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IDENTIFICATION IN THE INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION OF THE GOSPEL1

Sandra R. Gourdet2

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Abstract

Identification is a complex and rewarding experience that increases our capacity for growth and our ability to effectively communicate the gospel interculturally which can be accomplished only when become one in communion and community with the people with whom we live.

This is a true story. It is not your typical storybook tale nor is it one that glamorises exotic places visited by the author. It is the story of a journey – one that started more than twenty years ago and continues even today. It is an adventure in faith tempered by a strong belief in the power of God. It is a story of growth, rebirth, and growth again and again. It tells of mutual pain, suffering, frustration and disillusionment in two-way relationships. It also tells of healing those broken relationships and building stronger ones. It is a story that involves many people from three African countries – Zaire, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. It is not romantic yet it tells of love affairs with people. It is a human struggle in search of God. It is a search for the meaning and necessity of identification. It is my story and the story of many other people. It has no end for it continues on today and will continue long after I am gone.

Before we can move into the story, it is imperative that we understand the meaning of identification in the intercultural communication of the gospel. We will look at several scholars who have given what I consider to be adequate definitions. Identification means "casting one's lot fully with the local community by becoming with it one in communion and one in communication" (in Luzbetak 1988:215). This is what the story is about and how difficult putting it into practice can be. For to do so, Luzbetak (1988:215) outlines three neces sary considerations. First of all, one must "have genuine empathy, the capacity for participation in the local community's feelings. Empathy means under standing and appreciating as much as possible why the local community behaves as it does, no matter what it does." His second consideration is that identification presupposes the actual adoption of as many ways and values of the community in question as possible. Finally, it is up to the community itself to determine what an outsider, a stranger, a foreigner should and should not adopt, no matter how respectable or how good that outsider's intentions may be.

Nida (1990:211) would in all probability agree with the preceding con cepts. He sees identification as a very complex concept involving the totality of inter-human relationships. He best describes it by saying what it is not: "It is not imitation, a process that usually involves cheap paternalism or superficial ingratiation, and not real empathy."

A major aim of this paper is to show from the nature of identification why it is important in the intercultural communication of the gospel. We, therefore, look at Kraft's (1979:147-155) three approaches to communication in terms of frame-of-reference – all of which are essential to our understanding – but we concentrate on his "identificational approach." In Approach A, effective communication is impossible because communicator "a" is operating in an altogether different frame-of-reference than receptor "b." The message as phrased by "a" is beyond the ability of "b" to understand, consequently there is no communication. Approach B is called "extractionist' by Kraft, since the communicator "a" seeks to communicate with "b" by first converting the latter to his own way of thinking, thus "extracting" her from her frame-of-reference. As 'b' becomes more indoctrinated and better able to understand "a," communication increases. Approach C is the "identificational" approach, in which communicator "a" identifies with receptor "b" by entering into the latter's frame-of-reference. Effective communication is possible because "a" phrases the message in terms of the frame-of-reference of "b".

Looking at these three approaches, we can say that identification involves entering and participating in a community from that community's frame-of- reference or context with real empathy so as to establish a two-way rela tionship that brings about mutual intercultural understanding and communi cation. It is, as Luzbetak has said, casting one's lot with that community with all the implications that brings with it.

That is a lot easier said than done. Identification does not just come because one desires it. To be able to identify with a community involves a long process and as church workers we must recognise that it cannot happen overnight. The nature of identification involves many stages, barriers and adjustments. Once we are able to accept this and realise that we are not perfect "godly" people, then we are prepared to establish effective identi fication.

Well do I remember my first evening in the country where I had been as signed to work for three years. After all the preparations, language study,

overview of the Zairian culture, I was on my way – young, naive, daring and ready to conquer the world. The airplane touched down at Kinshasa inter national airport at midnight. The stifling heat, the porters' scramble for the baggage, the midnight arrival with no one to meet me at the airport, the risk of going into town alone, no local currency to pay the taxidriver, the traffic, the strangeness, were all overwhelming. Although it happened twenty-four years ago, it is all still very clear in my mind, but even clearer is the prayer and complete surrender to God.

Culture shock is a natural phenomenon associated with going to a new country. Although still in that tourist stage and finding everything exciting and challenging, about four a.m. when I was in the safety of a guest house and comfortably in bed it suddenly jolted me that I was no longer at home in familiar surroundings and that if something had happened during the journey from the airport, I would not have known how to survive. When daylight finally arrived, I felt afraid, ashamed and withdrawn. These feelings lasted only a day and I was ready to explore, learn and become a part of this new life. A few weeks later when I arrived at my actual work place, the whole process of culture shock started over again, but by then I was emotionally prepared to accept and move on with life. Over a period of six months or more, I went through the stages of disenchantment to adjustment several times, but never did I feel the urgency to pack up and leave.

