Below is a story from a recent short-term art as mission trip we took from our US office to support long-term work in North Africa. One of our trip participants shares some of his experience with a new, different culture.
The United States tends to be solidly monolingual.
Sure, you’ll sometimes encounter Spanish and if you’re in the right places, you can find some speakers of other languages (Italian in New York or French/Creole in Louisiana, for example).
Generally speaking, however, Americans speak English and that’s about it.
Yet in the course of a single day in North Africa, I witnessed as many as seven distinct languages being spoken.
One of my friends and I randomly broke out in Spanish conversation when we felt inclined, so that accounts for the Spanish. My friend also occasionally decided to start speaking to me only in Turkish when he wanted to be difficult or amusing, so that accounts for the Turkish. As for the English, that one is a bit obvious.
As for the rest….
Our day started with a prayer meeting and worship session with a Korean team of missionaries. This was one of the most amazing and powerful things I have ever encountered. As we gathered to fellowship and pray in their living room, all who were present spent some time pouring out their hearts to God. The Korean team prayed in Korean while we prayed in English. It occurred to me then that, while we might be separated and divided by culture, language, background, and experience, we were united by something far deeper, more important, more meaningful, and more lasting.
From the Korean team’s apartment, we went to a nearby language school. There we spent time speaking with local students who were learning English. These students came from all different regions, which meant they spoke French, Arabic, and multiple local dialects. They were studying a wide variety of subjects and were all different ages from varied backgrounds- a 23 year old biology major from the mountains, a 19 year old law student who grew up in a big city, an almost 30 year old woman back in school for the second time majoring in general studies.
Each had also attained a different level of English fluency. In interacting with the students, I had some of the most genuinely pleasant conversations I’d had in a while. Many of them were excited to meet “real Americans”. They went to great lengths to make sure that we were happy in North Africa. They assured us that their homes were our homes, that they would do anything to ensure that we were entitled to the benefits of North African hospitality.
It hit me at one point that we were the first Americans many of these students had ever met and that, in spending time with them, were were forming and shaping their perspectives and assumptions regarding American culture and Americans as a whole. No pressure, right?
Our time at the language school was, in my opinion, the best part of the trip. I made new friends, real friends; people with whom I would like to stay in touch, and people who I would enjoy going back to visit again. I was in more selfies in a single day than I had been in over the course of my entire life previously. I had the opportunity to show others what it means to be an American and, more importantly, what it means to be a follower of Christ. This is because I met and interacted with those who had potentially never met a Christian before.
Something about the implications and weight that go along with being the first, the one who makes an impression and helps form perceptions, was special to me. In demonstrating a loving and Christ-like attitude, even in small ways, we were planting seeds that may eventually be harvested years from now. That is, after all, the purpose of our mission and this trip.