In his book, Cross-Cultural Servant hood, Duane Elmer, gives practical advice on preparing to minister in a cross-cultural setting. He explains in clear and simple terms that when moving to a new culture, there are three important types of learning. The first is “learning about” the new culture. When moving, almost everyone does this. We read books, look at statistics on the internet and maybe pay attention to news stories about the culture we are moving to. This is necessary and good. It helps us adjust our expectations and gives us valuable information to help us adapt culturally. However, information about a culture is often presented in broad strokes and with little nuance. Cultures do have characteristics, defined behavioral patterns and values, but people in the culture tend to live and act inside a range of the limits set by these cultural norms. So when we learn about, we learn the broad strokes. Sadly many stop here and consider themselves to be experts. Elmer says that this is just the beginning or even the preparation for the deeper learning. The deeper learning is “learning from” the new culture. Learning “from” happens when you are living in the culture. We take what we know about the culture and observe, ask and adjust. We learn from the people we meet and interact with. This gives us a deeper understanding and appreciation of the culture. The third is “learning with” the culture. This is when we develop friendships that are reciprocal. With these friends we explore each other’s cultures, share our lives and in a Christian context learn from God’s word and minister together.
As we recently prepared to leave for the States for cancer treatment, one of the things we had to do was tell people why we were unexpectedly leaving. This is difficult for me because my pride makes it difficult for me to appear weak. Our friends had various reactions. Some were shocked, some were sad, some were encouraging and most said they would pray. This was very encouraging. One of my best friends is Igor (pronounced like the English word “eager”). He and his family live close to us. He is a fellow professor at the seminary and a pastor at the church we attend. He is one I often learn with and from. As we prepared to leave, I got a lesson from Igor in pastoral ministry that was also a great personal blessing. We had some friends over and Igor stopped by for a visit. We enjoyed some tea and fellowship. After a while, Igor said, “Alfie, I wanted to come say good-bye by encouraging you and praying with you.” He opened his Bible, read me a short passage and simply pondered out loud for a few minutes how Paul’s struggles might give us insight into our own struggles. He invited me to share my thoughts with him and we thought sublime thoughts together for a few minutes. Then he said, “Let’s pray in the Slavic style”. So we got on our knees and prayed together. After the prayer we stood, hugged and Julie took a picture. My dear friend’s actions were a lesson in simple sincerely friendship and pastoral care. It is truly a privilege to learn from friends like this.