Identification involves certain barriers as well. Two that I have seen from a close-up vantage point have been personal stuffiness and cultural snobbery. I have always felt uncomfortable with missionaries, and any overseas worker for that matter – the most notorious being embassy workers, who exhibit stuffiness, snobbery and who are condescending. It usually starts with "these people" and moves into the lack of sugar, milk or other commodities in the shops and ends with "when are they going to grow up and be like civilised people in a civilised country like ours."

I have discovered over the years that there are certain other consid erations involved in understanding the nature of identification and producing effective communication. Nida (1990:218-221) points out some of them and sees them as tools to effective identification.

Identifying with specific individuals, rather than with people in general, was relative easy for me because I learned to mix with different people from the beginning. Because of many things that had happened in my past before considering mission work, I learned that a yard worker had as much to offer me in "the school of life" as did a college professor. I was eager to know as much as possible about the people with whom I was to spend the next three years of my life, not for the purpose of research nor do I think it was "typical American curiosity." I would rather believe that it was the (sometimes naive) attachment that I have felt for people who become a part of my life. Whatever the reason, I soon developed a great love and respect for the Zairians with whom I came in contact and eventually entered into what I often refer to as "my love affair with the people." I became involved in family and community activities. I attended their weekly prayer meetings, was present when there were births, attended wakes and funerals, prayed with families, worked in the fields with the women. I soon learned that they were all individuals with individual problems, and yet, they were the same. Seeing them as individuals left little room for generalisations.

This may sound like a very rosy picture painted by an idealistic novice. It was not always utopian living. I soon had to recognise inherent limitations as well as deal with stereotypes. No matter how hard one tries, it is impossible to achieve complete identification. But this should not dissuade us from trying because as our goal is effective communication, our identification should be as extensive as possible. After being at school for several weeks and trying to fit into the normal routines, I was approached by one of the teachers who casually mentioned that people would always know that I was American regardless of being African-American and blending in physically. When pressed for a further explanation, he said "because you walk too fast."

Another incidence that caused a lot of pain and frustration was my desperate attempt to be accepted or to identify with the women in the com munity. Even after slowing down my pace of walking and learning to tie the wrap-around skirt without it falling off, I still encountered barriers. It was much easier being accepted by the men. Being a single woman, who later married while overseas, I was prepared to accept any feelings of jealousy and to deal with situations where women might feel that their marriages were being threatened. These I saw as universal problems among women and was not affected. Somehow I was still unable to penetrate. An older woman, who became a very close friend, came to my rescue. She explained that being single – especially after age 16 – in their culture had certain implications, one of which was that only prostitutes remained single for so long. That barrier could be dealt with because other single women had previously come to work as overseas partners, so having a single woman was not a novelty. I had become an active member of the local church and was under close scrutiny. It would take time to win their respect but being aware of the feelings of the people, I was in a better position to help control the situation. This woman went on to say that the greatest barrier was that I wore eyeglasses. In rural Zaire in 1973, women did not wear eyeglasses. The women thought it made me less of a woman for several reasons. It meant that I spent all my time reading so that I could have intelligent conversations with their husbands, a privilege that they themselves did not have. It meant that I would never make a good wife because one couldn't learn from books how to pound the manioc or prepare the foufou, etc. It also meant that I would never fully understand the burden women had to bear. Furthermore, my books had taught me how to drive a car, a useless skill for any woman. Was that an eye-opener!

All of this led me to another effective tool in identification – to make a genuine effort to learn the language. I had spent almost a year in France to learn French, only to find out that upon arrival in Zaire, I would need to start over again. Belgian French was remarkably different from French spoken in France, so I was still learning and not yet very comfortable. But after this inci dent with the women, I became more determined to learn the local language – Lingala. I worked day and night for about six months, and became proficient enough to have genuine conversations. A totally new and different world was opened to me! My greatest satisfaction was the sharing with the women. We learned so much about each other. Our hopes, dreams, frustrations became one. There was probably never total acceptance but a barrier had been torn down and when I joined the "married women" the barrier became even less obvious.

The efforts to learn the language brought me in contact with different people. It all showed how interested they were in helping me learn. I became a child again and learned to laugh at myself and with others who were also finding it a hilarious experience. My most memorable incident was when a guard from the mission came to the house one day and repeatedly said, "mbisi, mbisi." After nodding my head affirmatively several times,, he grabbed me by the arm in exasperation and took me to the river. My reaction was "What a beautiful river." Realising that I had still not understood, he called to the person in the canoe to hold up a fish. Only then did I make the association between "mbisi" and "fish." My next problem was to get these men to know that I could not buy the fish because my refrigerator was not working. What a process that was, but the end result was that I learned how to say "the refrigerator has died."

