In 1974 when I was 24, I was sent to Chile as a missionary. The army and navy had just deposed Allende in a violent coup. The country was in political and economic shambles. Nonetheless, it was the final phase of a goal I’d had since I was 17: to be a missionary. I was sent to the south of Chile, Valdivia, where the climate was similar to Forks, WA, only wetter and windier. Not exactly the south sea island I had fantasized but still a mission. I tried not to come with the arrogance so typical of Americans at the time. And yet, could I help it if I had a working knowledge of Spanish, an expansive knowledge of the Bible and theology, and an extensive knowledge of electricity and construction? I was humbly more than willing to share my skills with the locals who were clearly not as experienced and educated as I. (Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes dishonor.)
On the flight from New York to Santiago, Chile, I tried conversing with a couple of older women sitting behind me. I was convinced that they wanted more peanuts as a snack. Later I learned they wanted help with their luggage. The next day I was in temporary lodging and left a plate of cookies out next to my bed. Within a few hours, it was covered with ants. I was sent to the coast for a two-month interim stay. It was quickly determined that my Spanish was entirely inadequate, and I needed a crash course. Ouch! The following day I was given two bags and some money, and sent out by myself to the street market to buy food for the day.
Then, there was some work at the church and I was invited to help. They were moving a pile of sand by wheelbarrow. I grabbed a shovel and started filling it up. Immediately, a middle-aged man with several teeth missing stopped. He showed me the correct way to handle a shovel. I resented being treated like I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I watched in amazement as the same group of men mixed several wheelbarrow loads of sand and cement by hand, and then into a mortar mix. All in a matter of minutes.
Some days later, I began to have stomach problems. Being away from a bathroom for more than an hour was a very dangerous and embarrassing thing to do. Once I was several miles away from my lodgings and desperately needed a toilet. Public facilities are very rare. I kept asking for a Men’s Room in my limited Spanish. Later I learned they thought I was asking for a Men’s Club. “Stupid gringo,” they would mutter under their breath. I was supposed to ask for a baño (bathroom). A few days later I had a fever. I found a thermometer in the bathroom. Sure enough, 102 degrees (39 Celsius). Later I was told that it was not an oral thermometer. I was clueless to my surroundings and needed help.
A week or so later, one of the elders in the church came up to me. “Hermano Bob. Hermano Pablo and his whole family are very upset with you. Why are you angry with them?” I was shocked. I wasn’t angry with him. I didn’t understand, and my limited Spanish didn’t help. “Well,” he said, “last Sunday you didn’t “greet” him. He is very upset.” I then learned that a warm handshake to the men, and a hug with kissing sounds among the women, was not just customary but mandatory. There were over 180 in our congregation. Missing someone could have dire consequences. I learned that feuds between families often originated from the hurt feelings of a missed greeting.
So here I was: an alien resident (foreigner) in a foreign land. I was out of place. I was ignorant of their customs and ways. My Spanish was terrible. I sounded like John Wayne (not in a good way, if you’ve ever heard him try to say something in Spanish). I made mistake after mistake, often offending others without meaning to, or understanding what I had done. My clothes were out of place and unsuitable for the cold, wet, windy climate. Chilean food is typically simple bread rolls and a watery stew with noodles and part of a meat bone (with little meat). It doesn’t compare at all to our experience with Mexican food.
Despite all this, I was almost universally treated with kindness and patience.
“The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself…”(Leviticus 19:34)
In time, I learned to watch and listen. I learned their history, their ways, their food and clothing and their way of doing things. It was a humbling and educational time for me.