Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Culture Shock

Sarah Layer--missionary to Poland

I had often heard about this much-discussed phenomenon we call culture shock: in college missions meetings, from other missionaries we met while on deputation, and from the missionaries we started to get to know when we got to the field. It just didn’t make any sense to me. We had already been in Cracow, Poland for a year or so and still I hadn’t experienced anything I would call shocking. There was stress, of course, trying to comprehend Polish grammar and use it in everyday conversation. At times I felt really uncomfortable, unsure of myself. Sometimes I even caught quick glimpses of how different this new culture was. But in general, my world was consumed with my brand new baby girl and with our study of the Polish language. While I felt frustration at times, I also felt we had lots of time to adjust. To tell the truth, actual ministry in Poland felt comfortably far-off. But before we planned our first furlough, my husband told me he felt we were ready to quit language school and move to a new town to begin church planting. “What?!” I thought. “Are you kidding me? We need several more years here to learn how to minister in Poland, to learn this crazy language!” Besides that, we were just getting to know a great young couple; we had fallen in love with our sweet landlady and her family; we had our American friends so close by for a support system. And we were going to just up and move to a brand new place in this already confusing culture?

Suddenly I started to feel some shock. Added to that, I found out I was pregnant. We went home to the States for a whirlwind furlough, came back, had our second baby girl and made plans to move. When we arrived in our new town, I felt like I had been tossed into the ocean without a life raft. In Cracow, there were many foreigners and often I could hear and speak English, but in Siedlce we were the only foreigners. To say that we didn’t get a warm welcome by the Polish people in our new town is an understatement, but we must have seemed foreign and scary to them too. Our coworkers were scheduled to arrive six months or so after we did, so for a while we were on our own. And I felt alone. More than I ever had in my life. Weird things started to happen: I started to get panic attacks and I couldn’t breathe; I felt overwhelmingly afraid at the oddest times. I knew at the time the fear was irrational, but even so, it felt very real. I felt as weak and helpless as my 6 month old baby. The only thing I had strength to do was cry out to God every minute of the day to save me, to keep me from going under.

It’s painful to remember those days, but I learned some important things. First, I experienced true dependence on God for the first time in my life. Before, I was proud of my independent spirit and of my ability to cope in any situation. Sure, I knew in my head that we humans are weak and dependent on our God, but for once I truly felt that I could do nothing, even take my next breath, without Jesus. I now better realize how weak and inadequate I am to the task and how desperately I need God.

I also have a new compassion for those struggling with depression. I recall a conversation I had a long time ago with someone battling depression. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. I’m appalled now at how impatient and unfeeling I was when I basically told her to just shake it off. Compassion was the hallmark of Christ’s dealings with people and because of my own struggle, I now have a new appreciation for other peoples’ pain.

Ministry is always hard, no matter where you are, because we’re all human and prone to conflict. It’s even more complicated when you throw in a difficult new language and a sometimes baffling culture. But we’re not alone. There are many of us struggling with the adjustment to our mission field, struggling to love those we don’t understand. But we’re not alone. Don’t feel you have to trudge through all by yourself. If you’re an experienced missionary who has triumphed over some hard times, reach out to those who are new. If you’re new and floundering, reach out to those who have walked where you walk today. And most importantly, remind yourself daily of God’s goodness. He loves you and has you exactly where He wants you for your own good and for His own glory.


The Stamper Story said...

This was great! I'll have to mark this and remember to read it again "someday" when I'm in the thick of ministry in a foreign culture. thanks for sharing!
beth (brumbaugh) stamper

S said...

What an awesome post! I appreciate all the posts you've had on adaptations to the mission field and have been reading them even though I haven't yet commented. I know they are such an encouragement to those facing the same trials.

The Sommer Family said...

Thanks, Ginger, for posting this. It was a blessing. Please tell Sarah thanks, too!

Anonymous said...

Dear Stover Family,
my name is Anna Grzenia and I was born in Poland in Grudziadz. Right now I live in Saginaw Mi and a friend whos name is Trisha told me about your missionary in Poland. Trishas little girl Chae is going to Grace Christian school with my daughter Alexandria. I read your story about how difficult it is to be in a foreign country. U.S is my third foreign country that I live now. I was 12 years old when I moved from Poland to Germany (Berlin). I lived there for 12 years and I went to Saginaw to be an aupair where I met my husband. Polish, German and English language are so different from each other but if we have a will and want to accomplish to learn this language then we can do it. I received Christ as my saviour 3 years ago. I feel so good now and I feel my spirit growing. I pray for my family in Poland and my mom in Berlin. I wish that someday they will receive Jesus in their heart and see how wonderful it is to have Him. When I grew up in Poland as catholic I never read the Bible or understood how much God loves me. I would like to talk to you more about Polish language and Polish culture which I miss sooooo muh. My email is: coupleofkooks@hotmail.com
Don't give up to learn a language that is so hard espacially the grammer. Thank you.
Anna Grzenia

Al said...

Thanks for sharing your struggles. Are they going to put in the US missile base near you?

The Stover Family said...

I haven't heard where they are installing the missile shield. There is an army base about 20 miles west of us. On that base they've got 5 F-16's that they bought from the U.S. so we see them fly overhead from time to time.