Working in cross cultural situations gives us a unique opportunity to see other people. But sometimes we see through filters we are not even aware of. How we see others affects the way we respond to them. And therein lies the importance of clear vision.
Many of us wear glasses to improve our vision, and also wear much thicker lens on the eyes of our heart. We see through the lenses of stereotypes, misconceptions, fear and pride. These lenses were fitted to our hearts from childhood and have become so comfortable we don’t even know we are wearing them.
One day sitting at a traffic light, a really strange person crossed in front of my car. He had dyed hair in a radical style, huge jeans and chains and spikes across his chest. I instantly judged him a troublemaker and profoundly disturbed. Just as he passed in front of my car, he glanced up at me and our eyes locked. Tears began to pour down my face as I realized this was some mother’s son. How her heart must grieve for this son of hers. God changed my sight by touching my heart.
A professor at a university is said to have docked any student who could not name the cleaning lady who came every day. I was challenged to notice the people who mop the floors and serve my food and check out my groceries. I look at their name tags and call them by name. Sometimes they jump and look at me like, “How did you know my name?” I point to their tag and try to say something nice to them about how they have served me. It’s important to see people and not just functionaries.
These are lessons the Lord has been trying to work in my life for a long time. I don’t think we ever completely learn the lesson until we get to heaven and see from heaven’s perspective. Just about the time we lose one of these thick and obvious lenses, a more subtly shaded one takes its place.
A lady we know always seemed to be frowning. I thought she was stern and judging everything about me. I was uncomfortable with her until the day we were ordering food at a restaurant. She asked her husband to read the menu to her. “He knows what kinds of things I like,” she said. I started to feel bad that she was going blind when her husband said, “She has glasses, but doesn’t think she looks good in them.” Her vanity was hiding her loving spirit behind squinting eyes and frown lines.
As cross cultural workers, we not only have to deal with these common lenses, but we have to look through the distortions of unknown cultural nuances. No matter how long we live in a culture other than our own, we continually find new filters. Friendships don’t always look the same across cultural lines. We may expect that if someone is our friend they will plan to have meals with us regularly and talk about personal things. Their idea of friendship is knowing you are busy and not wanting to take you away from important things, but being willing to lay down their lives for you. Each cultural combination has its own set of filters to be discerned.
Why take the time and trouble to identify our lenses?
Because distorted lenses are harmful to the work of God. We may be sabotaging the very work that we are giving our lives to do. We go to the field knowing we are called, either to a type of work or to a type of person. We leave our home and the familiar and give our time and strength to share what we know. Yet the very people we are there to help are reading our reactions instead of His message.
We won’t always be able to do the work. Political changes may make it dangerous or impossible to serve in that place. We will get older and have to relinquish leadership. In any case, if the work is to continue, locals will have to be raised up to take our places. But if we have marginalized them by giving them only menial work to do, there won’t be leaders ready to step in when we can no longer be there.
Fatigued, irritable cross cultural workers often become adept at mockery. They sneer at the people who seem ignorant because of being less sophisticated than them. They mock the greeting rituals and the patterns of interaction. Because they use English, they think the locals don’t understand what they say. But these simple people are deeply hurt. A mocking attitude speaks louder than words.
Our attitudes and reactions will also flavor the way our supporters at home feel about the people we are serving. Many of them label the people we work with as “natives” or “pagans.” There are a whole list of other frightening words people use to describe whole populations of people around the world.
We have the opportunity to counteract the toxic combination of fear and pride called prejudice. We can help our supporters to see the people we work with as individuals God loves. We can demonstrate the value God places on each one as we share a view that is unshaded by faulty lenses.
Spend time with God and ask Him to open your eyes to see people as He sees them. Let Him soften your heart and remove any faulty lenses you are wearing.