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Overcoming Barriers

God has helped us humans make sense of our world by giving us groups of people that share many things in common. For instance, we feel at home in a group that has familiar stories, the same language and understandable norms of relating to one another. We naturally like groups that share common flavors and even smells. We call these groups . . . culture.

Crossing from our culture to a new one can unnerve us a bit. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a group that tells different stories in perhaps an unfamiliar language. They relate to one another using a foreign rulebook and appreciate peculiar flavors and sometimes (sniff sniff) those unique smells.

Often we find the obstacles too high in crossing cultures and we retreat back to our familiar group where everything makes sense. Recently, I reached out to a number of friends to hear their thoughts about what barriers they feel keep us from engaging with our neighbor from a different culture and some common themes emerged that I’d like to explore in the next few minutes.

Overwhelmingly, the number one barrier in keeping us from reaching out to internationals is simple fear. We’re afraid and thus stay confined to the security of our own familiar world. We fear that we may say something culturally inappropriate and offend someone or perhaps we just fear the awkwardness of not understanding someone’s English. To the obstacle of fear, let me pose a question. Which is worse: Taking a step towards a neighbor from a different culture and perhaps while doing so, making a cultural blunder? Or the alternative of allowing that fear to keep us from not reaching out at all?

Let me tell you a story. I lived for over 8 years in Russia. My first months in the country I knew very little about the culture and could speak only a few words of the Russian language. That first fall I had caught a cold, which developed into a respiratory infection. I didn’t know how the medical system worked so I decided that rest and plenty of fluids would be best course of treatment. I didn’t get better. After visiting me, a Russian friend told his mother of my sickness. This woman didn’t speak a word of English, nor did she know anything about western culture or medicine for that matter. She did know how to love and how she’d treat her own son if he suffered as I did. Not afraid of doing something to offend my American sensibilities or fearing a language barrier, my friend’s mother came to my apartment with a home remedy she prepared . . . a concoction consisting of Russian spicy mustard, flour and warm water. When she insisted that I rub this gunk on my chest, my first thought was probably what you’re thinking now. “How is smelling like a hotdog going to help me at all.” As I reflect upon that incident the thing that strikes me most is not the awkwardness I felt, and don’t get me wrong . . . having a Russian mother insist on spreading spicy mustard on your chest is awkward. Rather, I think about this. Had my friend’s mother allowed fear to keep her from serving me, I would not have one of my most cherished memories of living in Russia. For the rest of my life, I will remember being a foreigner in a strange land, and receiving tremendous love of my friend’s mother . . . She loved me . . . in a real and tangible way. Incidentally, to this day, nearly 20 years later, I keep in contact with my friend and his family and if you’re wondering . . . that spicy Russian mustard plaster actually did work to clear up my chest.

When we face fears that keep us from loving those around us, we should take a moment to consider what actually frightens us. Once we’ve identified our fears, we should ask ourselves which alternative is worse. Perhaps our fear is realized and while reaching out in love we create a culturally awkward moment. Is the alternative of not reaching out at all better?

Second, the barrier of ignorance keeps us from reaching out to internationals, which is actually a subset of fear. As competent individuals (as least that is how we’d like to portray ourselves) engaging cross culturally can expose what we don’t know about the world. Nobody likes finding themselves wading into vulnerable waters of a topic in which we have limited or no knowledge and let’s face it, a lot of unknown resides outside of our own culture. What if I meet someone who comes from a country I’ve never heard of . . . let alone be able to find on a map. We ask ourselves, wouldn’t it offend them if I revealed that I had never heard of their home country? Rather, we say, “Oh, you’re from Brunei” of course in your mind, you haven’t a clue what continent Brunei is on. To not expose our ignorance, we quickly say something like, “Oh yeah, I hear that is a great place.” Then quickly pivot to get out of the conversation to not reveal our ignorance further.

