One of my first friends in Kitchener/Waterloo was Kathy, a woman who is so intentional about reaching out to people who are culturally different than herself. She and her husband are church planters who settled in a high-density area of the city that is home to immigrants from every continent. In this post, she explains how following Jesus’ directive to “love your neighbour” takes on special qualities when that neighbour is of a different culture. It has also helped me to exercise the true tolerance that thinker and writer Chawkat Moucarry defines as follows: “True tolerance is to accept the other, not by ignoring the distance between us, but by measuring that distance accurately and by recognizing that whoever want to cross over has the right and the freedom to do so. Only love can create the necessary conditions for the truth to emerge.”
Loving our neighbours is a whole body experience. It is more than warm feelings or attitudes. It involves crossing the bridge between us on every level. We honour God when we honour our neighbour.
- Different cultures dress differently. When we see how another person is dressed, we can choose to appreciate the style as having a form of beauty and also functionality for the country of origin.
- The colour of skin can be seen with the eyes, but true love sees the person. We are all made in God's image. Just as a prism disperses light and shows all its colours in a spectrum, so the human race makes visible the complexity of God through skin, culture, language and gender.
- Scarves are worn by women of some cultures. Understand that modesty and honour are communicated in this way and is not necessarily imposed upon them.
- When we observe cultural practices, it is OK to ask about them. Some appropriate questions that build bridges could include “Do you eat with a spoon and fork/fork and knife/fingers?” “Do you have children?” “At home, how do you sit for a meal?” “What is the name for your outfit?"
- When we listen to others with an accent or with names that are difficult for us to pronounce, it is OK to say, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that” as many times as you need to.
- Permission to laugh at ourselves as we try to understand and say things that are foreign to each other.
- Give yourself permission to not understand everything, especially when they are not able to say much.
- Taking the time to truly listen means so much. When you hear the person’s story, it can teach us who they really are and what’s really happening globally. Their homeland is not just the setting of a fictional novel or an item on the news.
- Smile and laugh. These are universal languages that don’t need translation
- By our willingness to try to pronounce their names properly, we give dignity to another. We try instead of settling for a shortened nickname that is easier for us.
- Take time to speak with them. Ask them how they are doing, how their family is, how school or work is going. Share the same with them. Even with basic English, we are able to ask the simplest questions. We just have to be willing to take the time. They appreciate the practice.
- Be prepared for new tastes. If you try their cooking or baking, it gives them honour. We can learn to smile, chew and smile no matter what we are really thinking inside. Find a creative way to say “no thanks” if they offer more of something that does not suit you.
- Beware that in some cultures, “No” does not really mean no. For example, if you offer someone a cup of tea and she says, “No,” this may be her cultural way of being polite until you ask a second or third time. Finally, she intends to say, “Yes,” but we may not ask enough times because we don’t know the unwritten code.
- Kissing on the cheeks is a type of greeting in some cultures. In some cultures it is acceptable or unacceptable depending on the genders of those being greeted. If you are not sure, ask.
- Be prepared for new smells. If you visit in their home, a different smell may cling to your clothes when you go home.
- Some things will require time to get used to. God did create our noses to become desensitized over time.
- Go! Go to them. Take the initiative.
- Go to their homes if they welcome you in. Eat and celebrate occasions with them
- Invite them to events or places that are important to you, for example, family birthdays, shopping, Christmas pageants, a walk to the park.
- Take one step forward from where you are: that is the measure of progress.
- The gift of receiving. So often we think we have to give, but all of the earlier types of love really are gifts. Accept when they want to honour you with a gift or with hospitality.
- If you give a tangible gift, it may dictate to them a cultural responsibility to give a gift back to you, even when they cannot afford to. That being said, a small hostess gift (flowers, a plant, candy or a fruit basket) can be appropriate.
- Host the neighbour in your home, but be prepared for a no show. Some cultures it is shameful to refuse your invitation in person but other cultural barriers may stand in their way of actually stepping through your door. Don’t be offended. Ask ahead of time if there are things they cannot eat (special diets), so that you can accommodate. Be yourself.
- So many doors are opened through children. Show an interest in their babies or children; let your children play together.
- Pray for your cross cultural neighbour. There are resources available such as Operation World that can help you understand the spiritual realities and needs in many countries/cultures around the world. http://waymakers.org/pray/30-days/ has prayer guides that allow Christians to pray specifically and knowledgeably for Muslims during their holy month of Ramadan (June 18-July 17 this year).