How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:4)
This snippet of scripture was written by a homesick Jew in Babylon after his people were taken there following the invasion of their homeland. They were supposed to just deal with it and get over it already yet. Being torn away from all that is familiar is seldom that easy.
I recently had a reunion with a seminary classmate. Back in the mid 80’s I was a Lutheran student in Austin. My husband and daughters were back in Houston. We Lutherans were a small group within a much larger Episcopal seminary community. My friend, now the Right Reverend James Tengatenga, was then a student from Malawi in Southeast Africa. His loved ones were a half-a-world away. He was preparing to be a priest back home. I was preparing to serve the Lutheran community at some-yet-to-disclosed location. We were among a small handful of students living in campus dorms.
Bishop Tengatenga was fluid in multiple languages, including Hebrew. I had to pass Hebrew in order to graduate. I wasn’t making much progress on that front. However, I did know how to type, a skill he was struggling to obtain. So we cut a deal. I’d type for him and he’d coach me through Hebrew. We studied Hebrew together over dinner.
He is now the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Global Anglicanism at the Sewanee School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee. I am now a retired Lutheran pastor. One beautiful spring afternoon back then he taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
He had gone out to do some errands and returned with a candy bar for me. I turned to retrieve my wallet to pay him for it. He became livid. For the next many minutes I was on the receiving end of a passionate out pouring of frustration, indignation, hurt, and anger about the injustice of the world order of things. “Why do you assume you Americans always have to be the ones to be doing things for others and we are not allowed to do something for you?”
Because we had forged a friendship based on his need to get his papers done on time and mine to pass Hebrew on the first try, this moment was actually a freeing one for me. I trust it was for him as well. It made me much more aware of the assumptions I carry with me by virtue of the family into which I was born and the places I’ve lived. Among these assumptions is the temptation to believe the right way is whatever way we’ve been conditioned to believe is superior. We of Northern European heritage too easily assume our way must be the superior way. This might apply to how to run communities and corporations; how to raise children and tend to the dying; or how to grow crops or economies.
I have thought of James Tengatenga often over the years. I have frequently reflected back to that afternoon and the lesson I learned about assumptions I bring with me into new situations.
We might get along better in our complex cross-cultural global village if we did more listening and thanking and less instructing, convincing and presuming we ought to be in charge of all the outcomes.