When Helping Hurts: The Know it All

Have you ever wondered what someone else thinks of you? Maybe you’ve asked yourself, “Does she see me as passionate or arrogant? Introverted or rude?” While this type of thinking can easily slip into a sinful fear of man, self-reflection can be a means of caring for those around us. This is especially true on the broader scale of cross-cultural ministry. After all, our culture influences our values and mindset. We may not even realize how people from another place perceive the things that seem normal or even polite to us. Sometimes, behaviors that arise out of one cultural value can be offensive in another culture.

For those of us who are American, this prompts us to ask: what are some common American values and behaviors that hinder cross-cultural service? In episode 12 of the Simply 127 podcast, Peter Abungu speaks to this very issue.

Peter Abungu is 127 Worldwide’s local partner in Nairobi, Kenya, where he founded Swahiba Networks. Peter has worked with many Americans over the years. In his years of experience, he has noticed a recurring theme when interacting with friends and acquaintances from the US.

Peter began this discussion with the observation that many Americans have comparatively high education levels; they have graduated from college and are generally well-read and articulate individuals. Unfortunately, Peter noticed that this education level occasionally resulted in Americans feeling justified to insist on doing things their own way. For example, if a volunteer from America saw Peter handling a project differently than they might, they assumed that he must be doing it the “wrong” way. Many even proceeded to tell him so.

The tendency of educated Americans to assume that they “know better” reflects the problematic assumption that general education level equates with expertise.

The tendency of educated Americans to assume that they “know better” reflects the problematic assumption that general education level equates with expertise. In other words, Americans are prone to esteem degrees and academic accomplishments, but mastery of a textbook doesn’t mean we know better than a local leader about how to care for vulnerable people in their community. Peter is intimately acquainted with the culture, languages, norms, and needs in Kenya because he is Kenyan. He knows how to care for vulnerable members of his community because he has been doing so for years. In almost every situation, he will know better than an American, even a highly educated one, how to best serve his community. For you or I to travel to Kenya and act as if we know better than Peter because we went to a particular college or have a particular degree is prideful; and knowledge that leads to arrogance doesn’t honor Christ.

Even if there were a circumstance in which you knew more about a particular subject than a local leader, it would still not be acceptable to devalue them by ignoring their opinions or single-mindedly insisting on doing things your own way. In this situation, you could humbly offer up your expertise but should still ultimately defer to the judgment of the local leader. Sadly, it is hard for those of us who are steeped in the American productivity culture to abandon the idea that efficiency is more important than respect. If we think our way of doing something is faster, we will sometimes set feelings aside in pursuit of productivity.

While we may not initially see ourselves as the problematic Americans that Peter describes, sometimes we can be blind to the ways our values and behaviors clash with those from different contexts. If we want to excel in cross-cultural ministry, we have to prioritize humility and be willing to evaluate even our most “helpful” intentions.