Hearing Across Culture: The True Service

A couple of years ago, I remember telling my roommate “give me a break” because I was directly translating from Spanish a phrase that works just as the same as “excuse me” (“Dame un breakecito”). The look on my roommate’s face was priceless. I’m pretty sure she even voiced a: “geez, sorry I’m on your way”. I didn’t understand her reaction until I realized she felt I was being rude. Of course, saying: “give me a break” has a different connotation in English, but I didn’t know that. I learned it that day. She was in front of the drawer and I asked her to let me open it just like I used to do back home. Interestingly enough, we had the opportunity to explain ourselves in that exact moment. We laughed about it and went on with whatever we were doing afterwards. However, that opportunity doesn’t come that often. In any other scenario I would stay confused with why Molly was mad at me when I asked her that, and Molly would’ve thought I was suddenly just rude.

Culture is such an important thing in people’s identity. It’s not only about language. Culture is reflected in lifestyles, traditions, food, music, and beliefs. It’s reflected in how we dress, how we greet, the time we arrive to places, and the amount of water we pour in our coffee. Many times we find ourselves judging someone else without realizing the cultural implications that influence their actions.

Unfortunately, Church isn’t the exception for this struggle. I’ve seen church leaders overlooking other voices just because they somehow question the status quo. How can we be mindful of the cultural differences and work towards reconciliation and true inclusiveness? How can we be intentional in paying attention to voices or actions that are different to ours? How others can challenge us to develop more empathy? How willing are we to deconstruct our beliefs and lifestyles by learning and being sensitive to how others do life?

One of the things that has been challenging for me is realizing how individualistic culture in the States is. Latino culture is very community-oriented and I’ve found myself expecting the same things I get back home. What I identify –many times- as a lack of empathy and commitment to the people around could be perhaps, that culture is built that way. The focus is just different. I’ve learned that the hard way, through many disappointments and misunderstandings. However, I can now see myself understanding many dynamics and being able to set different expectations.

Ever since I read this tweet from author Rachel Held Evans I’ve reflected a lot about this: “Church: Listen to, look out for, and lift up the people on the margins. And let them lead.” I can see how people are “invited” to conversations or spaces, but the process ends there.

I see a lot of churches welcoming “everybody”, yet not empowering all of them. Disempower doesn’t necessarily come by not putting them in leadership positions, but by also shutting down any feedback or thought. People are still pushed out from the spaces they are supposedly “welcomed”. They aren’t voiceless, but they struggle all the time getting their voices heard, or perhaps, understood. It’s like we are lost in translation, even with our actions.

I can clearly remember a lady firmly telling me “Oh, we are in America! We speak English here!” while I was chatting with a friend in a hotel in Daytona Beach, FL. What affected me the most wasn’t the rant itself, or the anger that it was transmitted with (although that definitely threw me off). What still bothers me is that I didn’t know how to respond. I was left in that elevator -next to my friend- completely speechless. The elevator doors opened right after the lady spoke and she immediately left. I wasn’t able to say anything. I wasn’t ready to be defensive in another language. I’ve never been in that position. I felt so powerless; I had so many emotions at the same time. I still carry that feeling of frustration. I didn’t know how to speak up.

I know for sure many people struggle with things like this every Sunday in church or, even worse, on a daily basis. I wonder how many of my friends and colleagues feel their opinions and actions are constantly overlooked or judged. How many still speak up and are constantly shut down and, how many stay in silence just to avoid reactions like the one I got in that elevator? How much of that struggle comes just because of cultural differences, just because we deal with conflict in a different way?

When it comes to bring people from different places together we may forget the power dynamics that are inevitably present. We invite them (or we should do so) to bring their perspective, not to make them assimilate to the majority. Unfortunately, minorities or different groups constantly struggle being forced to play by the rules of a dominant culture. If they share their thoughts, they may sound like they are complaining. Their silence, on the other hand, perpetrates the dominance of people that are indifferent to other points of views. Now, depending who’s telling the story, is how it’s going to be interpreted.

What makes me sad is that these responses do not look too far away from the “we are in America, and that’s how we get things done” rhetoric. I’ve heard things in church that make me feel the same way I feel when I hear someone saying: “Build that wall!”. How could we have a sense of belonging if our input is always being questioned? How can someone feel empowered around us if we constantly misinterpret their actions?

When we pay attention to other people’s stories we are serving them. We need to pay attention, look out for, and lift up the people that bring different experiences to the table. Even if those testimonies come in different languages, or different food tastes.

Creating spaces like that also brings a challenge. I still regret the day I asked one of our Miami YAVs/Dweller to pray in Korean in front of a group that was in town for a mission trip. After she started praying people started to laugh. This happened literally inside a church sanctuary, with church people. I still reflect in how big was my responsibility of creating a space like this without being fully aware of the repercussions. I thought I was building a bridge, but I was actually exposing a wall, and didn’t know what to do. And there was I, using my position to open up a space that ended up putting somebody in an extremely vulnerable position.

We need conversations like the one I had with Molly, where both parts share their position. We need more conversations with people like the lady at that elevator in Daytona Beach, where with grace and love we reflect in how we can show another side of the story. We need more conversations about how we make coffee. And yes, we also need to talk about moments when we are mocked and feel disempowered. This needs to be a 2-way conversation, but there also needs to be a lot of listening.

Being exposed to other stories will challenge us to remember that the way we do life is not the only way. It means we’ll be intentional of not imposing our way of doing things, and when we find ourselves in a different position, we’ll be willing to let others lead us. Some may need to let go power, and some may need to speak up.

Learning to navigate these waters is hard. People live with fear, insecurities and frequent disappointments because of other people that aren’t willing to hear across culture. Some need to hear across culture to survive, others could live without caring about it.

Hearing across culture is a challenge that we as individuals (and as the Church, of course) have to take more seriously. Talking about diversity just for the sake of the demographic represented during a Sunday morning doesn’t mean we are doing the whole work. We need to share spaces with people that don’t look like us. We need to hear stories. We need to get educated. Even learning another language will open up a whole new world. Look around and reflect if the people you spend most of the time looks and thinks just like you. If they do, get out of there.

I may never understand what it means to be in everyone shoes, but when we are able to hear across language and culture we experience what it means to serve one another.