by Terri A. Gibbs
Since the days of Abraham, God has been calling men to leave their familiar surroundings, their place of belonging, to move out into the unknown, to a new place.
Since the days of Abraham, God has been calling men to leave their familiar surroundings, their place of belonging, to move out into the unknown, to a new place. Abraham was called to leave his home in the beautiful land of Ur to become a sojourner. Moses was called to leave his comfortable life in Midian to share the hardships of wilderness wandering with the children of Israel.
Jesus, who left his home at the age of thirty, traveled throughout the land making himself available to the needy. He called upon his disciples to do the same. Simon and Andrew left their fishing nets beside the sea. Matthew left his tax collection booth. God calls us to go into all the unfamiliar world.
Embarking upon a new life in a new place, missionaries leave their familiar place of belonging. This involves more than just leaving a home country. It means leaving behind the familiar world of childhood, the world of family and friends, the familiar environment, culture, and traditions. This detachment is not easy.
In his book, A Place For You, Dr. Paul Tournier writes with keen insight about the effects of being "uprooted," of losing the place where we have belonged. He explains that man was created to need a "place." Adam was given the Garden of Eden. But "place" is more than an acre of land. Adam was also given Eve. Place includes all that affects man’s being, that gives him a sense of belonging. It is the comfort of familiarity, family, friends, health, religion, etc. Man is attached to the place where he feels he belongs. It becomes an important support for his life. Anything that affects his place affects his person.1
When taken from his place, man experiences pain. Numerous passages in the Psalms and Prophets express the nostalgic woe and grief of the Israelites at leaving their homeland, at living in the land of the Babylonians. They long for Jerusalem. They long for the temple. Dreaming of the happiness of the past they wonder if God has forsaken them. They are not content in their new environment.
The pain of separation from our customary place affects our reaction to a new place. Moving from the familiar environment means losing a support we had leaned upon, perhaps even more strongly than suspected. With the loss of this support there is bound to be a sense of panic. A struggling to cope with change.
The new missionary, adjusting to life in a new culture and environment, finds himself confronted with this struggle. He feels inundated with a strange discontentment. His reactions seem biased and overly judgmental. The houses and villages, which at first seemed quaint and interesting, are soon seen more realistically to be dirty and strange. He feels ill at ease with his obvious separateness from the people. The differences seem to multiply daily, becoming increasingly important.
Sadly, he finds himself habitually critical of local habits and customs. He feels guilty and battles with depression. Eventually, nothing in the culture so shocks him as his own attitudes. Confused, he is afraid and wants to go "home," back to the familiar environment. Like a tender plant reported, he is suffering, not so much from the shock of the new soil as from the whole process of being uprooted and transplanted. It is a time of transition. He is experiencing grief at leaving the familiar place, uneasiness at being without a "place," and anxiety over finding a new "place of belonging." He needs to feel that this new environment is his place also. That it can be a meaningful place of belonging for him.
The new missionary will most quickly and adequately feel a part of the new place as he endeavors to personalize the new environment in both private and public realms. The new environment seems strange and foreign. He can make it seem like "home." New places and faces are different and seem threatening. He can reach out to leave his warm personal touch on lives and lands.
Detachment is painful and attachment can be even more so. Carlyle Marney, in Structures of Prejudice, explains that men tend to withdraw to the safety of the known when they are baffled by the new, especially in situations of stress and frustration in the presence of the unfamiliar. 2 However, the process of attachment, of personalizing the new environment, can be simplified by working within the framework of a defined procedure. Listed below is a brief guideline for personalizing the new environment. It will help you achieve a sense of belonging in the new place.
PERSONALIZING THE PRIVATE ENVIRONMENT
To the Zuni Indians in New Mexico their mud huts are "koowi" the center of the earth.3 Wherever we may find ourselves, home is the center of that world. This is where we begin personalizing the environment, drawing from the resources of familiar things. Don’t leave everything back "home." Be sure to take that old junk along. Without it you create an unnecessary handicap. You’ll be setting out to win the Henry Royal Regatta without an oar.
1. You can take a little bit of "home" with you wherever you go. Grandma’s picture, Aunt Sally’s old lace doily. Just a few treasured belongings from the familiar place can quickly make the new environment seem your own. Pastures, paintings, books, bedspreads, tennis rackets. I know one couple who are so crazy about peanut butter that the first thing into the moving van as without fail their "Super Duper Peanut-Butter Maker." My mother never closes her suitcase until her favorite little throw rug has been included. "So I can feel home beneath my toes first thing every morning."
2. Make yourself at home. Any nook, cranny, mud hut or bamboo bungalow. Paint the walls, arrange your favorite books on the table. Buy a bird. Plant a flower, or a tree. Add your personal touches and you will feel this new place is your own.
3. Take personal customs and traditions with you. The continued observance of-these practices will make you feel less estranged. Edith Schaeffer suggests. "Choose one or two things to become a family tradition and whatever else is done, always do that special thing as well, year after year."4
Traditions are important in binding families together. They dive a sense of unity and continuity. Children love traditions and private family customs, on special holidays or any day of the week. For them especially, in the new environment, these customary observances can be a strong factor in feeling secure and welcome. Our children look forward to pancakes and peaches for Saturday breakfast. It’s our lazy morning ritual. When we move I make it top priority to hunt down the necessary ingredients so that Saturday will still be our "lazy pancake day."
