who is around us. Food is usually a good indicator. International foods in the grocery store and types of restaurants and specialty stores reflect the surrounding cultures.
Second, become a skeptic. Art, literature, educational systems and even restaurant behaviors send cultural messages. Ask yourself: What messages are being conveyed?
Third, become a learner. We learn primarily through observing and repeating. This requires humility and a willingness to look childlike. Another model of learning is through apprenticing. Join or host a sewing circle. Help with a community garden. Give newcomers a way to share their own best practices.
We learn through close relationship with another. Make a friend.
Jesus served as a cultural broker between mankind and God the Father.
If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (John 15:19)
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. (John 17:14)
They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. (John 17:16)
This allegiance to heaven is meant to be evident in the daily actions of those who follow Christ. It is the manner in which Christians bear the image of God to the world. A member of the majority culture in the United States can learn from the newcomer what it is to be in the world but not of it.