What I Learned in North Africa

This is Angela’s second post about her experience in North Africa. We are  grateful for the lessons she brings home to us.

In my last post, I wrote a lot about the things that confused me while I was living in North Africa. I reflected that there is a lot I don’t know about the intertwining of faith and culture, and a lot that I struggle with in the arena of missions. In this post, I want to share something that I do know—I know what it feels like to be a foreigner.

I know what it’s like to feel stupid because I can’t understand a question no matter how many times it’s repeated.

I know what it’s like to be confused by a medical system that’s based on radically different assumptions about health.

I know what it’s like to rely on someone else for help with the logistics of paying my utility bill because I’m incapable of doing it myself.

I know what it’s like to regularly and enthusiastically eat foods full of mystery ingredients.

I know what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and not recognize a single brand.

I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable to those who could exploit my ignorance for their own profit.

I know what it’s like to be discussed by strangers who are speaking in a language I don’t understand.

I know what it’s like to be painfully aware that I am failing to meet cultural expectations, while struggling to figure out exactly what those expectations are.

I know what it’s like to be tired because nothing is normal or automatic—not even using a toilet or taking a shower.

And in that space of confusion and vulnerability that goes on day after day after day after day, I know how much it means to have a friend—an insider who can help explain what is happening, someone who has grace for my ignorance, someone who is willing to sit in the awkwardness of the gap between two cultures and two languages.

I am so grateful to my North African friends for their ministry of hospitality to me. Jesus—his peace be upon us—taught, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” My friends treated me with that type of kindness—they went out of their way to share their culture, food, music, and families with me.

Back in America, I am looking for ways to carry on that hospitality in my friendships with foreigners. While I’ve cherished relationships with refugees for several years now, it has been so much fun to get involved with the international students the school where I work more recently. I am grateful for the ways that I can come alongside them and encourage them as I draw on my own experience as a foreigner. 

I want to close with something that I shared in catechesis—it is an excerpt from Thomas Merton that I came across recently in New Seeds of Contemplation. Merton writes, “God’s will” is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. The plainest summary of all the natural law is: to treat other humans as if they were human…But I cannot treat other people as human unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least enough compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer. And if for some reason I do not spontaneously feel this kind of sympathy for others, then it is God’s will that I do what I can to learn how. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when men who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice.