Millions of people each year participate in short-term ministry trips, with many now preparing for trips this summer. I have the privilege of leading a team from our church to Zambia this summer. We will be visiting a missionary couple sent from our church with the purpose of encouraging them in any way we can; of learning more about them, their ministry, and their cultural context; and of reporting back to our church.
One thing we are doing to prepare for the trip is reading Duane Elmer’s Cross Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting In Around the World. He begins the book with an excellent little story to illustrate the importance of learning how to serve across cultures.
A typhoon had temporarily stranded a monkey on an island. In a secure, protected place, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he spotted a fish swimming against the current. It seemed obvious to the monkey that the fish was struggling and in need of assistance. Being of kind heart, the monkey resolved to help the fish. A tree precariously dangled over the very spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey moved far out on a limb, reached down and snatched the fish from the threatening waters. Immediately scurrying back to the safety of his shelter, he carefully laid the fish on dry ground. For a few moments the fish showed excitement, but soon settled into a peaceful rest. Joy and satisfaction swelled inside the monkey. He has successfully helped another creature…
Here are my thoughts on the story. First, the monkey was courageous, had good intentions and noble motives. He also had zeal. However, his motives were misdirected because of his ignorance— he could not see beyond his own frame of reference. He believed what was dangerous for him was dangerous for the fish. Therefore, what would be good for him would also be good for the fish— a crucial assumption. As a result, he acted out of his ignorance or limited frame of reference, and ended up doing damage rather than the good he intended. Unfortunately, the monkey may not even have known the damage he did, because he may have walked away leaving the fish “resting.” (pp. 14, 15-16)
Far too often Americans are like monkeys on our short-term ministry trips. We are quick to act, assuming we know the best thing for the other person. Then we leave, thinking we helped when in reality we left damage behind. If we do not want to be monkeys, we need to learn how to work with those of a different culture.
Perhaps the most important skill in learning to interact across cultures is withholding a judgment of right or wrong until you better understand what is happening. We almost universally assume that our way is the right way.
For many years, Sidney Harris wrote a widely syndicated editorial column for the Chicago Tribune. Among his penetrating insights, I remember one in particular. He stated that “every book that is ever published, every article ever written and every speech delivered should have the subtitle ‘How to Be More Like Me.’” His point: We all believe that our way is the right way, our beliefs are correct and our culture is superior. So whenever I write or speak, the subtle message that transcends my words is: “You would be wise to change your ways to be more like me.” (p. 22)
Since we assume our way is right, we quickly judge a different way of doing something as wrong (immoral, inferior, less effective, etc.). If we are to be effective in working across cultures, we need to work to get our initial reaction to be “that’s different” instead of “that’s wrong.” After taking time to really learn the other culture (years of work) we are better suited to determine whether something is right or wrong—though even then we will often conclude it is just different. But we will not be able to gain that understanding on a short-term trip.
So for those preparing for short-term ministry trips this summer, be aware that your culture is different from the one to which you are going, make sure the help you are offering is something the person in that culture would appreciate, and work to label things as different rather than wrong. And pick up a book or two like Cross-Cultural Connections to give you a better understanding of these issues.