Crossing cultures can deepen our faith

Photo courtesy Abby Paternoster.
Photo courtesy Abby Paternoster.

When you step off a plane into a country you’ve never visited before, you go on sensory overload. Things around you look different, smell different, sound different and feel different almost immediately.

Depending on where you are, you’ll start to find your cultural “footholds,” aspects of this “new” culture that are not so different from your own culture, that afford you some level of comfort and understanding.

However, actually crossing cultures is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and we are bound to cause offense as we stumble through culture shock and the world outside of our comfort zones.

As a disclaimer, I must reveal my limited experience in crossing cultures. I have visited four different countries outside of the United States and Canada but have never spent more than a month in any of them.

There are many more experienced individuals on campus that would do a much better job fleshing out the details of this complex topic, and I hope they will come forward after reading this to help lead us to understanding.

However, I realized the other night that although my experience is limited, it is very real and has taught me so much. I want to share with you why I so highly value cultural exchanges and experiencing cultures that are not what I have been raised in.

The summer before coming to Calvin, I had the immense privilege of traveling to Haiti with a group of nine other teenagers and four adult staff members from my home church.

This trip was unlike any other mission trip I had been on because we were there almost entirely to learn about the culture and the people in the hopes that future service — whether corporate or individual — would actually be helpful rather than harmful.

My time in Haiti was not my first experience with poverty, culture shock or being abroad without my parents. However, it was first experience of being unable to find any cultural footholds in a new place.

There was absolutely nothing for me to cling to — to look at and say, “Now that I understand.”

But something unexpected happened in Haiti, and actually in every country I have ever visited: when it feels like everything that I know and understand is taken away, I have to turn to the only thing that will never leave, and that is my heavenly Father.

Every cross-cultural experience and every step outside of my comfort zone has become an opportunity for God to reveal himself in incredible new ways to me. Inside my comfort zone, I feel confident in my own abilities to get through each day without incurring a major disaster.

Outside my comfort zone, I can’t even get dressed without wondering if I’ll be offending someone by my outfit.

I need my heavenly Father to hold my hand as I tiptoe through cultural norms that are not my own, as I stumble through a language I am not fluent in and as I fail at both.

I need him to humble me to be able to accept these failures, to apologize, to ask for instruction and, most importantly, to try again.

When we curl up in our comfort zones, we miss out on the incredible richness of having no choice but to rely entirely on the lavish provision of our great God.

At the end of UnLearn week, I hope you will step out in humility and eagerness to engage that which is new to you.

My prayer for UnLearn week is that we would not be filled with the fear that we might offend but excitement about the potential our community has for cultural exchange and awareness.

About the Author

Abby Paternoster

Abby Paternoster is the Chimes opinion and editorial editor for the 2013-14 school year. She is a sophomore from Ann Arbor, Michigan studying international development and social work. She loves to travel, experience new cultures and witness the work God is doing around the world.

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