Bridges to Understanding

Mozambique Sept 2010 © Elgin MacMillan 5926I hurt my foot the other day. It wasn’t serious, but it caused me to limp.

I didn’t want to limp. I didn’t want the attention or the inevitable questions. After a while, I mostly forgot about the limp, unless someone noticed and asked. Even when I was walking as “normally” as I could, my disability was perceptible to others, even when they were too polite to mention it.

Thinking about our work at Food for the Hungry (FH), I wondered whether my distinctly American cultural perspective (like my limp) was just as noticeable to people from other countries. One of our challenges in a multinational relief and development agency is the requirement to develop in-depth, cross-cultural understanding.

It’s hard do well. The cues of what to say, and how to say it, are subtle. And they go beyond language. So much more goes into cultural understanding, including body language. It’s an understanding of social status, social networks and local customs. It’s learning how to get things done in other places.

That’s one of the reasons I’m proud to work at FH. Our staff is overwhelmingly non-Western. We rely on nationals to make our work effective. They are the key to our field effectiveness. We trust them to advise and implement.

It’s not unusual for Westerners to set off to assist some new people group, often ending in misunderstandings, disappointments, sometimes anger. Often it feels as though the effort—or the money—has been wasted.

It’s easy to lose patience, or even trust, with overseas partners due to misunderstandings.

That’s why FH has a church engagement department. American churches begin having relationships with an overseas community. Over time, the two cultures learn about each other and progress is made for all involved.

Like the subtlety of walking with a limp, my cultural context is a part of me that I usually cannot disguise, try as I might. The best course is to recognize my disability. And ask for needed help. Likewise, working in other countries, even with other Christians, risks misunderstanding if we don’t acknowledge our need for assistance. Even if they’re too polite to mention it.

About Barry Gardner

Barry Gardner is the Chief Financial Officer at FH. He joined FH in 2010 after a 20 year career as a financial consultant to non-profit organizations. He and his wife Susan live in Phoenix, where Barry enjoys year-round cycling weather.

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