Language and Culture…a Barrier, but also a Bridge

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Last Sunday David Gómez shared in our Sunday morning worship hour. David is one of several Mexican missionaries from the group of Bible churches here in central Mexico, sent out and supported, at least partially, from local churches here.

David left for Uruguay over 2 years ago, and has served in a number of capacities there, including youth leader, Internet radio announcer/dj and participant/counselor in many different youth rallies and camps.

His relational style allowed him to relate quickly with the Uruguayan people, and he became a valued member of a Uruguayan church composed of ethnic Armenians. We were able to meet Michel, an 19 year old Uruguayan young man, last May,  He traveled with David up to Mexico for our FAMEX missions conference.

Spanish, like English, changes from country to country, but because there are many more countries that speak Spanish than English (as their native tongue), Spanish variations abound, as any pastor of an Hispanic church in the U.S. can affirm. The word trastes in Mexico means “dishes.” At one point early on, David asked a Uruguayan woman if he could lavar los trastes or “wash the dishes.”  Trastes in Uruguay, however, doesn’t mean dishes, it means a person’s rear end!

I recall a Venezuelan missionary, arriving at a men’s retreat, using the verb cachondear. In Venezuela apparently this means “to horse around” or “to have a good time.” In Mexico, has strong, negative sexual overtones! In Mexico, the word pingo is a word used to describe a mischievous child. In other parts of the Spanish speaking world, it means…oh, never mind!

But don’t think of different cultures and languages as only a barrier. There is something magical about the whole process of cross-cultural missions. The foreigner is different, he is a novelty. This can be negative, of course, but often it opens doors, and gives one opportunities that otherwise would never happen. Language and culture can be barriers, but they can also be bridges, trampolines even, to gain a hearing before both princes and paupers. I remember speaking to Steve and Karen Dutton, who both graduated with me from MBI, at how their whole family related to Greek officials and foreign ambassadors, in part certainly because of Steve’s respected position at the Union Church in Athens. And it certainly didn’t hurt that they were foreigners! It also makes it difficult often times for a missionary family that returns home, and becomes invisible.

A few years back we were trying to communicate with the municipal president here, who in Latin American politics is practically a demigod. The power he wields is pretty amazing, at least within the confines of a municipality home to half a million people. Long story short…Samuel cornered him, introduced him to me, and we talked for a good 10 minutes in English, under the light of a street lamp, with the 40 people all around him listening attentively. It was surreal.

People will forgive you for your mistakes…as long as you don’t repeat them too many times! An example…Jessica Nixon, who is new to the community here and speaks limited Spanish, saw Iris, a woman in the church. Jessica was carrying a table, and Iris was going to help her with it. Jessica waved her hand, and said “Vete, vete” which means, literally, “go away,” and figuratively “get away from me!” Now, I’m pretty sure that this phrase is probably the only phrase that Jessica knows that sort of remotely expresses “that’s ok, I don’t need you to help.”  At least in Jessica’s mind it does. But maybe, just maybe, that’s not what Iris understood.  Ha ha ha ha ha! Welcome to the world of cross-cultural missions! Jessica (and Tina) can reach people, precisely because they are not from Mexico. They are magnets, because they are so out of place. And that’s a good thing.


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