Lasting lessons from cultural differences

Saturday, July 25, 2009

I've heard Dr. Ken Dobbins say that Southeast Missouri State University places a high priority on bringing students from other countries to Cape Girardeau. Many (arguably, most) American young adults cannot afford to travel overseas, Southeast's president told my service club, so the university does the next best thing -- it brings international students here.

There is nothing quite like getting to know someone from another culture, even if that encounter is relatively brief. I'm thinking of a young man named Jirka, a Gypsy child whom I baptized in a lake in the Czech Republic in 2005. He jumped in Dlouhy Lake with 17 other people eager to receive the sacrament. Standing in thigh-deep water, I called to the translator on shore: "Ask these kids to say what this means to them before I proceed with immersion."

While eager to be part of a special moment, it was important that all understood that this wasn't supposed to be playtime in the water with a middle-aged American. Some of the answers, translated from Czech -- an interesting language in which every vowel and consonant is distinctly pronounced (unlike English) -- were quite moving. "Lada wants to know God." "Vasek wants to feel better." "Maruska wants to know if this is what John the Baptist did with Jesus." For a few, certainly, group dynamics were at work and it seemed clear that a handful (at least) wanted to be baptized simply because their friends were going through the experience. Due to the language barrier, it was difficult for me to tell who understood. My conviction was that God could sort all of that out.

It was Jirka with whom I truly connected. He and I sat next to each other on the long bus ride to the Pardubice water park and tried to teach other basic words in our respective tongues. We played volleyball against one another a couple of times at what was an ex-Communist training facility. Standing on either side of the net, speaking different languages in the heat of good-natured competition, I recognized Jirka's trash talk even though his actual words were completely unfamiliar.

It was at mealtime that the differences in culture came into full flower. Cheese was served at every meal, three times daily. Crackers and sugar packets were greedily stuffed into pockets by the Gypsy children; these kids left no food on the table. When you have been hungry enough times, you learn to hoard.

Then there were the cucumbers. Sliced and piled high in bowls, those kids devoured the contents. By the time the adults got to the serving table, the children had picked them clean. Not one was left at any of the meals that week. I never got to eat a single one. It occurred to me, watching those cucumbers be consumed, that these Czech kids ate those veggies with the same relish American children bring to french fries or milkshakes.

Dr. Dobbins is right, I think. You don't look at the world the same way once you have an encounter with someone from a different culture. For me, the memory of Gypsy kids eager for baptismal immersion will not fade quickly. Neither will the cucumber frenzy at mealtime. Yours truly now loads up on that particular vegetable each time he approaches a salad bar. And somewhere in my mind, while eating, I see little Jirka's face at the net, calling out taunts as he strikes the ball.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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