We face many challenges when we move to a new place, whether it be a new country or a new part of the same country. For missionaries, we are confronted with the daunting task of learning a new language of a strange people with strange dress and strange customs. The danger is that we may actually begin to think that “these people” really are different than us.
I knew living in a Muslim country would be very different from my Midwestern, suburban lifestyle. I had listened carefully to many wise people give advice about living among Muslims. They held differing opinions in some ways but there were two habits they taught me to develop that I found invaluable: patience and observation. The study of people is second only in importance to the study of God. In fact, the job of a missionary is to take God to a new people. So, he or she must understand both. Time and tears must be given to both theology and anthropology.
I spent countless hours out on the street and in homes with people during the first few years. I watched how they did everything: how the dressed, how they ate, how they moved their hands when they talked, how the disciplined their kids, how they talked to their friends and parents, how they bought and sold things, how they decorated their homes, even where they slept. I watched their reactions to sadness. I saw their proud looks when their children did something grand. I saw their feelings hurt. I watched their frustration grow with one another. I listened to their complaints. I saw the excitement on their faces when they talked about dreams they had for their future. I listened to young girls talk about desires for their future love. I listened to painful stories of heartbreak. I heard about the things they feared.
Is this participatory observation all just wasted effort? Oh no. I have learned something huge by studying and loving these people: They are just like me.
My friend who is pouring her heart is dressed in a robe with a head covering…but her need for acceptance is the same as mine.
My friend from the Sahara desert relates to me the shame of having a grandmother who was a 9 year old child bride…but she has the same desire to be liked as I do.
The family next door sends their kids to Quranic memorization classes for hours after school …but they are concerned for their children’s future just like I am for mine.
The gruff man who selfishly pushes the other man out of his way in the tiny corner store so he can be attended to first wants the same thing we all want. He wants the attention he believes he deserves.
The older lady out in the village who works her fingers to the bone everyday washing clothes by hand in freezing water and kneading bread feels overwhelmed by her work load. A feeling we can relate to though the work may not be the same.
People are people. We all are born with a desire for love. We all long to be accepted. We all desire to be important.
As I learned that all people share the same needs I have also observed that the same Christ satisfies.
As we strive to love the people around us we adapt to their ways. We understand more deeply their ideas. We slowly learn to be sensitive to things that are different and new to us. Gradually we change too. Our culture changes. Christ in us changes us. But Christ is above culture. He covers sin and casts out fear, even our fear of moving to a new place around a new people.