To combat the barrier of ignorance, I actually suggest to embrace your ignorance. What speaks honor to another than someone interested to learn about them. For example, take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of an international. Imagine yourself visiting a foreign country. How would you respond to someone who notices your Penn State or University of Oklahoma sweatshirt and says, “I’ve never heard of that university.” (Embracing their ignorance) and asks, “Is it a good school?” Well, if you’re a good nittany lion or Oklahoma Sooner, you’d jump at the chance to tell all about your famous and amazing university.

Or consider this example, perhaps you wear a cross around your neck. How would you respond to a friend who says, “ I see you have a cross. I don’t know anything about Christianity . . . is it like an amulet or good luck charm for your religion?” Does it offend you that in trying to understand you, they make a wrong conclusion about your faith? Of course not. Rather, you’d be thrilled to share the significance the cross you wear.

I have learned to love my ignorance and I always look for opportunities to learn from internationals. I love seeing the joy people have when they can share their culture with me. I remember once spending time with some Indian students. The topic of conversation turned to a famous Bollywood actor who I had never heard of. Stunned that I didn’t know this guy, they proceeded to educate me for 30 minutes. They couldn’t contain their joy when I suggested we get together to watch one of his most famous films.

Humbly admit that you don’t know about your neighbor’s culture or religion or their food and ask questions. Rather than allowing ignorance to hinder us from reaching out to internationals, embrace your ignorance and allow it as an opportunity to honor your neighbor and to learn from them.

This brings us to the third barrier and perhaps the most difficult to overcome. The barrier of ourselves. This obstacle takes many forms . . . perhaps we’re simply prejudiced and deep down feel like everyone should talk, think and act like us. Maybe we’re so occupied with ourselves and our busy activities that we simply don’t have time to reach out to our family, let alone cross a culture to befriend an international. Worse yet, perhaps we simply don’t care.

To this barrier, Jesus says it best in Matthew 25 when he said, ““Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you . . . For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. . . I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home’’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or a stranger?’ And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’ In other words, Jesus is saying to us, “When you allowed fear or ignorance or yourself to keep from reaching out to your international neighbor, you allowed those barriers to keep you from reaching out to me.”

The author of the book of Hebrews says in chapter 13: Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!

I recently moved to a neighborhood in New York City, where I am a minority. As the weather has warmed up, groups of people congregate on the stoops outside of the building. I can’t help but feel a discomfort when I walk by because my neighbors in this group come from a culture different from mine with different stories and ways of expression. I feel like an outsider when I walk by. Recently, I passed this group who were all listening to an older gentleman expressively tell a story about the neighborhood 40 years ago. This caught my attention and I wanted to listen . . . but in that instant fear kicked in and I kept walking. I thought . . . they don’t know me. They don’t want me budding in. What if they reject me? I thought of all that I didn’t know about this culture and the rules of engagement. What if I offend them? Besides, I was in a rush at the time and had to get home. Then I stopped on the sidewalk and thought . . . this is what crossing cultures is all about. I needed to overcome my fear of how I’d be received. I needed to embrace my ignorance and learn from these wise sages of the neighborhood. In reality . . . I wasn’t that busy. I didn’t really need to be anywhere. So I turned around, approached the group and said, “I’m new to the block. Can I listen in.”? You know what . . . they embraced me wholeheartedly. Now I can’t pass by without stopping to shake hands and catching up. I’m starting to learn the stories of the people in my neighborhood and proper ways of interacting. I’m becoming part of the culture.

Don’t let fear, ignorance or yourself keep you from engaging with the world around you.

Overcoming Barriers


Ignorance, fear, and pride can hold us back from entering other cultures. Yet is the alternative, of not reaching out at all, really better? Kevin shares the joys to be found in crossing into new worlds, and how you can overcome the barriers to doing so. 

Ignorance, fear, and pride can hold us back from entering other cultures. Yet is the alternative, of not reaching out at all, really better? Kevin shares the joys to be found in crossing into new worlds, and how you can overcome the barriers to doing so.