“Culturally Competent” Yet Still on the Outside

This last week, Dave’s drafting team was working in our village. Watching them work and talk, I was reminded how I have come to consider them to be some of my closest friends. We are united in the Lord, in the work, and in our love for one another. During our shared meal, this group of guys started telling some of their traditional folktales, full of wild arm movements, animal imitations, and silly faces. They were cracking up to the point of crying, sometimes having a hard time getting the words out, and slapping each other on the back for stories well told.

I wanted so much to join the fun, but I am sad to say that I couldn’t follow the stories very well. Frankly, even if I had understood them, I probably wouldn’t have tracked with the humor. It was as if there was a glass separating me from them. I wanted to be on the inside and participate, but my cultural background prevented me from experiencing the camaraderie. It really isn’t a big deal – I love seeing them have a good time, even if I remain on the outside. However, scenarios like these are a constant reminder that I’ll never belong here. They are a constant reminder of the cost of following Jesus to Cameroon.

The apostle Peter once reminded Jesus that he had left everything to follow him. Jesus responded by saying:

“…there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” Mark 10:29-30

Jesus is here promising that the costs we pay for his Kingdom will never go unrewarded. This promise has already proven true in my life. I call a Kwakum woman “mother” and she considers my children to be her grandchildren. I have Cameroonian brothers and sisters in abundance. I have a great house with beautiful flowers all around it, and hundreds of children who are in some way my own.

Yet the Lord keeps giving me painful reminders that this world (no matter who much adapting I have done) should never feel like home. But the Bible tells me that that’s OK because…

No One Knows Me Like God Does

In language learning, I have found that there are limits to the patience of man. They might ask me to repeat what I am trying to say a couple of times, but everyone eventually gets fed up and gives up. I can’t blame them – I do the same thing. Yet the Lord says in Psalm 139:4 “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.”

People often misunderstand me, but the Lord knows my thoughts and my heart without me even opening my mouth. This same psalm says:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me!  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar” (vv 1-2)

We as Westerners in this African context can learn the proper way to give a gift. We can wear the right kind of fabrics. We can learn to sit without crossing our legs. Yet there will always be a distance between us and the Kwakum. However, that kind of distance will never separate us from God. Relationships can go from warm to cold. Feelings of cultural competence ebb and flow, but the Lord is always an intimate friend. He is hyper-aware of our every action and thought. We can never find that kind of intimacy among the people we serve, and we shouldn’t try to.

We Proclaim NOT Ourselves

It has been such a joy to become close to people in Cameroon. However, my closest friends here would not understand if I spoke to them in my mother-tongue. They don’t know my family, my birthday, what sports I did in high school. They couldn’t tell you why we chose to adopt, why we decided to go into missions, what kind of education we’ve received, or when I first believed in Christ. Most of them don’t even know my real name (I go by Amélie here). Can you call people your closest friends when they know so very little about you?

Well, if our mission here were to have close friends, then we would be utterly disappointed. However, we did not come here so the people could know everything about us. Paul says,

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” 2 Corinthians 4:5

We are not here to talk about us, our culture, our preferences, or what brings us joy. We are here to say that Jesus Christ is Lord. When that is our goal, we realize that we can, by God’s grace, fulfill what we have come here to do, even when the path is lonely.

Jesus is Preparing a Place for ME

Missionary life is confusing. Truth is, I don’t feel at home anymore in the States, but I also don’t feel at home in Cameroon. And then, I do feel at home in the States, and in some ways I do feel at home here. What a wonderful, confusing, messy ball of emotions! A messy ball of emotions that has led me again and again to the realization that this world is not my home.

CS Lewis said:

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Sickness, suffering, danger, and discomfort (of which missionaries tend to be allotted an extra portion) force us to deal with a transcendent reality: We are not made for this world. America and Cameroon will never feel like home, because we do not belong here. The pangs and confusions of “missionary life” are meant to remind us that Jesus is custom-preparing a specific place for each of us: a place where we belong. I want to grow in competence in this culture. I want to understand and be understood, but Dimako will never be the place that God has prepared for me.

I like to imagine about what it will be like to arrive in Heaven. How will Christ greet us? I prefer to think he will greet me in some mixture of French, Kwakum, and English. Not just any mixture, but the perfect mixture that best matches what only Christ knows about me. I know I can come to HIM to be perfectly understood. I think we will laugh together, and cry some too. But then, he’ll be there to wipe away every tear. Whether he greets me like this, or in some better way I can’t imagine, I know that when I do arrive, I will finally be home.


Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.