by David M. Howard
There’s no getting around it—I am a WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant). No matter how hard I might try to identify myself with another culture, which all missionaries are supposed to do, I am still a WASP.
There’s no getting around it—I am a WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant). No matter how hard I might try to identify myself with another culture, which all missionaries are supposed to do, I am still a WASP. We all have been exhorted ad infinitum to identify with the culture to which we are called, and we try our best to do so. But there are God-given limitations beyond which we cannot go.
Let me explain. Why am I white? God made me that color. I had no choice in the matter, any more than someone else had a choice in being black, brown, yellow or red. Why am I Anglo Saxon? God chose my parents, I didn’t. Those points were all decided by God. I cannot rebel against what God has made me, but I must proceed within the limitations that he has placed upon me.
But what about Protestant? Yes, I had a choice there. I could be Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic or any other possible religious position. But I have chosen voluntarily to be Protestant. Let’s narrow that down to mean a born-again, evangelical follower of Jesus Christ. That is my choice, and I will not turn from it nor will I be ashamed of it.
Unfortunately the word WASP is always used in a pejorative, negative way. I have never heard it used positively. Supposedly there is something evil about being a WASP, but why? Didn’t God choose the first three parts of that word for me? And didn’t I voluntarily choose the fourth part? So why should anyone cast a guilt trip on me for being a WASP? This is not to say that I agree with everything WASPs have ever done. But that is a totally different matter. I am talking about identification.
One year in Colombia, where I was serving as field director of our ministry, I watched with dismay as two different missionaries collapsed under a breakdown. In both cases it was caused by an undue effort to identify with the culture by pretending not to be what they really were, while trying to be something they could never be. Let me explain.
REACTING TO RACISM
One was a new missionary who only spent a total of six months on the field. She was a blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned damsel from the southern US who was reacting against the racism she had seen in her own state. This reaction was commendable, but her way of handling it was flawed. She decided that the rest of us missionaries were mistaken in how we identified with our national brothers and sisters. She was determined to correct this and show us how it should be done. Her way of doing this was sad to watch.
In a period of four months she came three times to my office to inform me that God was leading her to marry a certain young man. The strange thing was that each time it was a different young man. In each case he was very dark-skinned, and each man was significantly darker than the previous one. Obviously the young lady felt that by marrying a very dark-skinned national, she would bury the fact that she was a WASP and would thus identify properly with the culture. Predictably the nationals did not accept this at all. They saw through the superficial effort to identify, and they did not accept her as one of their own. By her own choice she separated herself from her fellow missionaries. Consequently she had nowhere to go, no one with whom to identify, and no support group.
The result was a nervous breakdown caused largely by creating an internal conflict that she tried to solve superficially. She pretended to be something that she could never be (a dark-skinned national) and pretended not to be what God had made her. After six months we had to send her back to the US for medical and psychological help. She never returned to the field.
ATTACKING FELLOW ANGLOS
The other missionary was a veteran of twenty-five years of wonderful service on the field. She was greatly loved by the nationals. Her Spanish, while grammatically correct, was woefully deficient in accent, but this did not bother the nationals at all. They knew she loved them and they loved her. They never thought of her as a WASP, although she, like the other young lady, had blond hair, blue eyes and white skin.
But for some unfortunate reason she suddenly decided that the rest of us were mistaken in how we identified with the culture. She attempted to correct this by separating herself from her fellow missionaries and attacking them publicly. She seemed to feel that if she attacked the Anglo-Saxons, the Colombians would begin to see her as Colombian. What she failed to realize was that she had long since been totally accepted by the Colombians, because she loved them and gave herself unstintingly to their needs.
When she began to act differently, the nationals could not figure out what she was doing.
They seemed to say, “What gives with our dear friend? Why is she attacking her fellow missionaries? We love her, and she is one of us. But she doesn’t need to act like this.”
The sad result in her case was similar to that of the other lady mentioned above. She created within herself a conflict with which she could not cope. By choice she gave up her identity as a missionary and pretended to be what she never could. It was not long before she also suffered a breakdown and had to be sent back to the US for help.
Thankfully, in this lady’s case, she did recover her emotional and spiritual stability and remained in a friendly relationship with the mission. However, she never was able to return to the field.
In contrast to these two ladies, I could list dozens of others whom God has used wonderfully over the years. These others have accepted who they are by God’s choice and have moved ahead with an effective ministry.
ACCEPTING GOD-GIVEN LIMITS
When my sister, Elisabeth Elliot, went to live with the Auca Indians who had murdered her husband, she wanted to identify with their culture. However, she quickly realized that there were limitations beyond which she could not go. She is tall, blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned. The Aucas are short, black-haired, with copper-colored skin. Hudson Taylor had decided to wear the clothing of the Chinese as part of his effort to identify. This was commendable. But how was Elisabeth Elliot to identify with the Aucas’ clothing? The fact was that they wore no clothes. Should she identify with the culture in that aspect? Certainly not. When she went down to the river to brush her teeth each morning, half the tribe tagged along to watch this unique operation. She realized that she was attracting much unwanted attention by something that was irrelevant to the gospel. Should she stop brushing her teeth so as not to attract such attention? If she did, she would lose her teeth. So she chose not to identify on that level.
The Aucas live in houses with no walls, so they gave Elisabeth a structure of just a roof held up by posts. We westerners take walls for granted. But try to think of living 24/7/365 without walls. The Aucas scrutinized every movement that Elisabeth made day and night. Two young fellows constructed a platform outside her “house” from which they could look down into her dwelling and observe everything she did. In the morning when they saw her rising, they shouted to the entire tribe “She’s getting up now!” As she dressed they kept the tribe informed of her progress. This continued throughout the day and parts of the night. She had no privacy of any sort.
The time finally came when Elisabeth realized that for her own sanity she must have some walls and thus a bit of needed privacy. So after nine months of living without walls, she had the Indians build some walls to preserve her emotional stability, even though this meant that she was not identifying with their way of living in that aspect.
I once visited Elisabeth when she was living in that remote jungle village. It was obvious that she stood out like a sore thumb physically, with her height, blue eyes, blond hair and white skin. But it was also evident that she was succeeding in winning their love and confidence. By relating to the Aucas in areas where she could and by serving them with love, Elisabeth earned their trust.
When Paul said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22), he surely realized that there were God-given limitations within which he must operate, even while he did his best to identify with those he wished to win. Consequently, as missionaries who wish to identify with the culture to which we are called, we do well to recognize those limitations, not fret about them, and get on with the job.
Yes, a WASP can identify with another culture, as long as we recognize what God has made us (which cannot be changed) and move ahead with love and understanding in our relationship with those to whom we minister.
David Howard is former president of Latin America Mission.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 178-181. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.