That awkward moment

I wrote this piece back in September, after attending the "Peace and Unity" soccer tournament.

A newly arrived white person in a west-central African village, I’m very conscious I don’t understand the culture, am not familiar with the customs and haven’t got a clue what is expected. So to be singled out for special honours is intensely uncomfortable—especially on account of my conspicuously white skin.

Having presented a letter of introduction from my home church to the pastor of the village church where I’d be attending for the year, I was surprised and taken aback to have the pastor read it from the pulpit and invite me to receive the right hand of fellowship right there. The pastor proceeded to preach from the church covenant, saying we all have talents to use to serve God and serve we must. But my talents are so very small. There is so much to learn before my talents can have a place here.

Later that day, events rubbed salt in the already smarting sore spot of white guilt and social awkwardness: I was seated in the dignitary shelter at the regional soccer tournament final and invited to centre field with a group of “big men” for the official kick-off.

It doesn’t seem fair that Cameroonians make a big deal over foreigners, in this case me. I’ve done nothing to earn special treatment. Do they realize in Canada I’m nothing out of the ordinary? Actions meant to honour leave me feeling thoroughly humbled and intensely aware of how inadequate I am.

What made me think I had something to offer, to come out here and be a “missionary”? What qualifies me to be a representative, not only for my faith, but also for my country? What I’ve always known intellectually I now experience practically: the trappings of religion are tied up in culture; and I wonder how to bring anything from my Western faith tradition without that contamination—or how to bring anything at all when I’m afraid to say “hello.”

Another gift, my education—a post-secondary degree—so ordinary in Canada, is exceptional here. To some extent, special honours accorded to whites are given for that: a higher level of education (villagers who finish high school are the lower echelon of the upper crust). But it merely it drives a wedge between us when I unintentionally judge them by my training in Western thought, and they me by their perspective as sub-Saharan rainforest dwellers.

Yet, I feel God led me here, and despite moments of wanting to get out of here fast, I do not regret my decision to come. The opportunity to be stretched and challenged in my ways of thinking and doing are what drew me—but once here, they’re the things I fear. I want to hide away in the house surrounded by the missionary kids I came to teach; I want to avoid social encounters and the inevitable awkward moments they entail. But to do so would be to forgo the opportunity to learn and grow. To do so would be to hold back whatever meagre gifts I have to offer.

To make my time here a success, the best I can give is openness: to communicate with the Cameroonian villagers to in order to learn how they think and what they believe; to communicate with my church, supporters and friends back home what I have learned about the people God made; and to remember that communicating the good news to “strangers” is our mission wherever we are in this world, whether “at home” or “on the mission field,” awkwardness and all.


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