Monthly Archives: April 2013

The cultural wall: shimmering and porous

The walls demarcating cultures are not made of brick; rather they are like a slow-moving  wall of water. Like the objects at the bottom of a river, a person on one side can hazily see people  on the other side, they can even put part of their body through to experience it, but to completely move to the other side would require some kind of death and rebirth.

This past weekend I traveled down to central Serbia with four women to attend an annual Balkan women’s conference.  Although my Croatian language capabilities are far from adequate, my current level allowed some cultural osmosis to occur during the four days.

My learning began even in the seven hour drive down to the conference.  For example, after we had successfully crossed the Serbian-Croatian border, the women breathed a sigh of relief and uttered prayers of thanksgiving.  I was confused, since my experience has shown that crossing the American-Canadian border is more difficult than this particular border crossing.  I was informed that there were boxes of Christian books in the trunk we were bringing to the conference.  Had the trunk been searched, we would have been in trouble—not because Christian books are illegal in Serbia, but because we should have declared them to customs and had the proper paperwork for them. This struck me as a rather ironic smuggling feat—but probably not-so-unusual here in the Balkans.

The second time we were pulled over by the Serbian police proved to be more serious than the first when the police just wanted to check paperwork.  The second time, the policeman accused us of running through a yellow light—but had we really done so or was it our foreign plates (Croatian) that enticed him to pull us over?  I watched in admiration as the two women in the front seat pulled out every trick in the book to beg, plead, and cajole the policeman into giving us grace.

“Forgive us, have mercy on us,” one woman kept repeating in response to the police man’s arguments. “We are going to a Christian conference.”

“This is my first time driving in this town, I am a woman,” the driver said.  The women’s pleading must have made the policeman uncomfortable, because eventually he stopped looking at us while continuing to argue.  Eventually, he waved us on, still without meeting our eyes.  Did he decide that it wasn’t worth the trouble?  Had he been hoping for some easy cash from a ticket?  Did he feel sorry for us?  His motivation remains a mystery, but afterward in the car, there was much celebrating and laughter.

These events made me consider the cultural issue of motive.  What I ascribe as people’s motives for their actions will differ from others’ assessments from another cultural context.  I was surprised at the immediacy to which the women questioned the policeman’s motive in his claim that they had broken the law.  But when I think about the region’s history— the past stories of corruption in the form of bribes and  using the  “magical power of who you know”  to obtain what you need or want—their response makes sense.

Wrongly assigning motives to actions happens even  within our own cultures, so one can only  multiply the negative effects of doing so when you are in a different culture. Attributing motive based on your own cultural paradigm may have the illusion of calming the rapids in the cultural wall— after all, it can be a huge mental relief to understand why people do what they do.  However, under the calm is a strong current that will surreptitiously sweep you away in ignorance and misplaced assumptions.

A few years ago, I was visiting an expat in Eastern Europe who told me about an encounter with a  contractor who exploded in anger upon finding out that the contract had been offered to someone else.  “I didn’t know why the response would have been that extreme since it was just business—the other guy offered us a lower price.  But then I realized that this is just a more emotional culture, whilst in my culture, we are more rational and logical,”  the expat told me.

I have a feeling every culture thinks they are “more rational” as they look with confusion and surprise at others’ reactions.

But how to move past a simplistic take on cultural motive? Understanding a place’s history and getting a grasp on language are certainly ways of beginning to find the porous openings through the wall.  Asking questions, reserving judgements, questioning your own motives can also add to your repertoire of knowledge.

The last day of the conference, I saw some women taking pictures of each other.  One women called out, “Američki osmijeh!” (American smile). The rest dissolved into laughter.  When I asked her about this, she demonstrated the “American smile”—lips pulled back widely and artificially for a huge smile. I have been told by several people that Americans smile too much—they smile whether they are happy or sad, whether they feel good or not.

Come to think of it, what is our motive for smiling so much?  When we see how difficult it is to understand our own cultural norms, it becomes easier to keep an open mind as we strain to understand things as they really are— not taken in by the distortion caused by the shimmering wall of culture.


How to be a Roma Church: Part 2

You might say the honeymoon phase is over.

Lately the leadership team at the little Darda church has had rather intense discussions regarding the many issues cropping up in the church. Even more, these issues can breed discouragement and fatigue, and even a sense of failure.

But God has not been inactive.  For example, people in the church decided they wanted to plant a garden together and are organizing a church work day and feast.  Recently, we held the  first women’s meeting which was a really special and encouraging time. Tiny buds of growth continue to exhibit in a variety of ways—even by one woman writing poems to God  and sharing them in front of the church.

And yet, there are many problems and issues that are difficult to know how to handle:

-one wife said she would divorce her husband (one of our possible leaders) if he came back to the church because she wants us to come over and apologize for some perceived grievance (a situation that has happened multiple times)

– one young man is still wrestling with a mysterious illness after having a traumatic experience in the church and is now headed to Serbia to visit a magic man—we worry rumors may spread that being  involved in the church leads to sickness.

-one woman wanted some help moving her things out of a house—and after we did this we found out that it was because she had decided to divorce her husband, thus unfortunately modelling for the entire community how the church can help you divorce your spouse (for no readily apparent reason).

The team’s cultural and philosophical differences are beginning to more sharply define these discussions.  There are differences in how we perceive the function of the church—either for spiritual needs only (so that we could avoid jealousies and fights) or to be more holistic in nature—gender roles(the men on the team should have the final word or we are all equal), how conflict is handled, cultural mistakes, and many other things.

Last night, conversations were particularly heated after we discovered the mistake we made in helping the woman divorce her husband.  The way conflict manifests, both in the Croatian culture and in Roma culture (although they are not the same) challenges my comfort levels.  Voices were raised, opinions were passionately expressed, and there was hardly time to catch a breath between two people speaking.  My first instinct was to run out,  but I gritted my teeth and stayed in it, because the unity of our team is too important to relinquish easily.

All of this, of course, is made more difficult by the fact that the idea of me “passionately” expressing myself in Croatian is somewhat laughable—but I took a deep breath—and when there was a half-second pause between people arguing—in I plunged. Who knows what I actually said?  Forget about correct case endings, verb conjugation, and proper gender forms—I just wanted to enter the conversation.

But I recognize what is happening—according the normal phases of  group formation, we are entering into the “storming phase.”  This is actually a positive thing, because if we can find our way to the other end, our team will be stronger, more honest, and better able to work together.  I think it is possible, because we all do love and respect each other.

Finally, the discussion began to diminish in volume, and we all agreed to go to prayer.  Prayers were earnest, heartfelt, asking for discernment and wisdom and the Spirit’s help.  By the end, there were some tears, hugs, and apologies.  I don’t mean to imply that every argument will end with a “happy ending,”    but I am beginning to see how much grace is needed for such an endeavor.  How can five people, from different traditions, languages, and cultures hope to work together in a brand new church, full of brand new believers?  I think there is only one way:  “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

Discipleship and change truly are a mysterious work of the Spirit, despite all of our best efforts.  I am constantly reminded of the Proverb: ” The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established.” (19:21).

Photo by Toni Balog