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The antidote to shame and pride when participating in God’s mission

My six-year-old daughter just spent an hour explaining, in painful detail, the plot and characters of the animated show “Avatar,” originally on Nickelodeon and now on Netflix. That is our average Tuesday. I barely pay attention but still nod my head and mutter things like “Oh, really?” and “That’s interesting.” I deeply love her, but let’s be honest: I don’t care about the show and would prefer to spend that hour learning something more useful.

Recently, however, I began to appreciate the show when one scene caught my attention. It showed an exchange between an old retired general, Iroh, and Zuko, a headstrong prince who is Iroh’s nephew. Sensing turmoil within his nephew, Iroh advises Zuko to let go of his feelings of shame to find some semblance of inner peace. Frustrated, Zuko says, “But I don’t feel any shame at all! I’m as proud as ever!” Iroh replies, “Prince Zuko, pride is not the opposite of shame but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.” I thought I knew what the show was about, but that scene helped me see the wisdom that has so captivated my daughter.

When people of Western cultures go abroad or even to unfamiliar neighborhoods to participate in God’s mission, they may begin with a strong sense of pride, thinking they can solve problems and make positive change. Then, when they enter unknown areas with different customs – food, living arrangements, language, how people structure their day – they may become disoriented by all they do not know. In the face of uncertainty, shame emerges. Furthermore, they may also be exposed to the injustices perpetrated by well-intentioned individuals like themselves.

Doing mission, in our neighborhood or abroad, is complicated by cultural difference, White privilege, and an unfortunate history in which church mission, at times, has hurt those it sought to help. In our pride, we want to do good, but we face so many obstacles that we become ashamed and stuck. Like Prince Zuko in “Avatar,” we can trade pride for humility. Through cultural humility, we see as companions the communities and neighbors whom we seek to serve — companions journeying together in mutual love and respect. Through cultural humility, we stop doing our mission and we instead participate in God’s mission.

What is humility anyway?

Christians throughout the centuries, especially reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, arrived at the transformational truth that humility is a key to redemption. This understanding derives from the many great teachings in which Jesus demonstrated humility, such as when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:3-17) and became obedient to death (Philippians 2:8). Even more profoundly, the need for humility is felt when we realize that we are all sinners and that it is only God’s love and redemption that brings us into the fold of God’s family (Ephesians 2:8-9). This basic truth in our Christian faith should lead us to constantly pursue humility.

While Sunday school and Bible study groups might have taught us to pursue humility, living out humility in Western, individualistic cultures does not come naturally. Baked into our culture are assumptions of competition, American exceptionalism, and the desire to “do it all” by and for ourselves.

I want to be clear: humility is not a generous sentiment in which one gives time and resources to the poor from a place of privilege and authority. Rather, true humility is admitting we do not know it all, even if we have been told otherwise our whole lives. We can only be part of positive change when we bring our gifts and resources into partnerships with peers who have different perspectives and experiences.

Cultural humility and its difference from cultural competency

“Cultural humility” is a concept borrowed from the healthcare field. Public health physician and educator Melanie Tervalon, with clinic administrator Jane Murray-Garcia, first introduced the term in 1998 in a journal article in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved. They sought to help health providers better communicate with patients and family members, because they had noticed the dangers of ignoring cultural differences and power dynamics. For example, a Hispanic immigrant family with deep respect for the power and knowledge of a physician would agree to circumcise their newborn child, even if doing so is not part of their culture. Or a physician who is unable to explain an African American woman’s pain might immediately refer her to a behavioral health specialist without really addressing her physical health concerns.

Tervalon and Murray-Garcia defined cultural humility as “a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in the patient-physician dynamic, and to developing mutually beneficial and non-paternalistic clinical and advocacy partnerships with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations.”

Growing cultural diversity across the United States has encouraged many schools, universities, religious organizations and government agencies to emphasize the importance of cultural competency. In a 2006 article in Health Promotion Practice, Suzanne Selig, Elizabeth Tropiano and Ella Greene-Moton defined “cultural competency” as ensuring “an understanding, appreciation, and respect of cultural differences and similarities within, among and between groups.” To develop cultural competency, the authors said, individuals can learn about different cultural groups and their defining characteristics.

Although this information is useful and often true, this idea of cultural competency invites the practitioner to imagine that a single culture can be mastered through books or training. In contrast, the construct of cultural humility sees learning another’s culture as a far more organic and ongoing process. Our understanding will always have limits, and so we must seek humbly to understand those limits.

