Cross-Cultural Observations… at Wal-Mart

Last weekend I devoted myself to reading a book by Duane Elmer called “Cross-Cultural Servanthood” for the next step in my Core Training for Christian Associates. I was preparing my assignments and reports for the “Culture” module of our training and the book was required reading. So I hesitantly put aside my dislike for books and engaged the written enemy for six or seven hours over three days. By the time I finished, I was glad I had read the darn thing. Elmer was a missionary to Southern Africa for years and had many stories to tell about how misunderstood missionaries can be when they fail to properly prepare for their new culture. For example, if a missionary comes into a new culture with an attitude of, “I’m the teacher, they’re the pupil,” the missionary will often be thought of as arrogant. Or if they fail to learn the gestures, customs and histories of a culture, they also will struggle to be accepted. So Elmer proposes a number of ways for missionaries (and believers in general) to approach living in another culture, whether it is Africa or that neighborhood across town. Everything starts in the minds and hearts of the missionary. Developing an attitude of openness, acceptance, trust and learning goes a long way to serving effectively in another culture. As I read, I easily recognized the good and the bad in myself. For example, I find myself too quick to judge based on appearance and too quick to enforce black and white rules in a gray zone. I have a critical nature and that needs to go. I’m getting better but have a lot of growing to do.

In our Culture module of the core training, we walked through the steps that Elmer proposes one by one. One of them deals with observation. I like observation. When I was in Glasgow and Edinburgh, for example, I spent hours walking the streets merely observing. In fact, I spent an entire day doing nothing but traveling around Glasgow and observing. It proved to be a very helpful day in my acclimation to Scottish culture. But Elmer also is adamant that observation is not sufficient to learn a culture. You need to learn from a local who was raised in that culture. In other words, find a friend and ask them questions, seeking their experience. They can tell you whether or not it’s appropriate to make eye contact on a train or give someone a hug. I was blessed to have two amazing hosts in Peter and Natalie Atkins, who graciously answered my barrage of questions and engaged me in great conversation for days. I learned SO much from visiting with them that it helped me to understand what I was observing.

In our Culture training module we had several observation assignments. I did one of them in Edinburgh, sitting on the steps of the old Tron Kirk and watching people go by for about a half hour. I tried not to judge but to instead make simple factual observations. I liked it. Plus, it got me out of the Scottish wind, which can grind a tender soul into fine powder. “Next time, I come with a beard,” I resolved on those steps.

Just today I ran across my old Blogspot blog and saw this posting on observation, written about 16 months ago. It was the last one I wrote before switching to WordPress in January of 2011. When I read it I was humbled. Written five months before I had decided to pursue overseas ministry, I can see elements of Elmer’s book and my Culture module in my simple observations from that day. In spiritual hindsight, I see that my heart was already being prepared for this cultural learning process long before I knew about it. Here’s an excerpt, from December 2010.


Observations from Aisle 6

Scattershooting while walking down every aisle in the South Lewisville Wal-Mart… (except I’m at home now because I ain’t got one of them fancy-schmancy phones to post from the road)…

— I enjoy walking around my chosen Wal-Mart for many reasons, one of which is the great diversity of people groups represented there. It’s like a mini United Nations. There are Hindus and Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, Christians like me, and probably some agnostics, too. A couple weeks back I saw some Buddhist monks shopping in the dairy and meat sections. They were in full garb with shaved heads and everything. That was a first for me. I like being around these other cultures perhaps because deep inside I long to understand more about them and, in the process, squelch my own nature to judge them. There are many different cultures on this planet and people from every culture have made their way to America. And my local Wal-Mart. And I think that’s cool.


Well, I have one of those phones now and can post on the road. But I still love my longer-distance Wal-Mart for its diversity. I can’t shop there very often because of my present finances but when I do I spend at least 30 minutes just walking around and enjoying the atmosphere. Even if I went in for a gallon of milk.