Learning the language meant that my spiritual life became more mean ingful. I enjoyed the singing, the prayers, the sermons and the stories told, the communion together with God's people. Once I knew the language, the three hour services did not seem like an eternity any more.

Language has been a very sensitive matter in all of my assignments in Africa. By the time I was assigned to Swaziland, age had set into the brain and learning a new language did not come as easily. Knowing that it was a short- term assignment, my husband and I concentrated more on greetings and useful short sentences. We depended on our daughter for longer, more complex sentences. We met with a different kind of frustration there. Many people assumed that we were Swazis and that our refusal to speak in siSwati was a sign of our arrogance, presumed superiority, or a desire to be like the colonisers. In very much the same manner in our current assignment to Zimbabwe, language is the greatest barrier to identification. Although the community is a lot smaller, the resistance is greater simply because the local dialect is more important than the regional language, on which we concentrated our efforts.

To "know ourselves" is a key ingredient of effective identification. In Zaire, we lived through some very painful situations involving foreigners who had come and had not fully recognised their own motivations or who had hidden agendas. These situations reinforced some of the stereotypes that local people had of foreigners or it communicated a negative reaction to the gospel of Jesus's love for people. In one situation, a young couple had been inspired to seek work as pastors overseas because of an emotional sermon and appeal given by another pastor. Actually, the case was that the woman had been inspired and the man merely followed along. Unfortunately for the young man, he had lived in a very isolated community in the USA and had never been in contact with any African-Americans – not at school, at church, in the com munity, or in shops. His only experiences had been vicarious by television. His motivation for joining his wife in this adventure was to get to know blacks so that he would not be afraid to do so at a later stage in the USA. People saw through his disguise immediately when he refused to shake hands, disap proved of the "American-style house" prepared for them (one of the rooms was painted pale yellow which he found depressing and the furniture was not even "state of the art"), and refused to eat at the home of the general secretary of the church. Fortunately, before too much damage could be done, they returned to the USA within a month of their arrival.

Another young man who probably came to Africa with similar motives, left only after leaving a bad impression on the members of the community. Before he left, he placed all his clothes and household items on a pile in his front yard to be burned publicly so that there would be no need to leave anything for "these begging Africans." This was done when there was a lot of press coverage in the 1980s of the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The association did not escape the minds of the people of that community.

Not only is it important to know ourselves, but we must make a concerted effort to know others. It is imperative that we make an effort to understand the culture of others. We must afford ourselves the necessity of understanding techniques or skills whereby we can examine customs and cultures different from our own. This is especially true of those placed in leadership roles, who may see the necessity of effectuating changes in situations around them. I am reminded of very sage advice given once in Zaire by the wise leader of the church. He encouraged all new missionaries to consult with him first before making any changes in the existing structure of the institution of one's assign ment.

He then told the tragic story of one missionary who started a tribal war at one of the mission posts. The missionary was assigned to a very rural hospital as doctor and administrator. Little did he know that there was tension within the community between two ethnic groups where one group was considered to be superior to the other. He did notice, however, that the "superior" group did very little work whereas the "inferior" group seemed to do a lot more work in less time for less money. In one of his very irate moments, the missionary dis missed everyone from the "superior" group and employed those from the other group on a full time basis. That night the hospital was literally destroyed and two nights later the village was no longer recognisable. The doctor managed to escape with his life but not before sustaining multiple injuries. This was not the case for many villagers, who died mercilessly. The doctor had not taken time to understand the cultural structure in the community. He based his decision on his western-oriented assumptions. He fuelled a fire that could have been avoided had he involved locals in discussions before making decisions.

Participating in the lives of people as co-labourers is an effective way to break down barriers. It is often very difficult, however, to break down the stereotype of "the benefactor" or the "Great White Father". This takes time, and even more time and patience are required in a "mission institution" where people have grown accustomed to having things done for them. It is in places like these that one can truly see the inhumanity of overseas missions, in spite of the good work that was done. I have seen one community-oriented project after the other fail in mission stations because when the going gets a bit rough, people give up and say "It's a mission project, so let's write to the mission board to complete it." This is not to say that this is standard procedure, nor that needy projects should not apply for assistance, but that mission communities have often been given the luxury of giving up before exhausting all possible local resources. Often enough projects have not been a felt need and in many cases members of the community have not been encouraged to freely express their opinions, but rather opinions they think the donors want to hear.

