Through My Lens—Breaking Out of My Box & Entering Another Culture Well
I grew up in Chinatown San Francisco, where all my relatives and friends shared similar cultural and family experiences.
When I was 10, my family moved out of Chinatown, and I met friends from European and African American cultures for the first time. As my world broadened, I realized that others had very different experiences than I did. Joining InterVarsity staff after college gave me another opportunity to experience diversity on a deeper level with my colleagues and students.
I appreciate the Apostle Paul’s approach to connecting with people of various cultures: “I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some” (1 Cor 9:22). He wanted to find common ground with both Jews and Gentiles through contextualization.
As I reflect on what contextualization means in today’s world, I believe it is more about who you are rather than the specific things you do.
Be a Humble Learner
In 1992, I moved to Hawai`i from San Francisco to help replant InterVarsity’s ministry. I experienced great dissonance and culture shock. Though I probably looked like I was from Hawai`i, I encountered completely new people groups and cultures. I had no clue what it meant to live on an island in the middle of the ocean.
To learn more about the culture, I took some Hawaiian studies classes. I heard some uncomfortable things, like how the US illegally overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom, the painful injustices that have happened since, and how many still continue today.
Though it did not feel natural or easy, I knew that I needed to have a humble posture to enter in, listen, and learn from Native Hawaiians. Similar to entering new cultures in San Francisco on a deeper level, I had to be willing to be uncomfortable, make mistakes, and not look for a quick solution. God had gifts for me to receive if I was open. He wanted to break me out of my box, so I could more clearly see the people and community around me. People from within the culture were the best ones to teach and show me how God is already at work in their context.
I discovered that contextualization was more than just changing how I study a Bible passage, learning to appreciate new kinds of music, or letting the Holy Spirit freely move without looking at the clock. I had to learn to appreciate and understand a completely different worldview.
I met Moani Nanod-Sitch, a young Native Hawaiian student, and invited her to InterVarsity. Fully engaged with her family, church, hula family, and much more, she didn’t have time for any of our meetings. I tried to stay in touch with her because I sensed that it was important for me to make space for Moani to influence my life and ministry rather than focus on how I wanted to teach her.
Though it was nontraditional with Moani not having any experience in our fellowship, I invited her to join our newly formed student leadership meetings. This meant an extra two hours for me to drive to the other side of the island to pick her up and then drop her off after each meeting. But this decision changed my life and our ministry forever.
Moani now has been ministering on staff through InterVarsity Hawai`i for over 20 years. Though it hasn’t always been easy, she has helped lead us in contextualizing the gospel and ministry in Hawai`i. And I am still growing and learning from her.
Be Willing to Be Uncomfortable
During Moani’s early years on InterVarsity staff, I asked her to take some of our students to an urban project. She wondered if we could do something in Hawai`i instead, so I asked her to plan something. After prayer and listening to God, the Lord birthed a vision for Moani to help address the gap between the Native Hawaiian activist community and the Church due to historical injustices. It would be an opportunity for Christians to listen well and intently to the Native Hawaiian community and serve alongside them, something that could potentially benefit everyone involved.
She felt God’s leading for this experience to be multiethnic and interdenominational, which I thought was great. She also felt it should be intergenerational and welcoming to participants to come to any part of this two-week immersion. I started feeling a little uncomfortable. The final shock came when she felt led that people should pay only what they could afford.
How do you do a budget for that? I wondered. I felt challenged. Could I believe that there was another way to do ministry that would better reach people in a way that I would never be able to do? Was I willing to let a Native Hawaiian lead and bring change to what I knew and was familiar with?
For the last 15 years, Moani has led Ho`olohe Pono (which means “listening well and intently”), our summer immersion into the Hawaiian community. She has been the one to contextualize the gospel, so all types of Hawaiians could experience the love of Ke Akua (God) in fresh and relevant ways. God has worked to powerfully transform lives every single year. And miraculously, the budget has always balanced. Our ministry with Ho`olohe Pono and all InterVarsity Hawai`i has been very fruitful among locals, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and those from the continent and the nations.
When I was willing to experience dissonance and be a humble learner, I learned more about the gospel from a holistic Native Hawaiian perspective that sees the whole person and whole community as equally important. I learned what it means to share power with someone who is different than me and be okay being uncomfortable when things happen completely differently than I would normally do.
Instead of me bringing a gospel that is neatly contextualized to share with others, God is continuing to change my heart and show me how big his gospel really is!
Suggestions to Break Out of Your Box
When we encounter others that are from a different community and background, here are some suggestions:
Ask God for his eyes and heart to see each person’s unique, God-given beauty. How does their community see themselves and experience the world? What would they consider to be good news? Are you aware of power and cross-cultural dynamics? What about your own biases and perspectives? What are their cultural values and history?
In Philippians 2, Paul reminds us that Jesus was clothed in humility as he entered our world. He chose to let go of his power and privilege, coming as a servant to fully experience life with us. Jesus calls us to be like him. As we experience another culture, we need to reserve our judgments, humbly enter into something that we may have never experienced, be willing to feel dissonance, and freely admit when we are wrong.
It may feel easier to try to get people to learn the way we learn, but it can be more fruitful to die to self and let God raise up people who can lead in a way that is different than what we are used to.
As we are willing to be humble learners and let the Holy Spirit lead us into uncomfortable places, God will break us out of our boxes, and we will experience greater freedom. We will be surprised by the gift of growing diverse relationships and the many ways that God will continue to transform us. We will experience more deeply what it means to know Jesus and be in his kingdom.
Brenda has spent over 41 years leading, discipling, and developing InterVarsity students and staff in San Francisco and Hawai`i. You can support her ministry at https://donate.intervarsity.org/donate#17.
My everyday life carries the thumbprints of the generational traumas, sins, and blessings of our collective stories. The lessons I’ve learned from the matriarchs of my family and our immigration stories shape how I engage with Scripture and the gospel. And as a multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial woman, I know that stepping into Oklahoma means bringing my family’s stories and lives with me.