Spending time in the Bronx and its neighboring NYC boroughs has opened my eyes to ‘the ways of the world.’ By that, I mean the way that the world as a community practically operates. What gives it away is the fact that you have block after block of global microcosms of people from around the world. People come here leaving behind everything they know from many far flung places of the world who may or may not know much about other cultures let alone the other side of the planet. Those who leave their homeland to seek their treasure are likewise sent by loved ones and neither may be seeing each other again for years or some even for decades to come.
Working here with GCMI has brought me into close contact with one particular ethnic enclave of these ‘treasure hunters;’ Gambian, West Africans. To me, the contrast between ‘the homeland’ and this financial capital of the world is particularly apparent in this group of people. The land that they left behind is impoverished by comparison. It is on the edge of the biggest desert in the world. The total population of their entire nation isn’t even over 2 million people. Then, you begin to account for the cultural gap and differences in worldview. Coming from an African worldview, their value system in many ways is counter-intuitive to the way we might think about certain things, such as time, hospitality, methods of communication, & social conformity to name a few. We could also say that many of the values that they espouse are informed by life conditions that seems to us to be ‘bygone era.’ This is to say that these people are transplants from a vastly different place in many respects.
This, however, is only what you might initially think. But then you take into account the fact that some of the people whom we are meeting have been here in New York or some another ‘Western’ city for 30 years or more! Then, on top of that, there are now 2nd and 3rd generation children and grandchildren coming into the picture who may have never even been to their homeland and are disconnected from many of its customs and beliefs. But, nevertheless, many families are on the front end of the immigration continuum who have just arrived with all their transplanted traditions and beliefs and have little familiarity with their new surroundings. Therefore, migrant cultures are constantly evolving.
I guess the point that I am trying to make here is that ministry among immigrants in New York City can be fairly complex at times. It can be a challenge to come into any new situation and begin learning about a people that are foreign in many ways and to begin trying to relate to them. If they are one group that is one thing, but if they are strung across a continuum of traditional, acculturated and assimilated indviduals and families, this can add a whole other measure of complexity and nuance to people’s personalities and world-views. Even targeting a single people group in the city can lead to diverse encounters.
So as you begin taking a look and assessing these cultural differences and variances, you might begin to ask yourself a myriad of questions. Who are these people? What do they believe? What religion are they? What sway does that religion hold over them? What do they believe practically and how does their belief system work out practically? What are their values? What about this individual? How is this individual going to view the cultural miscues that I make? Why does he not return my phone calls? Are they putting us off, are they simply too busy, or is there something else behind this ‘elusive’ behavior? …Lots of questions and mysteries to unravel as you seek to come to an understanding of the cultural landscape around you.
But I’ve recently been reminded that all of this investigation is really meant to help us see and understand one superseding question that overshadows all the others. That question is: What is God doing here? Answering this question provides the vision and benchmark for what we hope to accomplish here. This will provide power or ‘driving force’ as my team-mate stated it, to everything else we will do. For me, I am still trying to work out answers. Yet at the same time, I understand that the answer is not to be found entirely in an ‘intellectual comprehension’ of our surroundings, but rather it may also be found within the process of community engagement that these questions and investigation force us into.
Everybody needs God’s love. As we have investigated the different complexities that make up this community we have come into contact with all kinds of people who have different personalities, interests, and values. I think it is essential to learn these things and begin to fill in the blank spaces in our cultural awareness, yet it is also essential to remember that we are here to build relationships. So at some point among all the questions that have to be asked, mysteries that are produced, and the theories that we construct we have to be ready to set them all aside in order to get to know the person in front of you. This community -- however traditional and conformist or however secular and plural one may appear to be -- it is made up of individuals. We cannot forget about the relational aspect of God’s love and that he designed his creation with relationship in mind. No matter who you are or where you come from relationship is built into our human DNA.
God has constructed a grand rescue operation based on his choice to show us compassion. None of us deserve it, but it is because of what God has done and continues to do in us that promotes the spread and demonstration of compassion to others. As we continue to mix and mingle with people in this community we work to remind ourselves that we are really here to get to know and be known by real people. It is important to remember that we are here to show God’s compassion, extending ourselves with authenticity and love that we cannot quite comprehend. Knowing that we have been touched nonetheless, we are compelled to meet and be with the ‘stranger’ and the ‘foreigner’ who we are living among.