This guest blog post is from Eddie Arthur
In the late 1980s, Sue and I, with our two small boys, found ourselves living in the village of Gouabafla deep in the West African rainforest. We were there to help the local church translate the New Testament into the Kouya language, but before we could think about any ministry, we had to work out how to survive. We were in an entirely new situation, we didn’t know anyone and we didn’t speak the language, though we could communicate with a few people in French.
In some ways, the situation that we found ourselves in as we set off on our adventure as Bible translators is analogous to where we find ourselves today as we explore life and ministry in lockdown. It’s true that we don’t have to learn a new language today and that we are not surrounded by strangers, but we do have to learn how to live in community and to play our role in God’s mission in a very different cultural context to the one that we’ve known up till now. I believe that the lessons that cross-cultural missionaries have learned (and some of the mistakes that they have made) can help us as we navigate this new situation and I’d like to share a few ideas that may (or may not) be helpful.
Going out to Ivory Coast was a proactive step; we’d spent three and a half years in training and preparation, but that was only the start. We were there to translate the Scriptures for a group with a very small, first-generation church. A British family moving into an isolated village was a bit of novelty and for a while, we functioned as something a tourist attraction, with villagers bringing friends to look at us and to talk about our strange habits. However, it soon became obvious that if we wanted to get to know people, both Christians and the wider community, we would have to go and meet them.
Each evening, when people were returning from the fields, we would walk round the village, greeting people, sitting around their cooking fires, chatting to them in our limited Kouya and slowly, oh so slowly, building relationships and friendships. There is nothing quite so embarrassing for an adult as to wander round an African village forcing yourself to speak a language that you barely get by in and knowing that people are laughing at all of your mistakes. It was humiliating; however we could never have built the relationships that were necessary or learned enough of the Kouya language and culture without those daily forays into the village. We didn’t need to do that stuff at home, but we did in our new culture.
Likewise, in the new digital, world of the Covid pandemic, we need to be much more proactive in making contacts and building relationships than we ever were in the old world (and we needed to be more proactive there than most of us realised. It is important that we reach out to people, to spend time with them and to maintain relationships even through the strange, liminal existence of lockdown and beyond. In this strange world, we won’t just bump into people at work, at church or on the street. If we are to make and maintain contacts, we have to work at it. This will mean being proactive about inviting people for a Zoom coffee, a WhatsApp glass of wine or a socially distanced walk in the park. This doesn’t come natural to many of us and for those who, like me, are introverts, organising a meeting with friends can be very stressful, but we need to take the first steps.
One of the great things about the current situation (if I can put it that way) is that many people are crying out for contact and an invitation to meet friends, even if it is only via a screen is likely to meet a deep-seated need. In reality, we have more opportunities today to spend time with friends – than most of us have had for years. But those opportunities only exist if we are proactive and take them up. This leads to a related lesson.
Do what you can when you can
It would be years before we had learned enough about the Kouya language and culture to take an active part in the Bible translation project. However, we were able to start serving the Kouya community right from the start of our time there. From the very first week, I found myself being called on to preach. I would speak in French with translation into Kouya. We also spent time providing some basic first-aid services to people. We made tons of mistakes and we got things wrong, but we served people and we started to build relationships.
Don’t feel that you have to wait until you have mastered some of the video technology or you have a good reason to call a friend, reach out to them and meet up online even if you don’t have a lot to say. Oh, and if you find video calls difficult, the telephone still works and it is fine just to chat. You wouldn’t expect to share everything you believe with your friends every time you meet for a drink, so don’t feel under pressure to do that when you meet online – but take the opportunities that come when they come. Listen and Learn.
We made some huge mistakes in our early days in Kouyaland. We had our share of embarrassing linguistic faux pas, but we also seriously offended some people because we acted according to British culture, rather than the Kouya one. At times we came across as extremely unkind and unfriendly, even though that was far from our intention. It was really important to have good Kouya friends and confidents who could explain to us what we had done wrong and why it was offensive.
The same sort of thing can occur in online interactions. We don’t get the same feedback on screen as we do face-to-face and we can easy give a false impression if we are not careful. This is particularly important for those who are leading online church services. Even if services are broadcast on Zoom rather than streamed via YouTube, there is very little direct feedback from the online congregation. This means that you have no idea how well you are communicating or to what extent the congregation are engaging with what you are saying. Little things can make a big difference; Christian jargon which seems just about OK in the context of a normal service, can seem completely weird online.
Pull together a small group of trusted friends who will give you honest, regular feedback on how you are coming across and take their input seriously. Be Gracious In the new Culture. For the first few years living among the Kouya, we felt constantly on edge. Generally, it wasn’t the big issues that really troubled us, it was little things that got right under our skin. If you help a Kouya person or give something to them, they are unlikely to say thank you immediately. I understood that, I knew what was happening, but I had to struggle to stop myself from getting irritated whenever this happened because my inbuilt expectation is that if you help someone, they will thank you.
What the Kouya do, is to bring a delegation to your house at dawn the next day and they thank you en masse for your help. To be honest, being confronted by a large group of grateful people before I’ve had my morning coffee is not my favourite thing. Kouya culture expresses gratitude in a different, but more expressive fashion than my British culture – but that didn’t stop me getting irritated twice! It wasn’t enough to know what was happening, I had to self-consciously deal with my emotions and my reaction. Eventually, this self-discipline transitioned to appreciation (though I never actually enjoyed being woken up first thing).
In this new culture, where most people are already dealing with a heightened level of chronic stress, impatience and frustration are part and parcel of our experience of community. It is impossible to do something that will please everyone all of the time and all of us will go through periods of culture shock. Be patient with one another. Recognise what people are aiming to achieve and the constraints that they are living with and cut them a bit of slack if what they do frustrates you. I kept a diary of our very first encounter with the Kouya which is available here if you are interested.
I’ve worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators since the mid 1980s. During that time, I’ve been part of a translation team in Ivory Coast and served in a variety of training and leadership roles in Africa and Europe; including a stint as CEO of Wycliffe in the UK.
These days, I spend my time researching and writing about mission agencies and mission theology. I believe passionately, that the British church needs to re-evaluate the way in which it goes about world mission if it is to be relevant in the 21st Century.