If my greatest frustration in Zimbabwe has been learning the language, then my greatest satisfaction has been the opportunity to work in solidarity within the community as a co-labourer. The relationship is not one where there is special treatment because one comes from another country. Everyone has been trained to be a teacher and the essential goal is for everyone to use those skills and train the children whose care has been entrusted to the group of teachers. As co-labourers, we are able to share our joys and failures. We learn from each other and about each other.

Closely related to being co-labourers is the fact that we must learn to accept subordinate roles. Quite often one's ethnocentrism makes this very bitter medicine to swallow. This becomes even more prevalent with those from the Occident who still think that the world turns around Europe and America. How well do I remember missionary families in Zaire who refused to recognise the local leadership and virtually operated a mission within a mission. When I listen to the bitter, agonising stories of people in Zimbabwe today, I know that a lot of the frustration is because Rhodesia will always be the home of Rhodesians who never became Zimbabweans.

This attitude cannot be tolerated, but it can be understood when it involves older generations who have always been in charge. It becomes very frightening when it is manifested in the younger generation. A young man who was born and raised in Zaire, spoke the language, and was almost inseparable from his Zairian friends, shocked an entire community when he announced in 1991 that he "would never be ruled by a black in Zaire and that if any efforts were made to forcibly take his property" – bought with his hard-earned money – he would use his rifle without any hesitation and shoot to kill.

Enough importance cannot be given to "building trust and strong relationships." I have seen numerous people fall from grace because they failed to recognise that "relationships" in service must take priority over the task. Acceptance begins "when we love people as they are, not as we hope to make them" (Hiebert 1985:84). My husband and I were able to do this by con stantly reminding ourselves and each other, wherever we were assigned, that "this is our extended family." Our own mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers are thousands of kilometres away and we cannot be an island within ourselves. When we allow others to enter our lives, then their lives are opened to us. Sometimes out of ignorance or lack of sensitivity those relationships have been broken and knowing the pain and uneasiness that have been caused is also a source of sadness for us. Relationships are very important to us and we never hesitate to go the extra mile to bridge a gap and try to build stronger ones that are based on trust. Is it easy? Absolutely not!! But the end result is untold joy.

There are many other things, too numerous to mention, that one can discuss on the nature of identification. I want to share one other because it is my personal area of greatest weakness, namely giving and receiving. Gittins (1989:xi) is cognisant of raising "unfamiliar or complex or even embarrassing issues" in his analysis of gift exchanges. I find myself in agreement with his assertion that "attitudes and approaches of a previous era are nowadays either undermined or at least under scrutiny" (Grittins 1989:xi). That is to say, the issue must be addressed openly today if we do not want to make the same mistakes of the past. Gittins (1989:92-93) sees the mechanics of gift exchange as the obligation to give, the obligation to receive and the obligation to repay. Joinet (1972:250) confirms this and further states that "the reciprocity of need and of gift allows an inter-personal relation to take shape and develop. Hence I must try to show the other that I need him (her). Without him (her) and his (her) gifts there would be something lacking in my life."

I can sincerely appreciate the logic and lucid significance that they have both given to this subject. I have often had problems receiving material gifts from my hosts, not because I wanted to appear aloof or superior. And I certainly had no qualms with indebtedness to the giver. At the same time, I would feel very touched if I thought I had demeaned someone by refusing to accept what I knew to be their last cup of sugar in the house. My problem has been that I have witnessed too many times genuine African hospitality being abused. I have seen so many Americans come to Africa and who are impres sed by the authentically genuine African welcome. I have seen Africans go out of their way and their budget to receive people from abroad. Many hosts do not expect anything and feel embarrassed if the guest considered their homes to be like impersonal hotels where a service was expected to be paid for. Yet, at the same time the host would not object to some gesture on the part of the guest. Too often these hosts have been given false promises of gifts and parcels arriving in a few weeks from America, which never arrive. The most irritating response is "we thought all Africans were poor; these must be related to a chief if they are able to provide a warm welcome like they have done for us." With the economic constraints facing most developing countries, it is very difficult to support a family under normal circumstances, let alone the additional expense of insensitive guests. This kind of situation has hardened me and makes it difficult for me to accept material gifts without some hesitation and thought as to whether my acceptance will create a financial burden on the giver. I am much more at ease receiving cultural gifts. Zimbabwe has been a good classroom, for I am learning the art of reciprocity on a daily basis. The new insight that I am gaining from other dimensions of giving is proving invaluable in my growth as a human and as a Christian.

