In cross-cultural ministry, I’m learning it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Twice during the three months I spent in Papua New Guinea in 2002, I heard one of my favorite foreign phrases, “You speak up to us.”
A brief history of Papua New Guinea (PNG)
The people of PNG call their country, “The Land of the Unexpected.” People from thousands of tribal groups speak 864 unique languages from their villages, where many see the horizon as the “end of the world.” It’s one of the places known for headhunters and cannibals…in recent memory, “Oh, it’s been at least 40 years,” he said. Today, these groups live with a history and set of traditions difficult for westerners to comprehend.
Since the white men (and they were men) “discovered” the inland areas of the country, they’ve sought to “modernize” the “savages” and teach them all the “good things” of life. Unfortunately, many men had horrific intentions. Thankfully, some foreigners live with better intentions today. We learned as we listened, that regardless of intention, most foreigners speak from a top-down position to the Papua New Guineans.
You speak up to us!
We enjoyed many opportunities to listen to the people of PNG, learning much about their culture. One of my favorite days was spent driving and walking and asking questions and soaking in the area. We also shared in churches, worked alongside local people doing ministry in the schools, and enjoyed many local customs with the friends we made.
As someone who spoke in various settings such as churches and schools, I heard a phrase I haven’t heard before or since, “You speak up to us. Most foreigners come and speak down to us, but you speak up to us. Thank you.”
How was speak matters:
-Each person is created in God’s image.
-They understand their culture, we don’t. Short-term missions trips don’t provide enough time to master the cultural complexities of a place like PNG.
-You’re there, and will soon be gone. They’ll stay.
-Listen with fascination
-Learn what you can about the people you’re serving
-Speak with optimism and respect
-Insist on nothing
-Don’t take every “influential” opportunity
-Don’t be arrogant (I almost wrote, “Don’t be an arrogant jerk.”)
In short-term missions, our listening, respect, partnership and personal interaction typically influences far more than our words. Our words influence more when spoken from the right position. From my perspective, speak up or go home.