Whether a family or a single individual, you will have favorite habits, hobbies or activities that can be a big help in personalizing your new environment. Doing the things that you especially like to do is good therapy any time, any place, but particularly when you ate feeling a stranger in a strange place.
PERSONALIZING THE PUBLIC ENVIRONMENT
The new missionary can take advantage of many unique opportunities in the public environment to make himself feel "at home." He can broaden the scope of his life style, incorporating indigenous customs and habits from the new culture. He can find new friends, enjoyable in their distinctiveness. He can give the beneficial contribution of himself and his time, finding that in giving he has received a new sense of belonging.
1. It is important to be able to speak the language well if you want to feel you belong. Whether it be discourse or dialogue, in order for communication to be effective, the language used must be mutually comprehensible to both listener and speaker. This includes verbal and nonverbal communication. When you can communicate successfully in the speech patterns of the new en- vironment you will feel at ease and will be prepared to contribute to the community. Remember, you can get by with the weekly shopping list and local street names, but you will always feel a visitor. You will never feel you belong. And how can you tell them God is love?
2. Maintain a movable circumference; develop a growing circle of friends. You can choose to retire in dull seclusion from the people in your new environment or you can make the initial deposit on enjoyable current friendships. Requiring the use of a second language, this may call for extra effort but be assured it is worth every drop of frustration. You gain new friends and improved language ability. To be at home in a new environment is to be at home with the people. To be accepted and welcomed by them, be their friend.
"But we have nothing in common," you may say. Develop areas of mutual interest. I cherish fond memories of happy hours spent with Mariza, a young Tzeltal girl in Chiapas, Mexico. She patiently taught me how to make tortillas and I, in exchange, taught her how to embroider.
In The Friendship Factor McGinnis distinguishes four requirements for friendship which are particularly appropriate for inter-cultural relationships: (1) Employ the language of acceptance. (2) Encourage your friends to be unique. (3) Be liberal with praise. (4) Take time to talk.5 The Bible reminds us that "A friend loveth at all times" (Prov. 17:17). This is the essence of THE CROSS-cultural communication.
3. Participate in community events. Wherever Christ went, he walked among the people. He was involved in their everyday lives. As you take an interest in what is going on in the new community, be it a village, district, hamlet or city, you will feel a vital part of the new environment. Active participation within the environment will give your relationship with the people depth and validity. Not only will you feel you belong in this new place, but they will feel you belong; that you are not such an unusual stranger after all.
My dad didn’t have to work long to gain acceptance among the Juma Indians of Brazil. Soon after moving to live among them he agreed to spend a dark, solitary night standing guard at one of their hunting stations deep in the jungle. They were content that he was willing to participate in tribal activities, sheerly gleeful when his vigil proved fruitful. He bagged a monstrous tapir.
4. Customs and traditions from the new culture that you can comfortably adopt as your "own" mill help you to feel you belong. Learning new traits, new foods, new habits of dress and incorporating them into your personal life style can be an exciting challenge. Depending upon your spirit of adventure this may be a matter of adaptation rather than adoption out right, but even with the smallest act of acceptance you will feel less a stranger.
Doing things "their way" will wonderfully uncomplicate your life, helping you to feel more at ease in the new environment. At first things will seem odd and impractical, but give them a try. You may just find that a hammock really is more comfortable. And you can hang it anywhere.
5. Maintain a clear sense of direction; have a definite system of long-range and short-range goals. If you are responsible to a higher authority, ask for a well-defined job assignment. Having a specific task to perform in the new environment will help you feel necessary to that environment. This will lessen the strain of uncertainty. Having definite goals to accomplish will define your purpose for being in the new place. Given the opportunity to make a valuable contribution in the completion of these goals, you will feel a viral part of God’s work in the new place. You will feel it is your place, that you belong.
Moving to an unfamiliar environment, the new missionary understandably experiences strain and frustration, feeling "out of place. " More accurately he is in between places – gone from the familiar place and not yet "at home" in the new place. The temptation is to sit in quiet stagnation, longing miserably for the lost place of belonging. To overcome his sense of loss, the new missionary needs to step out boldly in an effort to personalize the new environment, to make it, in part, his own. He will find that he does indeed come to feel "at home."
God has a unique purpose for our lives. It is important to have a "place of belonging," but more important to have the place God has willed for us. When God moves us from our familiar place to a new place he will help us to let go o£’ the past and accept the new. This process in life is like a trapeze artist’s act. "We must always be letting go what we have acquired, and acquiring what we did not possess, leaving one place in order to find another, abandoning one support in order to reach another, turning our backs on the past m order to thrust wholeheartedly towards the future."6
1. A Place For You, Paul Tournier (Harper and Row, New York, N.Y., 1968).
2. Structures of Prejudice, Carlyle Marney (Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tenn., 1961).
3. 1bid., page 93.
4. What Is a Family?, Edith Schaeffer (Fleming H. Revell Company, Old Tappan, N.J., 1975), page 192.
5. The Friendship Factor, Alan Loy McGinnis (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, Minn., 1979).
6. 0p. Cit., Tournier, page 164.
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