When I boarded my jet for Kenya in 2015, I couldn’t wait to arrive at the Nairobi slums and get busy. Many people there needed help. I was prepared to visit, assess the needs and figure out what I could do. The need was overwhelming, but I’m a fixer — and I was armed and ready to fix.
I traveled with the best intentions, but the worst approaches. I was arrogant, ignorant and culturally insensitive — like most Americans who have had little interaction with different cultures. I needed a good dose of cultural sensitivity.
Cultural sensitivity involves acknowledging that cultural differences exist between peoples and that one culture is not necessarily better or worse than another. Engaging different cultures with humility requires us to be culturally sensitive.
One of the more innocent examples of my cultural insensitivity occurred during lunch at a restaurant in Nairobi. I was uneasy about using the “squatty potty.” Many places have restrooms that consist of a hole in the bottom of the floor that you squat over to use the bathroom. I asked my new Kenyan friends if there were any “real toilets” nearby. My seemingly innocent question displayed my belief that the Western toilet I was familiar with was right and the toilet they were familiar with was wrong. The squatty potty isn’t an inferior toilet; it’s just different.
Cultural sensitivity becomes an important issue when we try to provide aid or fix injustices. As image bearers, we desire to step in and bring reconciliation to injustices around the world. But when we step into a situation believing Western ways are best, we are not necessarily in step with Jesus. Jesus was not a Westerner. We should be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), not our culture. We should walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), seeking solutions to problems that bring him glory above all else. We should humbly acknowledge that what is best in America is not necessarily best in Ukraine.
We want to help. We have good intentions. But good intentions aren’t enough. Here are five ways to demonstrate cultural sensitivity when helping different cultures.
1. Short-term mission teams should stimulate the economy, not squelch it.
We think we’re helping the poor when we send boxes overseas filled with our old shirts. They need clothes, and we have more than we need. Problem solved, right? But when we send our old clothes overseas, what we’re actually doing is putting a local seamstress out of work. We’re causing a clothing store to let go of an employee because no one in the village is coming in to buy clothes. Why? Because the Americans gave them clothes for free. No price discounts can compete with that market.
Of course, there are times when we should give indiscriminately. For example, in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, victims need food, clothing and shelter. But entire villages don’t need rice flown in indefinitely. They need the ability to grow rice for themselves and families need sustainable income to be able to buy rice from the rice farmer.
People in Vietnam have been feeding and clothing themselves for centuries. In Haiti, there are skilled craftsman. We need to focus our efforts on empowering them to provide for themselves, for the glory of God.
2. Empower locals by providing training in useful trades.
We think we’re helping the poor by building a community center for them. We send a team to their area and spend the week constructing the building. They need a space to meet, we can take a week’s vacation, fly there and give it to them. Problem solved, right? Yet what we’re actually doing is denying the local craftsmen the ability to provide for families by performing their trades.
We can empower locals by teaching them the skills they need to perform trades in their communities. We need to focus our efforts on developing their local economies. For example, we could train seamstresses and tailors to clothe their own people instead of shipping our used t-shirts overseas. We could train local craftsmen instead of doing the work for them.
3. Promote an environment of teaching and learning instead of dependency and entitlement.
My Kenyan friends have taught me more about having joy in the Lord and depending on him to supply all my needs than anyone else. I don’t visit them anxious to teach them all I know that they don’t. I listen. I learn.
We should value what we can learn from one another. We recognize we’re all image bearers. When we don’t honor the imago Dei in others, we devalue them. We also pity them. Pity may seem harmless, but pity comes from our pride. When we pity someone, we inherently put ourselves above them. However unintentionally, we view them as inferior.
Like Christ, we are called to show compassion. Compassion is different from pity in that we sympathize with the sufferings of others. We understand them because we feel alongside them. We recognize that a poor person’s identity does not come from their lack of material possessions. We can identify with their poverty because we are aware of our own poverty before the Lord.
When we see a person in need, we aren’t looking down at them, we’re side by side in our poverty. In Christ, we have no superiority. All is grace. We have our need and they have their need, and we stretch out our hands horizontally, not vertically.
4. Realize that what we value in America is different than what is valued in other countries.
We value efficiency, speed and results. Many other cultures value relationships more than results. Imagine the tension this creates when Americans come in with the fix-it mentality.
A few years ago I was working alongside a team of Kenyans and Americans assisting with an agricultural project. The team leader asked me to stop working and sit under a tree and visit with a Kenyan woman who’d come to see the project. While I was grateful for the break, I felt guilty that everyone was working hard all around me while I conversed in the shade. My team leader knew this Kenyan woman valued our relationship with her over our labor for her. It was a needed reminder that my ministry in Kenya was intended to be one of presence all along.
5. Remember that God is already at work.
We aren’t introducing him to a place he’s forsaken. He’s there, he’s working and we want to humbly walk with him where he is. He is what every culture needs, not us. We work alongside and for him, for the glory of his name among the nations.
Helping without Hurting
We want to help people, but we often end up hurting them. I fear that we are unintentionally conditioning generations of people in materially poor contexts to be dependent on us. Our actions communicate that they are incapable of handling their own survival and we must do it for them. We undermine their dignity. We are not their savior; we must point them to the one who is.
The key to helping the poor with cultural sensitivity is to acknowledge and honor the imago Dei within them. Genesis 1:27 teaches that we are all made in the image of God. In the book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write, “Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, low-income people often feel they are inferior to others.” They are not inferior, nor do we need to treat them as such. They are fellow image bearers. We must walk humbly and recognize our own poverty before the Lord. We, like David, cry out to the Lord, “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me (Ps. 40:17).” In humility, we recognize that everything we have, we receive from our father (1 Cor. 4:7). We recognize God’s grace towards us and that motivates us to show grace to others.
**A version of this article was originally published at intersectproject.org.