October Newsletter: What’s it like to be a cross-cultural missionary?

I made myself a promise that, just to mix things up, this newsletter would not be about, “So, we are trying to adapt to COVID.”

Gary writes: The following observations come after 22 years on the field. They apply to us: your missionary mileage may differ.

  • You are no longer one culture or the other, but a mixture of two. Rather than “home” we sometimes use the language, “What is your passport country?” And here is a book on sale for 99 cents about missionary children, Karen highly recommends it! Move quickly, not sure how long the sale will be on.
  • Language is a constant journey. We went to a full year of language school when we started our work. Yet we still learn and look things up, daily. I would guess that my ability to express myself as a professor is only about 60% of my ability to do so in English. Imagine trying to run a race in knee-deep mud. Or perhaps this Ginger Rogers quote is more relevant to Karen’s work, in Spanish as opposed to English: “I did everything Fred Astaire did! But I did it backwards and in high heels!”
  • The New Culture. Costa Rica is, in my opinion, one amazing country with a great culture. The people are wonderful – and very forgiving of my accent! But it’s not just a question of learning Spanish words, but local culture. For example, last week we had the Desfile de Faroles, Independence Day with a long parade of kids carrying lanterns, and all in traditional costume. Costa Ricans also greet every person in the room when they enter, and say farewell to each individual when they exist. They make a big deal of “despedidas” (farewell parties) and of course, the “quinceñera” (a formal party for a girl who turns 15, much more important than a Sweet Sixteen).
  • Church is different! A two-hour service is considered on the short side. Salsa rhythms predominate in the music. I remember that, one of the first times I was preaching, a truck passed by and tooted its horn. To my surprise, half the congregation ran to the windows for a few minutes, to gaze at what was going on!
  • Reverse culture shock (going home) is harder than living in the new culture. The philosopher said, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” And so, pretend to do this: look at a scene, then close your eyes for 10 months, and open your eyes; close them for a year, open your eyes, etc. It’s like one of those fast-motion films. To us, the US looks different every time we step back in, and so does the US church. A hint: ask your foreign missionaries how the church has changed over the past few years, you may be surprised.
  • Living in the region, but outside the US. Living in Central America gives you a vastly different perspective on the US. The US is “that superpower to the north” and often appears on local news; by contrast, Costa Rica rarely appears on US news!
  • The internet is a godsend. When we first went on the field, email was still only a few years old, and a phone call to the US was $1/minute. Now it’s free, and Karen talks to our kids almost daily. When I study, I can access many more resources online. And this year we have been giving regular international courses and conferences on Zoom.
  • You miss the big things from America! Circumstances are unusual this year, but still: I haven’t seen my mother, siblings, cousins, or our own children, for over a year. Also, we miss our churches, or in fact, any church meeting in English.
  • You miss the medium-sized things! Well, my personal “miss” is having a serious theological library nearby; when we are in Pennsylvania, there are two, within a half-hour. This makes any sort of research or writing I do – and it’s a lot – seriously more difficult as it should be. Occasionally I’ll post on Facebook, “Could someone find a copy of this book and take a picture of page 58 for me?”
  • You miss the little things! People in Pennsylvania and NJ will understand why, every time we drive somewhere in the US, our first question is “Stop at Wawa?” (It’s a chain of wonderful gas-and-grocery stores, with running fresh coffee). No Wawas in CR!
  • We thank God for letting us serve here; hardly a day goes by when I don’t think, “How blessed am I?”

Here is a link to an article I wrote some years ago: “14 Things your Missionary might like to tell you, but feel inhibited.”

And a “2020-style” update: Some of our missionary colleagues report that they are in a stall or at least slowed down. In fact, and due to the nature of our work, Karen and I, truly, are doing very well. Our ministries are flourishing as never before, and we now both have home offices where we can work and do our teaching by Zoom. It’s rough not seeing our friends and ESEPA colleagues, but we make it a point to have masked friends over for dinner every week, usually with me cooking (Greek food was on the menu last week: kaftedes, spanakopita, lemon potatoes, if anyone’s curious).

Blessings this month! Gary and Karen

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