This takes us to another aspect of this paper – that is, the necessity of identification in the intercultural communication of the gospel. Loewen (1975:20) accurately points out that "one of the first qualities that a missionary needs is the continuing willingness to learn." In this struggle of communicating the gospel in order to identify with the people we must be willing to learn continually: "The missionary who wants to communicate good news to the national will, therefore, have to spend time – often many hours of time – listening to the concerns, fears and superstitions of his (her) audiences" (Loewen 1975:36). How can we effectively listen and interpret if we have not identified with the people? Nida (1991:212) puts it in similar terms when he states: "Our task is not to propagandise people into the Kingdom of heaven, but so to identify ourselves with them that we may effectively communicate "the Way." This identification can be achieved only by realistic participation with people in their lives, not by working for people, but with them."

Identifying with the people is not new. Jesus Christ himself did the same. Although his approach was interpersonal rather than intercultural, Jesus "started with the felt needs of his potential receptors, adopting their frame of reference as that in terms of which he operated" (Kraft 1979:154). He used a different approach for each situation whether for the Samaritan woman, the disciples, Zacchaeus or Nicodemus. His example further showed that "contextualisation" has been around for a long time and is not new to the theological scene.

We must seek identity in order to communicate the gospel because Christ himself identifies with humanity. Others know Him through our relationships with the poor and the downtrodden: "The good news of salvation does not come to us via the wise and mighty, but rather by way of the ignorant and downtrodden [1 Corinthians 1:18ff] (in Costas 1979:27). If we are committed to "go," then we must be equipped with tools to transmit the message and to do so we must identify with the people.

Jesus Christ is the heart of the gospel and to communicate the gospel interculturally, we must know Christ's true identity and make sure it is adequately communicated. To do it effectively, we must discover who he is, where to find him and how to relate to him. Without such a discovery, we will never be able to communicate the gospel relevantly in the world. He is the Lord and Saviour of the oppressed, and can be found among the wretched of the earth, healing their wounds, breaking down their chains of oppression, demanding justice and peace, giving life and hope (Costas 1979:29). When we identify with others interculturally we are able to communicate reciprocally the gospel of Jesus, a gospel that transforms and can bring about a more just world: "The real issue is whether we as Christians are willing to be immersed in the concrete situation of the disenfranchised of our societies and witness to the lordship and saviourhood of Christ from within, a commitment which will have to be verified in our participation in the concrete transformation of these situations" (Costas 1979:30).

Identification with other people must be genuine and whole-hearted. It must be based on the needs of the people and not our own egoist, self- glorification. It must be based on reciprocity and working as partners. We must be clear on our objectives and motives, realising that "the need on mission fields today is not for fathers (mothers), people who will be paternal (maternal) in their attitudes towards the members of the younger churches, but for brothers (sisters), who will be willing to treat as equals those who will obey the gospel message" (Loewen 1975:41).

In conclusion, God has dealt with me in a special way and has given me a wealth of experiences and opportunities to declare his presence in my life and to share them by identifying with other people. He has been very patient with me and for this I am immensely grateful. When I have been weak, He has given me strength, where I have been ignorant and blind He has given me the courage to seek healing. But most of all, God has placed people in my life who have taught me the real meaning of love and how to grow and to build strong relationships.

LIST OF REFERENCES

COSTAS, Orlando 1979. Contextualization and Incarnation. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, (no. 29):23-30.

GITTINS, Anthony J. 1989. Gifts and strangers. Meeting the challenge of inculturation. New York: Paulist Press.

HESSELGRAVE, David J. 1991. Communicating Christ cross-culturally (Second Edition). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

HIEBERT, Paul G. 1985. Anthropological insights for missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

JOINET, Bernard 1972. I am a stranger in my Father's house. African Ecclesial Review, 14(3): 243- 253.

KRAFT, C.H. 1979. Christianity in culture. Maryknoll: Orbis.

LOEWEN, Jacob A. 1975. Culture and human values. Christian intervention in anthropological perspective. Pasadena: Wm Carey Library.

LUZBETAK, Louis J. 1988. The church and cultures: New perspectives in missiological anthropology. Maryknoll: Orbis.

NIDA, Eugene A. 1991. Message and Mission, Pasadena: Wm. Carey Library.


1 This article was initially submitted as an assignment for an Honours B Th course on the intercultural communication of the gospel in the Department of Missiology at Unisa. It is published with the permission of the author.

2 Mrs Sandra Gourdet is an African-American woman who has been working in various African countries for more than twenty years. She and her husband are just completing a teaching stint of three years in Zimbabwe. Their address there is P.O. Box 247, Chipinge, Zimbabwe.


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