I remember the 1958 debut of Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American as I was in my final years of high school. While I’m not sure when I actually read the fictional stories of Americans living abroad, I do remember my reaction to the sometimes gross mistakes and negative impressions those overseas Americans made. I said to myself, “I don’t ever want to be like that.” Brash, bullies, self-promoting, insensitive American travelers and residents pranced across the pages making enemies of their hosts, giving the impression that this is what America produces.
It was 1965 when upon graduating from college I entered the Peace Corps and became another American living overseas in North Africa. Our training programs, both prior to our arrival and in-country, helped prepare us for the varieties of culture we would face, and for how we should present ourselves as American women in a Muslim country living among village people. While my Christian faith informed many of my decisions of how to act, memories of how others preceding me had “blown it” caused me to be very careful so that I would not be perceived as “another one of those ugly Americans.”
Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood seeks to prepare Christians for cross-cultural service by looking at Jesus-style servanthood. Reflecting back on his and his wife’s successes and failures to be servants of the master engaged in kingdom work, he exposes attitudes of superiority, paternalism and status which accompany many of us as we begin cross-cultural ministry. The author suggests that we divest ourselves of our own culture and be willing to “play” a new culture in order for our message to be perceived. While this may be hard at the beginning, it brings rewards as we follow the humble servant role of Jesus.
“When God chose to connect with humans, he did so as a servant.” Jesus chose “the order of the towel” as he stooped to make a way for us to have a permanent eternal relationship with God the Father through his death and resurrection. While he is Lorda role he shares with no one elsewe are to follow him in his servant role, one of humility, openness to others and acceptance of them, of trusting, listening, learning, understanding and serving. The majority of the book unwraps the process of becoming a servant.
Dr. Elmer suggests that throughout scripture humility is mandated for believers, ” but the way it is expressed takes on a cultural face.” In order to understand how it is expressed in each culture, we need to understand and appreciate the culture, repent of our ignorance, arrogance and our Western judgmental attitudes and enter into dialogue with our hosts. This way we will find ” those cultural equivalents that express humility.”
Openness is an ability to welcome people into our presence and make them feel safe. Hospitality captures the biblical ideal. My time living in three Middle Eastern cultures taught me more about welcoming strangers than America ever could. Arabs say that a guest is a gift from God. Welcoming me at the door with extravagant words of welcome, ushering me into the parlor and serving me tea and sweets was all part of making me feel honored and safe in their home. Learning to give and receive hospitality opens a place for dialogue, continuing friendship and witness.
Acceptance, says Dr. Elmer, is ” the ability to communicate value, worth and esteem to another person.” He suggests that Western culture is largely a culture of rejection; biblical acceptance begins with God who accepts us and should lead us to accept others in his name. Elmer reminds us that all men are created in the image of God and his likeness appears in every person. Therefore no one is small, worthless. We cannot honor God and treat others with less value. For the cross-cultural worker, language study and the ability to communicate in the local language communicates that we value others. Learning to wait in cultures that require patience is a frustration to many and we need to learn how to cope with it. Ethnocentrism with its unfavorable judgments is a handicap especially for Westerners. Rigid boundaries stymie dialogue.
Trust is like a bridge over which relationships travel, says Dr. Elmer. How can we build those bridges with people who are different from us? He suggests that building trust takes time. Learning language helps to bridge that gap as we learn to know the people we are serving. Trusting also takes risksbumps in our relationships that we have to work out; learning to view life from the other’s perspective. I remember shopping for our maid and her family while on a furlough one time. As there were children in the family, I bought some nice clean clothes for them and presented them to her when we returned. However, I never saw the children wear them. I suspect they were too nice for her neighborhood, or perhaps she needed cash more and sold them, or maybe she was afraid the “evil eye” would harm the children in their new clean clothes, so she put them away. She would have been happier with a bag of rice, I’m sure.
Building trust across cultures is a challenge. Trust busters can be things such as lateness, considered impolite in the West but totally acceptable in many non-Western cultures where “events and people” are held dear. Our Western preoccupation with money, when nationals ask how much we pay for rent or some other item, is another example. In some cultures, handholding by males may be a sign of friendship. Direct confrontation as a way to resolve conflict is very Western but not common in other cultures; the use of a mediator is much more acceptable in much of the world.
Learning is an intentional ability to get information about others, from others and with others. As new arrivals in another culture, we should be consumed with learning about the history, culture, values, religion, family valueseverything we can possibly learn about in order to show that we care about our new friends. When we learn from someone, we are showing them honor. Hours spent with our language coaches, dependent on them for our daily welfare, tells them that we need and want their insights. In both the countries where my husband and I learned a language, our language teachers were life-lines into the culture helping us with cooking lessons, shopping, visiting landmarks, explaining the culture to us and teaching me how to dress appropriately for that culture. Learning with another person suggests synergy in relationship as we become brothers and sisters and members of his body.
Understanding according to Dr. Elmer is ” the ability to see how the pieces of the cultural puzzle fit together and make sense to them and to you.” A basic question to have on the tip of our tongue is “Why?” This is not easy, but it treats others with dignity and is a way of serving them.
Serving, the last of the process abilities, seeks to affirm others’ dignity by empowering them to live godly lives. Our example is Christ. Dr. Elmer contrasts leadership and servanthood but says “If we servants emerge as leaders, let it be that God’s people have seen the servant attitude and wish to affirm our giftedness and [this] is honor bestowed on us by others.”
This book concludes with a chapter on the life of Joseph and his example of biblical servanthood.
While this book is a bit tedious, it is important. It could be helpful when used as a discussion book between cultures learning from each other how to flesh out the subject of servanthood. For me, parts of it were convicting as I examined the way I welcome others, affirm them, judge themor not. I would prefer a more biblical study looking at the life of Christ in all the areas Dr. Elmer has suggested so that definitions do not dominate but rather Jesus’ patterns of relating to people and other cultures.
Mary Ann Cate has served with Christar for 39 years mainly in Middle Eastern cultures and as director of Women’s Ministry at Christar. Currently, she and her husband are in the process of moving to North Carolina to continue ministry with International Students on local campuses.View Full Bio