Stepping Between Cultures

On April 29, Bonaventure Akowanou, administrator of the Benin Bible Institute, and I (Nancy) left Toronto at a chilly 6 degrees (42 F) and landed in Cotonou at 9:30 the following evening where it was a balmy 29 degrees (88 F). Traveling between Benin and North America, one is aware of constant contrasts. Aside from the hot/cold divide, there are so many differences between the two places. The longer I live in Benin, the more I find myself feeling out of sync in North America.
The differences really hit me again on this last trip to Canada during the month of April! Perhaps traveling with an African colleague made those differences more apparent. Or perhaps spending a few days in Montreal before landing in my own backyard, Waterloo County, highlighted aspects of Canadian life that I had previously ignored. Whatever the reason, I felt a heavy ache as I noted the incredible neediness of Canadians. Yes, you read that word correctly! Yet my last few days in Ontario filled me with hope.
Now of course I realize that in many ways Benin is the needy place: people in Benin suffer from lack of adequate health care, educational opportunities, sufficient income, and so on. So of course, Benin is a very needy place. In spite of those obvious challenges, however, the Beninese by and large seem to be a very hopeful people, filled with optimism, and strongly attached to life. They appear to have resources to face the challenges of life, resources that we North Americans do not understand. That is why when people from North America visit Benin they are often most struck by the joy and happiness of the people they meet. This joy becomes especially pronounced in the exuberant forms of worship that are characteristic of Beninese churches. We wonder how they can be so happy in spite of what we would consider great suffering.
It strikes me that in contrast many North Americans are unhappy. Perhaps before I go any further I should carefully state that I am not sitting in judgment here. I am not suggesting that the Beninese are perfect (for they are far from that) or that I prefer living in Benin to living in North America because I can’t say I prefer one place to the other. My remarks are meant to show that there are problems in North America that need to be addressed and that perhaps the strengths of the Beninese can help us to address that suffering.
Some of our greatest needs cannot be met by material resources: the need to belong, to be loved, to feel hope, to feel secure. These needs are met in the Beninese context by their communal and spiritual resources. When we try to meet these needs with only material and physical resources, we fail. Our best efforts at eating right and getting exercise do not keep us from falling ill. Our attempts to create community where none existed before are often unable to provide solid connections with others. Our attempts to make meaning out of our existence, if left only to what we can achieve in this world by our own efforts, often leave us feeling hopeless and dissatisfied.
A long time ago, I read an African myth (I think possibly from Uganda). I forget some of the details, but I will try to relay the underlying lesson it contained. The myth in question explained that when the world was created, the Creator made the rain and the sun, the earth and a human being. Inside the human being, the Creator placed a heart. After finishing the work of creation, the Creator went away. The rest of creation carried on, happy in simply being, but the human being’s heart went crying in search of the Creator. Ever since, humans have been on a quest to satisfy their heart’s true desire. As someone, (St Augustine maybe?) put it, “our hearts are restless until we rest in you.” Or as St Paul wrote, “[God is the one] in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28, but actually Paul was quoting a Greek poet!)
This need to be at peace with our Creator is at the heart of our search for all the rest: love, security, meaning, truth, etc. When this need remains unfulfilled, we try to fill it with all sorts of other things. Yet none of these other things can satisfy our deep longing for oneness with God. So we live broken lives with emptiness at our core. We live lives of constant getting that never seems satisfied. I was struck by how many people in North America are searching for something more: a quest for a genuine spirituality and a real community. Yet I was also struck by how many people are looking everywhere except the Christian faith.
Christianity teaches that Christ has reconciled us to God, 2 Cor 5:18, we can live in peaceful communion with God – and Christ has reconciled us with one another (Eph 2:14) – so that we can live peacefully together. Yet this teaching has not been faithfully lived out and in some cases the church has been more interested in preserving itself and its traditions than in living out the good news. So in North America, where the message has become worn-out, people are ready to look for God every where BUT in the church. In Africa, where the old forms of spirituality are breaking down in the face of modernism, Christianity seems to bring helpful answers to their spiritual questions. This makes it very exciting to work at Bible teaching here. In West Africa, people ardently desire to know what the biblical text says. But when I return to Canada, I find another language is needed.
I was delighted, therefore, to attend the MCEC sessions at the end of April. (MCEC is the eastern district of the Mennonite Church of Canada, covering the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.) MCEC has planned for 8 new church plants, some already begun, others about to begin, all of them finding new ways of being God’s people. These attempts at using a new language and of finding new forms for sharing the good news are very encouraging to me. I am not ready to do away with church as I have known it, nor are many other people who still find the church a good place to meet God. (Church being the people of God or the community of faith and not the building in which they meet!) However, I am so glad that there are people stepping out of the familiar ways of doing things in order to encounter people who need to hear about God’s love in a new language. I went away from those meetings with the heaviness gone and a renewed hope.
It is hard to reduce my thoughts and feelings to a page and a half. It is difficult to put into words what came as waves of impressions as often very different encounters shaped my thinking. I do not presume to have summed it all up adequately, but I share it in the hopes that others may be inspired to pursue their reflections on what it means to be human and how to live lives of wholeness.


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