As traveling Christians, you and I need to keep asking penetrating questions of ourselves. How can I respect and appreciate a totally different culture, and not impose my own? Can I make sure that I am not imposing my own theological and cultural assumptions?
Later, when our flight was on the ground and passengers were told we had made an emergency landing, someone asked if it was a real emergency! I replied that 200 passengers in a plane at 36,000 feet with engine problems was an emergency. With the plane safely on the ground and all passengers disembarked, it was no longer an emergency. But there were long lines at the airline transfer desk for the next few hours, as people tried to reschedule their journeys.
Working for the Baptist World Alliance, this seems to be a common experiences for me! On Sept. 11, 2001, I was returning from North Korea on a direct flight from Beijing to Chicago. We had been in the air for 3–4 hours, flying somewhere over Russian airspace, when the pilot interrupted our sleep with the order that we “wake up, and sit up!”
This we did quickly. He then informed us that owing to a “serious security situation in the United States,” we were being diverted to Fairbanks, Alaska—still many miles away.
We finally landed in Calgary, Canada, and it was only then that we discovered the enormity of what had happened in New York and Washington. Those hours on that plane had been some of the longest in my life—for me and my family in the Washington area and England.
Flying is so much a part of our lives, it has revolutionized travel and communication in our world today. We can step quickly from one culture to another.
Things have changed a great deal since my aunt and uncle sailed for China as missionaries back in the 1940s on a five-year assignment; or when later they sailed to India, leaving their daughter at school in England. Apart from airmail letters and photos there was no other contact—no phone calls, e-mails, chats or instant messaging. Many families sacrificed so much in those days.
Today, there are new cultural challenges for us. Given the speed at which things happen, the latest press release on a controversial statement is now read around the world, even before the home constituency has had a chance to digest it. Christian TV shows, with all their cultural and theological baggage, are beamed by satellite into homes in the Third World.
Teams of mission volunteers trample over fresh territory as they seek to share “their” gospel with little cultural awareness or sensitivity. I am often told that the volunteers get more out of the visit than those visited, and are then more committed to pray and give for that situation. Maybe, but at what cost?
As traveling Christians, you and I need to keep asking penetrating questions of ourselves. Is this trip really necessary, or could I protect the ozone layer a little? How can I respect and appreciate a totally different culture, and not impose my own? Can I make sure that I am not imposing my own theological and cultural assumptions?
How would I feel if the situation was reversed and these people were visiting me? Would I want them to tell me what to believe and how to worship? Would I want them to set up preaching points around my town? And finally, what could I have done with the money I spent on this trip, or perhaps what could they have done?
Paul Montacute has been director of Baptist World Aid, the relief and development arm of the Baptist World Alliance, since 1990.