Unpack That Cultural Baggage

Building stronger teams

There isn’t a day goes by that our ministry team isn’t assaulted by the realization that we are all different. After all, we’re a combination of Colombians, Brazilians, Americans and Chileans, all serving alongside our Haitian brothers and sisters.

It’s been that way since the beginning of our Haiti-based ministry. Although located less than 90 minutes from Miami, this island nation is a beautiful mix of Caribbean, French and African cultures. From the very first days following the devastating January 2010 earthquake, God brought an even greater international flavor to our EFCA ReachGlobal team. One of our first interns was from Canada. Within 18 months we’d hosted teams from Brazil, the United States, Congo and the Czech Republic—all here to come alongside local churches and like-minded Christian ministries with a goal of gospel transformation.

For obvious reasons, we pay close attention to cultural assumptions and tensions, so that they don’t negatively affect our team. In fact, this past March we invited an expert to speak with our team about “cultural baggage.”

In this workshop, we addressed seven major areas and considered how our different cultures assigned value to each area: authority, time, role of the individual, trust, context, security and being vs doing. I was shocked, at the end, to realize that there is not one area where the Haitian culture and my American culture come down on the same side of the value scale. Not one single area. My Brazilian colleagues realized the same thing. We do so many things without even thinking, and it’s amazing how many of those things we do without thinking would be unthinkable to someone of a different culture.

Haitians, for example, laughingly tell us: “Of course no one arrives on time for a wedding. That would be culturally inappropriate.” We’ve also been shocked to see Haitian families go hundreds of dollars into debt (sometimes the equivalent of one year’s salary) when hosting their entire community for a family funeral. It would be disrespectful of the deceased to not do such a thing.

Now, imagine how those cultural differences are multiplied as Colombians interact with Chileans who interact with Americans who interact with Brazilians. All of whom want to minister powerfully in this Haitian culture and not get sidelined by their cultural clashes.

This March 2014 ministry team consisted of Brazilians, Haitians and Americans. Photo by Steve Spellman (“Hands” photo by Tiffany Bobendrier)

As David Livermore writes in Serving With Eyes Wide Open, “The biggest challenges lie in communication, misunderstanding, personality conflict, poor leadership, and bad teamwork.”

Yet after Livermore cites the problem, he gives the all-too obvious solution: relationships. The key to mitigating the challenges lies in the relationships themselves. In all relationships, but especially those that cross cultures, the keys to flourishing lie in trust, respect and the ability to listen. Those of us on the ground in Haiti couldn’t agree more.

In addition, rather than view our differences as a complete cultural minefield, we choose to see them as wonderful and beautiful ways to enhance our ministry.

In those first days after the earthquake, for example, it was beautiful to see how a group of Brazilians opened doors in the community that the rest of us had yet to even notice. While our American teams focused primarily on construction and repair projects, the Brazilians went out not with a shovel but a soccer ball. A soccer ball that took them from a group of children to the community soccer field, and then to the doors of the local political representative in less than one day.

It was beautiful to see, too, how two Congolese pastors were treated as rock stars by the Haitians they met (“Many of our ancestors came as slaves from the Congo” and “If an African nation can send missionaries, why can’t we?”).

In each of those cases—and in many others I could cite—our differences are what opened doors for relationship and ministry.

Even on teams with seemingly similar cultures, it’s still crucial to have an understanding of how cultural baggage and differing values can wreak havoc. But when we recognize those differences—and the strengths inherent in them—we can build strong teams that will touch the world.

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