January 13, 2024

Us and Them

Becoming one with the other in Christ

Oscar Osindo
Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

God chose the Seventh-day Adventist Church to preach the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6-12. The church interacts with diverse cultures and sends missionaries worldwide. This engagement can sometimes lead to discrimination because of ethnocentrism—a common human trait that leads to negative bias toward other cultures.

The Great Commission calls us to interact with others in a way that embodies Christ’s love despite dividing humanity into two groups: us and them. God implores us to share the good news with others and prepare them for His return. Growing up in multicultural Kenya taught me to appreciate human diversity and celebrate differences. In addition, my interreligious interactions have enriched my worldview.

Lessons in Language

God’s calling to serve Muslims and share God’s love taught me many lessons. I used to view Muslims, their mannerisms and behavior, as peculiar and prone to violence. I soon learned that most Muslims strive daily to earn a living like everybody else. They cherish peace. I discovered that the more I sought to bridge the cultural gap, the more we understood one another.

In 1997 I, along with a team of youthful men, pitched an evangelistic tent in the Muslim holy city of Lamu on the north coast of Kenya to declare the mighty works of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was one of the most challenging tasks in my evangelistic life. Out of nowhere a Muslim sect claimed that one of my team members had dishonored the Prophet Jesus, the Messiah. They therefore vowed to kill him. This caused such an uproar that activities on the Lamu archipelago ceased for two days.

I tried to understand how and why my evangelist had insulted Jesus Christ. It didn’t make sense to me that we who put our lives on the firing line would at the same time demean our Lord Jesus Christ. I was informed that the preacher had referred to Jesus as kuhani mkuu. I didn’t see anything wrong with this, because it is a title of honor, which means “high priest” in the Kiswahili translation of the Bible. They, however, had a different interpretation of it. To clarify, the Muslim leaders and I looked up the word in a Kiswahili dictionary called kamusi. To our surprise, we discovered that kuhani means both “priest” and “soothsayer, defrauder, swindler, and deceiver” in Kiswahili, depending on the dialect. We were both right and wrong at the same time. We laughed together and reconciled.

I realized that even if I am convinced that I am right about something, it is always wise to listen to another point of view. I learned a significant cross-cultural lesson about communicating the gospel to people of different religions, even if we speak the same language. Differences in dialects can cause misunderstandings on the recipients’ end. This was my experience, as I speak the Kimvita dialect of Swahili spoken in Mombasa, Kenya, which has slight differences with the Kiamu of the Lamu archipelago.

Dog Walking, People Talking

During my time serving cross-culturally in Europe from 2001 to 2005, I encountered an incident that taught me a valuable lesson. Moving from a collectivist to an individualist culture was a big change for me, and I struggled to adjust. As part of my exercise routine, I started walking and jogging in a nearby park. Even though I encountered many people, nobody seemed interested in greeting me, which made me think they disliked my ethnicity. I realized, however, that even among themselves they did not greet those they met. This was very different from the society I came from, where people greet each other liberally.

But then I noticed something interesting. People stopped and chatted briefly with others who were walking their dogs. I decided to be innovative and volunteered to walk my neighbor’s dog, Shelly. When I took Shelly to the park, I crossed paths with someone also walking his dog. To my surprise, we stopped, greeted each other, and admired each other’s dogs. It dawned on me how wrong I was to assume that people disliked me because of my ethnicity. I had misjudged them based on my Coastal Kenyan frame of reference.

From this experience I learned that as a missionary in a new place and culture, I should suspend judgment and take the time to study the context. I discovered that it was easy to fellowship with these people once I knew their social location, which in this case was among the fellowship of dogs.

Bridges of Understanding

Another occasion was in Nicosia, Cyprus, a city divided by a wall into European and Turkish sides. I lived in the European part of town. One day I decided to walk to the Turkish side. The border control officer on the European side refused to allow me to cross over. He didn’t want to see my passport or hear my reasons. He mislabeled me as a drug peddler, an illegal immigrant, and so many negatives. I was in shock, but I was not about to give up.

I returned home, changed into formal attire, and returned to the same border point, driving my car. Reaching the crossing, I rolled my car window down, and the same officer who shoved me away an hour before said, “Sir, can I see your passport?” After glancing through its pages, he said, “Ooh, Kenya is a good friend of Cyprus!” gladly reminding me that the founders of the two nations were great friends. I was delighted that his prejudice had vanished. As a result, he let me through the border control. That day I learned another lesson: one can wiggle out of someone’s stereotyped mind. God has provided each society and culture with cultural bridges of understanding; in this case, it was about the friendship between Kenya and Cyprus. In these three instances I realized that the mandate to preach the three angels’ messages lays a responsibility on us to acquire cross-cultural skills. We are the ones called to go to other cultures; we are the ones who must adjust to them and not them to us. God has sent us to the nations to incarnate Christ, who mingled with all and ushered them into His saving grace. The gospel truly received results in the merger of “us” and “them” into one body in Christ Jesus. That is one characteristic, among many, that the church of Christ will exhibit before He returns to take us home.