Crossing Cultures – Two at a Time

This reflection is written for the community writing project at “The Higher Calling.”  Check out the others at

Oh my goodness, we were young.

Married all of 8 months, recently graduated from college, heading across the country, across the Atlantic, halfway up the continent of Africa.

We went as an alternative to military service during the Vietnamese war – to work for peace in a place that was strange to us, paying our own way except for about $150/month in ‘allowance.’

But we had a great house to live in, located on the campus of a secondary school in the southern province of Zambia.  Far larger than the tiny apartment we left behind in West Los Angeles, it was set amidst the rolling hills and curiously flat-topped trees of the high savannah that would be our home for the next two years.  The same home we brought our first-born back to after her birth in a bush hospital five months before our term was up.

And we had good work to do – distributing educational supplies to the entire province the first year, teaching eager students, some of whom were older than I was, during the second year.

I remember standing in the train station in our town – the kind of station where an actual steam engine pulls in about 3 times a day – and looking out over a crowded sea of African faces.  Beautiful faces, interesting faces.  But faces that looked distinctly different from our own – a sensation that was at one and the same time slightly disquieting and curiously satisfying.  That was our first experience of what it felt like to be members of a minority culture – and it changed our lives forever.

We came in with high ideals, youthful enthusiasm and a commitment to make a contribution of some kind.  What we didn’t fully understand going in was that we weren’t just crossing one set of cultural expectations and experiences – we were crossing two, each with its own share of complications and adjustments.  We were surrounded by an African culture – and we were surrounded by a missionary culture.

And I would have to say that the first one was far easier to deal with than the second.  Although sometimes we were puzzled and challenged by the strange realities of teaching students who were literally making the jump from one century (at least) to another – the weirdnesses of the missionary life around us were much tougher to figure out.

Over those two years, we came to deeply appreciate the slower pace, more practiced art of paying attention to the now, and gentle sense of extended family that characterized the mindset and lifestyle of our African friends.  It was the legalistic and sometimes judgmental attitude of many of our missionary neighbors that rattled us.  Too often, we thought, the promise of an education – the deepest desire for most African children – was held out in exchange for certain behaviors and ‘right’ answers to questions about faith and commitment.

And there was too often a whiff of entitlement that seemed to go along with being a missionary in those days.  My somewhat lofty, middle-class American sensibilities were offended by the idea of hired labor, especially live-in help.  But I was brought up short by the comment of a young man seeking employment as a gardener when he angrily asked me why I did not want him to be able to help his family.

How do you navigate the tricky waters of offering people honorable work to do without either exploiting them or upsetting the economic dynamics of a neighborhood by paying more than the ‘going rate?’  How do you maintain a Jesus-like respect for each person’s dignity and worth if your primary relationships are more like master/servant than neighbor/friend/colleague?

Nor was I at all easy about the fact that almost every one of our missionary neighbors sent their children to an all-white international school over 500 miles away, beginning at age 7.  And the single exception, a couple who kept their only son at home and sent him to the primary school in our town, were somehow seen as less-than fully devoted in the minds of their co-workers.

What do such choices say about the priorities of those in ‘full-time Christian service?’  Work over family?  Others’ children of more value than one’s own?  Discipleship and personal mentorship for students but not your own kids?

Wrestling with questions like these during our two years in Zambia proved to be profoundly formational  for us – as a couple, as a growing family, as followers of Jesus.  We would not trade the experience for anything – and we always encourage young couples, including our own kids, to have some kind of cross-cultural experience – mission trips, travel, sponsoring a third world child – even if they don’t ever live cross-culturally as we did.  Learning that Jesus is Lord in any and every place on this planet – and that the Jesus journey quite often doesn’t look like what we’re used to as western disciples – this is a priceless lesson and a gift beyond measure.

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  1. Wow. What an eye-opening experience you had, on lots of levels. Thanks for cracking it open here. You bring so many questions to the surface, and none have easy answers. What looks “right” to one family or believer may be definitely wrong to another. Thank God for His gracious patience with us! And thank YOU for participating in our challenge. You blessed me with your contribution!

  2. You’re welcome – and you’re right – there are no easy answers. Not then, not now. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in your great site – even though I am no longer gainfully employed. Retired from 17 years as a staff pastor in December, so now I’m searching through the wonderful world of blogland, trying to figure out a way to answer what seems to be a call from God to write, to tell my story(ies) and to offer encouragement through this new kind of community. Your ezine is a bright light, that’s for sure. Enjoyed reading your bio, too!


  3. This is almost like the outline of the first few chapters of a memoir! Having married into a missionary family, I am intrigued by your observations and how certain choices affected you so profoundly.

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating, culturally rich part of your life story with us through the Crossing Cultures writing project.

  4. Thanks, Ann – it was fun to have the challenge of writing about those years. And I’d love to do something like a memoir someday – just maybe I’ll have some time to think that through in retirement…

    I appreciate this opportunity that The High Calling has offered us to think and write about moving across barriers. Probably THE most important topic of this generation. It will be interesting to see how wide the variety of topics becomes. I’m thinking about doing another one about entering seminary at the age of 44!

    Thanks for reading and thanks especially for commenting.

  5. Hi. I was just looking through some blogs online,after checking on my own, and found your page. I read a little bit, and was able to read the post you made about living in Zambia. Well, I am a college student and raising money to go to Lusaka this summer for a missions trip. I was just wondering if you could possibly share any stories/pointers/expectations? I’ve never been to Africa before and sometimes I think my imagination runs a bit wild. And I think I would just like to connect with a Godly opinion about it. 🙂

  6. Tana,

    I would be happy to try and help you navigate this important step in your life – but please remember – I was last in Lusaka 43 YEARS AGO. So much has changed in these decades that I’m not sure I could give you anything in the way of specifics.

    But this much I can say:
    anywhere you go, you go with God.
    Anywhere you live, you will find some semblance of Christian community.
    Any time you take a risk for the sake of the gospel, you will be rewarded and blessed in ways you cannot now imagine.

    So GO, place your imagination and your fears in God’s capable and trustworthy hands and keep your eyes, your hands and your mind wide open to what God is up to halfway around the world.

    I think you will be just stunned at how people who have very little physically/financially can have robust, active, joyful lives – giving praise to God for every gift received. It will change you forever, I promise.

    Hopefully, you’re going with a team of some kind – find a good companion or two and talk through what you see and experience. Journal about it. Take lots of photos. I’d love to hear from you when you get back – or even before you go if you’d like more conversation. My email address is

    Many, many blessings,


  7. I am a new reader here. I found my here from your posts on Jaime the Very Worst Missionary. And I am amazed by this post. I am a Spanish teacher and I have traveled a few times as part of my Spanish learning. Being a Christian during those trips, certainly colored my view of what I saw. I am always trying to find ways to share with others the things that I have seen and the ways I have seen God work in these places that are so not American. God is not American, nor is He democratic in governmental persuasion. So often we forget that. Being open to seeing God is so hard for us when we can’t get our own selves, including our culture, out of the way. I find myself wrestling with this so often. It is wonderful to hear someone else speak of their struggles as well. Thank you.

  8. Andrea,

    Thank you for your kind words and for making the trek over here all the way from Jamie’s blog! It is lovely to see a person of your young age with such a clear understanding about the hard truth that importing western culture along with the gospel is ultimately detrimental to that gospel. I appreciate your stopping by – blessings as you teach and as you travel!