I spent a week at a Croatian Christian family camp on an island in the Adriatic Sea. The camp was a relaxed affair; the only programming was a discussion group after lunch and an evening speaker. This open schedule, in contrast to the jammed-packed programs that we Americans love, brings to mind the old adage, “Americans know how to work, Europeans know how to live.” Days drifted by in a comfortable rhythm of eating, sleeping, swimming, and reading.
Underneath this pleasant reality, I was also experiencing a separate, deeper narrative, one familiar to anyone who has lived in a different culture. Since my Croatian is still at the simple conversational stage of, “I slept well last night, ” or, “I went swimming this afternoon and the water was nice”, I was unable to participate in the community bonds that were deepening all around me. The week held large doses of the familiar since it was a Christian camp, but I was keenly aware of my movement in and out of the community. For example:
Out: I couldn’t participate in the small groups because of the language barrier. They told me I could join in the teenage group because it was being led in English (to be translated) by the only other foreigner at the camp. After two awkward days of sitting to the side of the teenage group (“What is that strange American woman doing here,” I imagined them thinking), I began to sneak off by myself to take a swim during that time.
In: Meal times, often a community’s most important times for bonding, were no problem. Someone would always see me looking around after I picked up my food and would motion me over.
Out: The women would gather for a makeshift “cafe” in the afternoons, drinking coffee and telling their testimonies. My mouth began to hurt from all the smiling and nodding I was doing during these times, but could rarely follow the story. In: Most of the worship songs were translated American or Australian tunes, so I could participate in the very familiar camp experience of singing songs around the guitar.
Out: I couldn’t follow the evening speaker; this was particularly difficult when he either told a joke and everyone laughed, or when he seemed quite passionate about something—What was he saying?
In: I did bond with my roommates, but it was partially because they spoke good English and would often talk to me in English in the cabin.
Out: Camp announcements, delivered through a staticky microphone, always kept me guessing: “Mmmm…I hope that announcement wasn’t important because I could only understand the words, ‘dinner’, ‘t-shirt’, and ‘go'”.
It was in these moments, acutely aware of being on the outside and yet sharing the same spiritual orientation toward life as the other campers, that I began to reflect on the unique point of view that such a dissonance creates. Uncomfortable yet comfortable. At home yet feeling so foreign. Longing for community and yet appreciating the vast amounts of alone time my outsider status allowed me. Conscious of my human desire for belonging, for the safety of being known and accepted in a group, and yet appreciating the opportunity to see things differently. In our globalized day of widespread immigration, both forced and voluntary, how many people’s daily reality is exactly this? And even so, my experience is still not nearly so difficult. By virtue of their language, Croatian Protestants seem to take seriously the fact that we are all brothers and sisters in God’s family. “Sister Melody has returned from Zagreb, ” my pastor announced after I had been gone for a month. “I met with some brothers for coffee,” someone will mention to me.
I am an inside outsider among Croatian Christians—accepted as family, and yet held back by the formidable barriers of language and culture. So who are the real outsiders?