I am an Indian immigrant. When individuals in the United States discover this part of my identity, they sometimes greet me with praying hands and say, “Namaste.” Or they think I know how to speak Hindi (just one of the many languages of India). However, I am a Khasi person from Meghalaya in the northeastern part of India. We do not use “namaste” to greet people, nor is Hindi the region’s primary language. The people who greet me this way may have some competency in Indian culture, but they have not recognized the limits of their knowledge. They have not taken up the discipline of being culturally humble.

In considering cultural humility, Tervalon and Murray-Garcia recognized the power dynamics that often exist in cross-cultural encounters. Cultural competency can create a false sense of security in which we assume we are more enlightened than we are, and we also ignore our own power and privilege. As Ibram X. Kendi rightly stated in How to Be an Antiracist, “Knowledge is only power if knowledge is put to the struggle for power.” “Culturally sensitive” knowledge is meaningless unless we consider how privilege and power (for example, from being White, American, well-educated, wealthy, male and so on) impact how we interact with others. Therefore, cultural humility helps us acknowledge the power and privilege we inherit so we can strive toward mutual learning, respect and development when we engage with those from different cultural backgrounds.

Cultural humility in mission engagement

Pride and shame are so closely related because both feelings center on us, not on the mission of God at work in the wider community. We have all the resources and answers (pride). We have historically messed up and participated in a racist system (which can lead to shame). Pride and shame have more to do with us than with the people we are working with — and with the God who calls us. When we seek cultural humility, we stop making the story about us and instead open our eyes to the complicated and beautiful world around us. We can refocus not on us or even them, but rather on who we are together.

God has gifted the earth with diversity. People from different cultures have different communication styles and views on leadership, time, money and relationships. A person from a direct-communication culture would say what they think, with little hesitation, and might be frustrated when they do not receive honest feedback from mission companions who come from an indirect-communication culture. A person from an individualistic culture, where decisions can be made by individuals, might not understand mission companions who come from a collectivist culture, in which decision making about projects involves a larger community and a longer process.

As a person who comes from a culture that is more collectivist and indirect in communication, I can attest to how much I frustrate people in the United States whenever independent decision making and direct speaking do not come easily.

As we engage in God’s mission, we must be aware of the power dynamics in the room. Over centuries of colonial rule and neocolonial practice, people of color and those in the Global South learned to associate power and privilege with North America and Whiteness. If you are White and speak English, you are admired and given power because you are perceived to have wisdom and resources. This admiration is often accepted by White Westerners. We need to acknowledge who we are and where we come from as we enter into mission engagement, both locally and globally. As mission partners, we need to find a way not just to acknowledge power dynamics, but to seek ways to come to the table as partners. In this way, we can guard ourselves against the temptation to control and manipulate others.

The importance of cultural humility in our world today

Though cultural humility is vital for mission engagement abroad, we also need cultural humility before addressing our current sociopolitical and racial divide in the United States. When we step outside our church door to engage with our community in need, cultural humility is especially important to help us address racial disparities and histories of oppression in the U.S.

In the summer of 2020 in the U.S., many eyes were opened to the systemic racism in our cultural institutions that have informed our own biases. We witnessed this not only through the police violence committed against Black and Brown bodies but also through the number of racial and ethnic minority groups that are being deeply affected by COVID-19, according to an April 2021 report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We have spent too much time with our eyes closed. Cultural humility invites us in the church to open our eyes to the power dynamics that plague our world and to participate in God’s upside-down kingdom.

In this age of polarization, we spend inordinate time looking for ways to blame others and hold on to the conviction that we are right. Cultural humility invites each of us to look deeply within ourselves: to notice the log within our own eye before we try to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye (see Matthew 7:1-5). We must evaluate ourselves and our standpoints because we all come with biases and prejudices. By noticing who we are and where we come from, we can strive to make this world a place where we can learn from, grow with, share with and empower one another.

Ways to cultivate cultural humility

One principle of cultural humility is recognizing that we will never arrive at perfect understanding and that we constantly pursue learning through self-evaluation and self-critique. We need a willingness to set aside the pride (“I already know”) and even shame (“I will never understand”) to really listen to the stories and perspectives of others. To understand and appreciate “Avatar,” I had to watch it with my daughter and listen to her. That is the power of continually learning: it helps us continue to see new things about mission companions and, in turn, helps strengthen our joint mission activities or projects.

