This idea of culture matters has become very real and relevant to me through my recent two-month trip to Guatemala with the Bridge Street Mission School. Hopefully this article can do the same for you.
This article was originally posted on Poverty Cure’s website.
Why are some companies so beloved by their employees? Often the answer is the culture of the workplace. Culture matters in altruistic enterprises as well. When attempting to affect change (such as helping to improve the condition of the impoverished), certain cultural contexts require attention. When working with or on behalf of others (especially internationally), there are at least three cultures to consider: the culture you’re creating, the culture you’re carrying with you, and the culture you’re entering into.
The culture you’re creating: Good intentions must be coupled with integrity. As Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, “recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.” All the money in the world won’t be of genuine help to anyone if it’s put in dishonest or ill-equipped hands. When I give to my church, I give confidently because I have carefully (and prayerfully) observed the integrity and wisdom with which they handle their finances—avoiding debt and investing in the marginalized, for example. It is important that we (especially we Christians) are careful to put our resources in the right hands—hands whose means to an end are congruent with the spirit of the ends we hope to see (i.e., honest, wise, generous, and loving). That may mean doing some homework, but then you can give knowing your gift isn’t being stolen or squandered—that it’s reaching the intended recipients and making a positive difference.
The culture you’re carrying with you: Whether we’re most influenced by the culture of our country, community, or family of origin, we all have biases that inform our actions and assumptions. Westerners throughout history have habitually expected others to conform—whether they were the majority or not. Rather than seeing our way of life as one option, we sometimes presume that everyone should (or wants to) live as we do. Whether it’s customs, attire, language, etiquette, or social norms, there are many subtle and striking differences across cultures. This is something to become aware of so that you don’t impose your culture on others. When entering another community, remember that you are a visitor. You wouldn’t arrive at a friend’s home and immediately start rearranging furniture or telling her/him how to live more like you do. In much the same way, it’s important to view those you’re trying to stand beside or help as equals—able agents in their own lives and not helpless victims you rode in on your white horse to save. Your ways are simply your ways, not necessarily the right ways.
The culture you’re entering into: Don’t presume to understand the needs of the needy better than they do. Don’t assume they will do things the way you do. They may; they may not. Your ideas of prosperity, modernity, convenience, et cetera may differ from those of the community you’re entering. You may come from a neighborhood with a butcher’s shop on every corner, that doesn’t mean you’d be wise to build a meat market. Perhaps it would be a welcome addition, but perhaps you’re in a community of vegetarians. When working with the poor, remember Proverbs 22:2. (“Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.”) To be more effective, have a posture of humility and learning, and allow yourself to be invited in rather than bursting in with your “great” ideas of how to make things better. You’re no one’s savior. Being poor doesn’t make a group of people inferior. You are equals trying to solve a problem together. Have respect for the culture that you’re working in. Yours isn’t right, and theirs isn’t wrong; it’s simply different.