How to Share Jesus with People of Other Cultures
By Marilyn McClure
Imagine wandering around in a foreign country on a rainy night, not knowing where you are going, not even knowing how to speak the local language.
This is exactly what happened in 1970 when my husband Garry and I were sent to learn Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico, so that we could serve as missionaries in Guatemala. Our plane landed in Mexico City, and a pastor was to pick us up and take us to Cuernavaca, which is about 50 miles away. There was a mix-up in schedules, so we were told to take a taxi. We had no Spanish language skills, and our cab driver had very limited English. By the time we arrived in Cuernavaca, it was dark and raining. Our cab driver, who was unfamiliar with the town, asked directions to the pensión where we were to stay. People consistently provided directions, but none of them were correct. After about two hours of searching, we ended up at the edge of a field where cows were grazing. Finally, my husband spotted a car with a Michigan license plate in front of a house. He asked the taxi driver to stop. Garry went to the door, and explained our dilemma in English to the visiting U.S. family. They communicated to their family members who got in their car, asked us to follow them, and guided us to the street and house for which we had been searching. What a relief!
Our initial reaction to this experience was one of anger and frustration. However, later in analyzing why people had given us directions if they didn’t know where the place was, we were told that it would have been impolite for them to say that they didn’t know. In their culture, that would have been interpreted as not caring, especially on a rainy night when someone was asking them for help. So they gave us directions to the best of their abilities, even though they themselves were not quite sure of the location. They wanted to show us that they cared.
People who are from different cultures, but are now living in the United States, have similar experiences every day. In the past, multicultural populations were primarily found in border towns, coastal cities, or in pockets of large cities in our country. However, over the past few years we find people of different cultures scattered throughout the nation. Some are refugees; others may be from families that have immigrated to the U.S. to find a better life. Some may have been here over a generation, but they still identify with people from their own country or those who follow their cultural practices and speak their language.
The question is: How do we relate to people of other ethnicities and cultures and share the love of Jesus with them, especially if they don’t speak our language?
We need to be honest and accept that there are challenges when we try to communicate and work with people cross-culturally. Sometimes the cultural differences impede our ability to understand each other and work together. Because of the differences in our backgrounds, we cannot take for granted that we understand their behavior nor that they understand ours. Most of all, it is important not to judge other people’s words and actions until we understand the motivation behind them.
I could give a whole series of lectures on intercultural learning, awareness, and effectiveness, beginning with the importance of being aware and understanding our own culture first and how others see us. I could also talk about the danger of attributing stereotypes to people who come from a specific country or cultural group. All of that is important, and very helpful if we hope to be effective in interacting with people of another culture. Knowing their language adds to our ability to communicate with them, but sometimes God puts them in our lives before we have had a chance to do any preparatory study about culture and language.
When that happens, here are some simple tips:
When you want to befriend someone from another culture, be willing to invest the time and energy it takes to get to know each other. If you invite the person to join you in an activity at church, offer to pick her up and accompany her when you arrive at the event.
Introduce her to your friends, sit by her, so that she knows your intention is to be her friend.
PLAN ACTIVITIES THAT ARE NOT LANGUAGE-BOUND
If you are planning an event to which you will be inviting an ethnic group, it is a good idea to arrange activities that are not dependent on understanding the language. For instance, it will be easier for your ethnic friends to pack health kits for the homeless, which they can do alongside of you, than to expect them to go to a workshop or lecture that would require that they understand English well. If you are planning some time alone with your “friend,” a visit to the zoo where you can take your children along with you would be more desirable than going to a mystery movie.
HAVE CONVERSATION STARTERS IN MIND
If you are going to invite ethnic women to an event at your church, like a Mother’s Day tea, some good conversation starters might be talk about your childhood homes. You might talk about favorite holidays or celebrations in your respective countries. Ask questions like, “What makes you feel most proud when you think about your community or your country?” or “What were some of your favorite foods as a child?” Choose topics that allow everyone to contribute, regardless of where they grew up.
LEARN A LITTLE ABOUT THE CULTURE
Sometimes cultural stereotyping can be useful. For example, if you know that German people generally are punctual, you would want to make sure that you are on time when meeting a German friend. In Latino culture, that may not be the case, so you might need to be prepared to wait while your Latino friend finishes getting ready to go with you. However, whatever the culture, people are individuals, so it is important never to assume that an individual is exactly like the stereotype of her culture.
DON’T FORGET PRAYER
Always remember to pray for your new friend and ask God to bless your time together. If you sense there is confusion about something that is said or an activity taking place, ask the person if there is a problem, and assure her that you care about how she feels.
Each person, regardless of her ethnicity or culture, is a redeemed child of God. May your world be expanded, and may you find blessing in getting to know new friends from around the world!
About the author: Marilyn McClure is an educator by profession and, since 1969, has worked alongside her husband in Hispanic ministry in Guatemala and the US. In recent years, Marilyn worked with the Gospel Outreach Committee of Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML) to help establish the Heart to Heart Sisters program, that intentionally reaches out to women of all cultures to assure their participation in the mission of the LWML and the church-at-large. The McClure’s have three loving adult children and six wonderful grandchildren. Marilyn says that she is truly blessed to serve at this time on the Education Committee of WLI.
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