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Contrast of Cultures

In 2007 my wife and I landed in Kigali, Rwanda where we had set out to become missionaries. Upon our arrival, we discovered a Rwanda that was still trying to recover from the atrocity of the 1994 genocide. We quickly met countless Rwandans searching for answers to unanswerable questions caused by the tragedy of ‘94. Thankfully, our role as missionaries wasn’t to answer the unanswerable questions as much as it was to enter into those questions with the Rwandan people and to try to discover the Gospel amidst them. This would mean that we would need to embody the perspectives and perceptions of the Rwandan people, and that we would need to learn, and ultimately live, into their culture.

Rwanda, like roughly 80% of the world, is a collectivistic culture which is radically different from our highly individualistic Western world and culture. From an early age, my Western worldview had taught me that “who I am” is a unique expression of “me” as an individual. For Rwandans; however, sense of “self” is inseparably related to who they are in community, not just who they are as individuals. Individualism emphasizes “I” consciousness, autonomy and individual initiative, while collectivism stresses “we” consciousness, group solidarity, and social obligations.

The awareness of collectivism inevitably led to a watershed of discoveries with regard to the many honor/shame dynamics that animated the Rwandan culture. For instance, we in the West understand the primary goal of communication as the transfer of information, but in Rwanda I learned (the hard way) that people use communication primarily to maintain and manage relationships. That is, they see truth in communication as defined relationally, not just logically, and they communicate indirectly as opposed to directly like we do in the West.

In the early years, this would mean that anytime I shared one of my great ideas I would pretty much always be initially received with eager and exuberant acceptance to only later discover that they didn’t always think my ideas were that great after all. For example, at one point we had the brilliant idea of starting a wedding dress shop. There was a huge demand for the rental of Western wedding dresses. We figured that if we could tap into this market that we would create a sustainable way to generate income that could provide for the ministry our Rwandan brothers and sisters were doing. We presented the idea and received an enthusiastic go ahead from our Rwandan partners. We collected donated wedding dresses from overly sentimental donors in the States, and even provided the start-up money for the business.

After all the work, and several months of lackluster business, we were shocked to discover that our Rwandan partners didn’t share the vision. At first, this felt like dishonesty when reflecting on the enthusiastic acknowledgement we had initially received, until we learned that we had been playing two fundamentally different games when it came to communication. Rwandans communicate indirectly in order to mitigate causing shame. My direct communication had made it almost impossible for my Rwandan partners to disagree in a culturally appropriate way. In their mind, their agreement was a gesture of honor and respect, not approval. It turns out that my overly direct communication had itself become an obstacle to “truth” rather than a vehicle for it like my Western worldview had taught me!

These realizations ultimately led me to understanding the Gospel in new and invigorating ways. My Western culture had taught me that the Gospel was primarily an issue of individual guilt, whereas my Rwandan brothers and sisters understood the Gospel from the perspective of shame. Guilt, it has often been said, is the feeling that “I did something wrong,” whereas shame is the feeling that “I am something wrong.” One can be individually pardoned for what one has done, but that does not necessarily restore the sense of worthiness in community that our Rwandan friends were so longing for. Overcoming shame would require a remaking and transformation of the self, and I quickly learned that this would demand presenting the good news of the Gospel as much more than just the acquittal of individual guilt.

The genocide had created a huge victim complex in Rwanda in which many Rwandans had become known for what they weren’t rather than for what they were. It was a land full of orphans and widows, perpetrators and prisoners; a people whose primary problem wasn’t that of material poverty, but that of shame, humiliation and isolation. This was a people hungry for dignity and a renewed sense of worth and status. The government had launched a “re-dignification” campaign (Ndumunyarwanda) and an “honor” (Agaciro) fund in an effort to rebrand their communal identity, but we knew that it was only in response to Christ that one ultimately comes to re-understand their worth and identity as children of God. Our understanding of the Gospel expanded. Christ bore our shame in order to confer the honor of the status of children of God!

To conclude, Leslie Newbigin, a renowned missionary to India from last century, claimed that “mission is not a one-way promotion, but a two-way encounter in which we learn more of what the Gospel means.” Our work and encounter with the people and culture of Rwanda has taught us much about what the Gospel is and how we might live into it.

After living and serving as missionaries in Rwanda for 13 years, Caleb and his family are, at the time of this blog post, returning to the States for several months before following God's calling to the next chapter of their life. We have been blessed to know them as friends and neighbors and will miss them greatly. Thank you Beck Family for the endless hours of cultural coaching, love, laughs, and memories. We love you guys!

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