By Linda Johnson Seyenkulo
Culture is a funny thing. You do not know it is there, until it is not. What I mean by that is the culture to which we are born is so much a part of us that we are not aware. Someone said, “It is the air we breathe.” Or if we were fish, it would be the water we swim in. Culture allows us to live and move without having to think about everything we do.
I’m a white, educated, western woman living in a West African country where many people do not have much education. Me being white, educated and western is part of my culture and my privilege. I do not think about it much, but in being all that, I carry with me an expectation that the way I live and move and have my being is normal; how things should be. I often function that way not thinking about what it means for those around me.
I recently became aware in a painful way of the ways that I as a Westerner function without thinking. I came to understand the ways that I put process and what I feel needs to happen ahead of the relationships I have. I do it without thinking.
I was having a conversation with some Liberian friends. I had stopped to see them because two colleagues from the West had decided relatively quickly to leave our institution and the country. I was concerned the women who cook for the institution and had grown to know them did not know.
So, I told cooks that our friends were returning to their home in the West. What followed broke something in me.
“I hope we didn’t do anything bad to them,” my friend Bendu said with sadness in her voice. That was her first thought. It was not where are they going, when are they going, why are they going. It was “I hope we didn’t do anything bad to them.”
My co-workers had only been here a short time. It had been a difficult time, with many frustrations for them, I believe. However, their sudden departure came as a shock. Shocking and saddening for all of us but particularly for the Liberians.
You see, my co-workers did not say goodbye. They left the school early, before the term ended. They left and did not come back until after school had closed. They did this in a context where saying hello and goodbye are vitally important to the health of the community.
They left without the closing greeting which left Bendu and her friends to wonder, “Did we do something bad to them?” I wondered if the other connections were left the same way: the congregations where they worshipped and worked, the other institutions where they also worked, new friends in other locations.
I was upset with them. I found it easy for me to judge and be harsh about in my thinking about them. As I thought that way, I realized doing so allowed me to not look at myself. I could easily be upset and angry with them. In doing that I would miss the ways that I and others like me regularly screw up when it comes to relationship and patterns of interaction with our brothers and sisters from other cultures.
I am in and out at the institution where I teach and live. I regularly forget to stop and see all the neighbors to say, “I’m leaving, see you soon.” In the place where I live, that is the normal thing to do, whether or not you know the people well.
When I come back, I am glad to be home and hurry into my house to unpack and get comfortable and do not think about going around to the neighbors to say, “Hello, I’m back.” Recently, the man who drove me home, dropped me off and then immediately went to a few neighbors to say, “Hello, I’m here.”
In fact, I have been so bad about doing this that now I feel embarrassed to go see them. You see I have not done either one for so long. I find myself thinking that they will be thinking, “What gives with her? Why is she coming around now?”
Again, I am putting the focus on myself: “How will I look to them? What will they think of me?” Instead of asking what does it mean to be community in this place and in this setting?
I am becoming more and more aware that it is about taking time; taking time to call on the phone and say hello or to say sorry if someone is sick or bereaved; taking time to walk over and smile at the neighbor who speaks no English but would just be glad that I stopped; taking time to put down my book and engage with the people walking by my yard; taking time to show up.
It is about community focus, not so much individual focus; it is about us, not just me.
So, I am holding thoughts of my Western colleagues gently in my mind and remembering all the times I have left without saying goodbye and come back without saying hello. I remember the times I have most likely offended or saddened my Liberian friends by forgetting to put relationship first and my need for my own comfort second.
My hope is that which broke in me when Bendu said, “Did we do something bad to them” will be healed by moving into the sacred and holy space that is community.
My hope is that I will learn how to balance who I am with the gifts of the place where I live.
Update: I just came home again. I went in the house and got settled. Then I walked around to the neighbors’ houses to say “Hello, I’m here.” Funny thing: they were just glad to see me. It’s about us, not me.
Linda Johnson Seyenkulo is a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, serving as a teacher/curriculum developer/pastor in Liberia, West Africa. Her academic background, besides theology is in family systems theory. She is the mother of three grown children and the wife of the Presiding Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia. Her family is both Western (U.S.) and African (Liberia.) Being a part of both cultures is challenging, rewarding, difficult, and the most marvelous thing about her life.