Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a snug wooden house deep in a forested valley. There was a shallow, rocky river across the dirt road from her front door with a rope bridge to Widow Pearson’s cottage downstream and an old brick bridge she liked to ice skate to upstream. At the top of the hill, just before the road dipped down into the valley, was a white and green Dutch windmill that seemed to wave at her every time she passed, seeing her off and welcoming her home. She never went far—a trip to town was a great adventure—but even so, she was always happy to see her windmill, her river, her snug little house.
Then one day, the little girl went far, far away. Her pine and birch forest was replaced by palm and bamboo, her river by an ocean, her wooden house by a concrete one with bars in the window. The people spoke English with a West African swing instead of a Scandinavian lilt, and the northern lights were replaced by molten sunsets. Even the moon and stars looked different, like someone had shaken the heavens and the night sky had tumbled to its side. It was beautiful, but it was intimidating, too big and bright for the little girl’s tastes. She missed her wooded valley, curving around her like a mother’s womb.
That is how the little girl learned about culture—by losing hers and being plunged into another. She had always had a culture, of course, but had never realized it. Didn’t everyone eat rice pudding on Christmas Eve, and know the story about the magic tinder box and the dogs with eyes like pie plates, and listen to the old people sing Swedish hymns on holidays? Didn’t everyone go to the lake on the Fourth of July, where they would buy Dilly Bars from Dairy Queen and write their names with sparklers as the sun set behind the trees? No, they did not, and the loss felt like death, like the nearest and dearest wrenched from her life. Once, a new friend’s mother made a mock apple pie out of green papaya, and the little girl dissolved into tears at the prospect of having to go home before it came out of the oven. If you had asked the little girl about her favorite fruit, she would have named mangos, but she dearly missed apples, the familiar sweet crunch of her grandparent’s back yard. Caught off-guard, the woman invited the little girl to stay for pie, binding her wounds the best she could with cinnamon and sugar.
Missionaries from the Global North talk a lot about culture. They leave their country, their people, and their father’s household to live as strangers in a strange land, and count it as righteousness. They talk a lot about mangos, but not so much about apples. Christians from the Global South talk a lot about culture too, but ironically, some of them talk more about apples than mangos. They name their children Luther, and Wesley, and Susanna, instead of Olaudah, and Cuauhtlatoatzin, and Nalumansi, and sing about sins made white as a substance that could never truly reach them where they are, a substance that would have to be brought in from somewhere else and carefully insulated against the environment.
Some of this is okay, and some of it is not. Some of this is a triumph, and some of this is a tragedy, and one tragedy is that we are so bad at discerning which is which. We need to be careful when treading on soil watered by the lifeblood of other people’s ancestors, when laying hold of traditions holy to another people, place, and time. Such undertakings require reverence, and should not be entered into lightly.
We could begin by asking ourselves why we are seeking God so far away, when he has always been as near as breath. Does it feel safer to look for God out there, instead of in here? Are we glad to cast off the expectations of our own culture, trading it for the freedom of being exceptional in someone else’s? We should also ask ourselves why we are working so hard to turn papaya into apple pie, a bad compromise that does no justice to either, and tastes more like memory than delight. Memory is precious, but it cannot nourish anyone as well as fresh local fare. That is true even when we feel uncertain about the produce our neighbors present us and are not sure how to serve it.
The little girl grew up, and the little girl went home. Sometimes she still goes far, far away, and eats mangos and papaya with delight, but she is always happy to see her river, her woods, the snug little house that she built with her family. Sometimes she takes the long way to town and stops at the old white and green windmill. It still waves at her, welcoming her home. She takes a deep breath and knows that God is here, and God is there, and that there is more beauty in a molecule of the soil beneath our feet than we could ever mine, no matter where we stand. Even if we are not always sure what to do with it.