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Stories

Culture Clash

Stories from the Field, 3 October 2023

Speaker: Daniel Jesudason


Culture clash is experienced any time you cross some kind of boundary – language, ethnicity, social class, gender etc. How can we effectively reach those from a different culture, and avoid a culture clash?


Becoming an “Insider”

Daniel began by asking: Can we really be an “insider” to another group? Can we become like “one of them”, to understand their culture, and become like “family” to them? He pointed out that this is “incarnation” – just as Jesus became human and dwelt among us, we are called to be incarnational in order to bring Christ to others. Paul also wrote in 1 Cor 9:22: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”


So how can we become insiders when we want to minister cross-culturally? Is it even possible? How far are we prepared to go? To become an insider requires learning to speak the language well, including understanding and using idioms. It also requires getting to know how they live and behave, and a willingness to change some of our own behaviour. Daniel gave this example: among the Umanakaina, holding hands is foreplay, and it would be inappropriate for him to hold his wife’s hand in public! So as not to embarrass others and to fit in to that culture, they had to refrain from holding hands.


Culture Is Like an Onion

Daniel gave a Daga example to illustrate the layers that constitute “culture”: an intern experienced a culture clash when the Daga people would laugh when she slipped and fell on the steep and slippery terrain. That made her hurt and angry.


Analysing her reaction: she felt that laughing at others’ misfortunes was bad, that their laughter meant that they were ridiculing her, and showed that they had no respect for foreigners. However, a Daga friend explained to Daniel that when the people laughed, it was in fact their way of drawing attention away from the slip so the person would not be embarrassed.


It is important to realise that cultural differences always give rise to some culture clashes, but applying good coping strategies can lead to better understanding.


Contextualisation Case Study: Umanakaina Marriage Custom

A problem arises when a cultural practice is contrary to Christian teaching. What should Christians in these cultures do? How can they stay within their culture while still being faithful to Christian teaching?


Daniel gave a case study from Umanakaina culture:

​This is a matriarchal society, and girls choose spouses through pre-marital sex with korogoni (cross-cousins*). A maternal uncle will help her make the decision based on other criteria as well. Forbidding Christians from following these practices would mean that they would not be able to marry, and refusal to follow cultural customs could lead to their being targeted by sorcery. * Cross-cousin: the child of one’s mother’s brother or father’s sister.

Daniel said that, in the 5-6 years they spent with the Umanakaina, they did not do anything about this as they didn’t know what to do! They continued to work faithfully among the people to help them read the scriptures in their own language. Some time after they had moved elsewhere, they heard from a Christian man how the people themselves had resolved this issue.


Actual solution: instead of sleeping with the korogoni, the girl would write to the korogoni and they would exchange letters! Other than that, the practices were unchanged. Literacy made it possible for the people to study the scriptures for themselves, grow in maturity, and contextualise their practices in the light of their Christian faith. It also meant that the young people were able to read and write letters! A wonderful example of transformation through God’s word.


About the speaker:

Daniel, along with his wife, Wei Lei, and son, served in Papua New Guinea with Wycliffe Bible Translators from 1985 to 2005. They initially worked among the Umanakaina as literacy consultants. They then worked in literacy and Bible translation among the Daga. They completed the Daga New Testament and dedicated it on 18 June 2005.


Daniel has recently stepped down from his role as a Director at Promises (www.promises.com.sg) which provides psychiatric and psychological services and is currently making some career transitions. He continues to serve in a number of local and regional mission agencies.


Prayer pointers:
  1. Pray for various training commitments to mission agencies Daniel is involved in as he makes career transitions during this time. He has stepped out into two part-time jobs now.

  2. Pray for Wei Lei as she manages a heavy workload in adoption services and cares for her father.

  3. Pray for the new projects and initiatives through the children's home and drug rehabilitation work in Nepal which they are involved in.


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