Here are some ways you can continue to learn and practice cultural humility.

1. Have the curiosity of a child

Having children has helped me realize how unburdened they are by assumptions. Their lives are full of questions. I think that is why children had a special place in Jesus’ life. Staying curious can help start your journey in cultivating cultural humility, especially as you engage in God’s intercultural mission.

While co-pastoring a small, rural congregation with my wife, shortly after I arrived in the United States, I heard people express concern that someone from the congregation had “fallen off the wagon.” Though I knew that this individual struggled with alcohol, I was unfamiliar with the phrase. I did know this person was very fond of horses, so I immediately assumed an accident involving an actual wagon. I continued the conversation with this assumption. Upon my arrival home, I asked my wife if she had heard that this person had an accident because they “fell off the wagon.” My wife couldn’t help but laugh, knowing that the person did not really have an accident but rather had slipped back into a drinking problem. I completely missed that pastoral care moment because I did not ask clarifying questions. This taught me an important lesson: not to assume I understand without constantly asking questions. Do not let your assumptions fool you.

2. Be aware of your environment

So many cultural differences and power dynamics go unnoticed, and we get ourselves into trouble. What language are we speaking? Who is speaking more? Who is being silent? Or who is not even invited into the room? Whose room are we in? Whose food or what kind of food are we eating? How are we sitting? How is the furniture set up? What is the body language in the room communicating? As we learn to be more culturally humble, we start to notice these subtle but influential ways in which an environment conveys power. Christ declared God’s kingdom to be where the “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). Just so, we are called to dismantle systems of power. In cultural humility, we do not just recognize the power dynamics — we disassemble them. That might mean changing the language we speak or rearranging the furniture, the menu or the space we meet in.

3. Stop expecting others to be like you

We are so desperate for people to join our worshipping communities — but only if they act or behave like us. Sadly, the church has engaged in mission and evangelism with this attitude for centuries. New converts all over the world have had to give up cultures and customs so that they could conform to the new way of life and beliefs imposed by the White European and American missionaries. As we engage in God’s mission in our world today, we must set ourselves up to follow Christ’s humility by doing “nothing from selfishness or conceit” and no longer believing that our way of doing things and our resources are better; “but in humility count[ing] others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3-4). At the end of the day, we need to realize that participation in God’s mission is not all about us and our own interests, but also “the interests of others” and God’s glory (v. 4). We cannot expect people to behave, talk, believe and act like us — but we can do the hard work of loving and respecting others.

4. Willingness to respect the skills and abilities of mission companions

Despite good intentions, mission engagements to help those in need often create unnecessary dependencies. Books like Toxic Charity, When Helping Hurts, and Doing Good . . . Says Who have identified this challenge. Unhealthy dependency usually happens when U.S. groups or churches begin a mission project without carefully consulting with the host community about skills and assets already available to them and about how projects will impact the local community. So, any project should limit “our inputs (ideas, financial support, labor) to ensure sustainability and allow a sense of community buy-in and ownership,” as Hunter Farrell and I explain in our new book: Freeing Congregational Mission: A Practical Vision for Companionship, Cultural Humility, and Co-Development. This effort not only gives the community a sense of ownership but also empowers everyone in the process.

My culture of origin expects that children take a class called Ki Jingsneng Tymmen (Instruction of Elders). In this class, one learns about traditional Khasi etiquette and morals. One teaching comes to mind, as expressed by Barnes L. Mawrie in his Introduction to Khasi Ethics: “Lada phi iaid phi ieng sharum shaneng, to sngewrit kynthop wat ju mlien sngewmeng … Da mut da khan, wat sarong wat kyreit, la ha shnong lane ha ka wan ka leit” (When you go here and there, be humble and never be proud … Think well and do not show off, be it in your home or when you travel abroad).

Out of pride, you and I would much rather take a training on cultural competency than enter the muddy waters of cultural humility. On an instinctual level, we want to make our church’s mission about us and our good works. Cultural humility is a life skill that does not come naturally. It must be taught, and it must be practiced. Yet it is the complicated, uncertain journey we are called to travel in our own community and in other countries, because it is the only way we can move past pride and shame to begin to truly see and participate in the amazing things God is doing in our midst.