Colombia 1976 “The Sharing of a Special Meal”

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IMG_0996Colombia 1976

“The Sharing of a Special Meal”

What meal would you consider as one of the most significant of your life?  And, why would you select that particular meal?  Was it a “last supper” with a loved one?  Did it seal a deal that greatly increased your wealth?  Or, was it the meal when you proposed to the one you loved?  For me to share one of my special meals, I must give some background related to the pain and healing from “culture shock.”

The powerful debilitating effects of culture shock attack victims in ways that cannot be predicted.  It is the individualistic disorientation due to a significant shift in one’s way of life, particularly when visiting or moving to another country.  Most people never consider culture shock until it affects them.

The symptoms include disorientation, boredom, excessive criticism of the new culture, depression, staring, sleepiness, mood swings, bursts of anger or crying, etc.  No prescribed medicine will resolve culture shock.  In most cases improvement results through exposure to the new environment, mental/emotional adjustments, and an acceptance of the new culture into one’s personality.  Most authorities agree that culture shock should improve within the first year of moving to a new country.

My first struggle with culture shock struck to some degree during our transitional year of language learning after moving from North America to Costa Rica.  Our major adjustment in San Jose was the learning of a new language.  Since we studied and lived with other North Americans, our adjustment to the Latin culture did not precipitate a major cultural adaptation.

However, when we arrived in Colombia for a three-year term of service, the reality of being some of the few North Americans in a city of 300,000 became permanent.  Our second bout with culture shock was much more complex and crippling.  The list of differences between my birth culture and the Latin culture is too long to elaborate.  We were taller and had a fairer complexion. Our poor Spanish crippled our communication and identified us as foreigners. The practices, mores and customs of the Colombian culture sometimes aggravated me.  For example, I was obsessive compulsive about events starting on time while the Colombian view of time was much more relaxed.  Events often began 30 minutes late.

We knew the cure for culture shock would not be found by changing the culture.  The cure would come only with time and in a way or ways that no one could specify, because it varied from person to person.  One of the keys to our family’s adaptation came in an unexpected way that no one could have scripted because of its authenticity and specificity.

Much of our shock revolved around the absence of genuine friendship.  We often found that as husband and wife, we could not help one another with our unhappiness.  Nearly all Colombians were friendly and considerate.  But being friendly and being friends differ.  Friendships can’t be ordered through a mail-order catalogue.  The best of friendships develop and are not planned.  They can’t be forced. Instead, they result when two or more people meet and wish to pursue spending more time together.  Usually there is a common need or interest present that finds a possible solution in the other person or persons.

Our emptiness in our new home far exceeded what we anticipated.  Our more than adequate salaries and the “things” we brought from the United States didn’t resolve loneliness.  If I had known the pain and fears of adapting to a new culture and finding new friends, I would have wrestled with God about a call to leave my home for a new climate, home, foods, healthcare, laws, social practices, language, and holidays.

The Colombian Church assigned me as pastor of a 200 member congregation in Armenia, Colombia.  We worked with people every day.  How can you be surrounded by so many people and yet feel so isolated?  It didn’t make sense.  And, then, “the sharing of a simple meal” became the first sight of light at the end of our lonely tunnel.  It all began with a shoe salesman and his wife coming to visit our church.  The greatest thing we had in common was our age.  They lived in one room behind a shoe store.  We lived in a three bedroom, three-bath upper-middle class community.  However, from simple greetings and a few smiles, a mysterious wish for friendship developed.

They invited us to their apartment for lunch.  We arrived and found that they had a bed, a small television, a table with two chairs, a hot plate, and two cabinets where they kept their clothes and personal items.  There was a small bathroom at the far back of the room where they bathed and washed their dishes.  No doubt they struggled daily to put food on their table. Their whole apartment was only slightly larger than our living room.

Our hosts insisted that we sit at their table on their chairs and they sat on chairs brought in from the shoe store as we ate.  “We hope you like beans and rice!” Their initiative formally began a friendship that has lasted until this day.  Thirty years after we left Colombia as missionaries, hardly a month goes by that I do not speak to them or one of their children.  They live a thousand miles away but are some of the closest family I have.  This incredible family opened our world to a profound depth of love that transcended culture, nationality, education, and financial position.  A special meal, given with love, was a defining moment that opened the door for our escape from loneliness and the bonds of culture shock.


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