Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Don't touch the gringos!

We arrived back in Oregon just a few days ago, and yesterday we welcomed our son David and his family, just home from Rwanda where they serve with Evangelical Friends Mission. A whole lot of hugging went on at the airport! These last two days I have been walking around wearing this huge smile that just won’t go away, knowing that for a year at least I’ll have my family all around me.

Speaking of hugging, I want to reflect on a conversation I had our last day in Costa Rica. We were saying our goodbyes to students and colleagues, knowing that we probably would not be seeing some of them again, especially the students of the 2009 cohort group. At one point Angela Durigan, a Brazilian Nazarene pastor, put her hand on my face and just looked at me. It was a beautifully affectionate gesture. And then she said, “I hope this doesn’t offend you. I know we’re not supposed to touch North Americans.”

Now that took me aback! Angela quickly added, “I know that’s not true of you.” I’m glad she recognized that. After a life time of service in Latin America, many of our natural preferences and reactions are more Latin than gringo. But in the conversation that ensued, she told me that part of the training Brazilian Christians receive for cross-cultural ministry is the warning to give North Americans plenty of space and not to touch them more than is absolutely necessary. Discrete formal handshakes are fine, but keep those Latin American abrazos for Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking colleagues.

I hate stereo-types. And while most cultural stereo-types are partially based in fact (North American Caucasian culture does indeed emphasize personal space), it’s the unthinking application of the stereo-type to all persons that causes damage. Actually, there are more personal differences within a given culture than there are personality or preference differences between cultures.

I think of other stereo-types I’ve struggled with. Are all Quakers naturally quiet and peace-loving by nature? (Thank God for the feisty prophets among us. Even extroverts can live out the peace testimony.) And what comes to mind with the label “missionary”? I’ve wrestled with that stereo-type all my life.

I think of the stereo-types we currently face, particularly that of “undocumented Hispanic immigrant.” May God help me—us—step beyond the stereo-types to see people that he created and gifted and called to lives of service. May he enable us to cross the cultural barriers and form friendships with those of different backgrounds.

I thank God for Angela and her expressive ways. All those goodbye hugs—as well as the daily greeting hugs—still warm me in memory. And I’m glad for friends who hold warnings such as “Don’t touch the gringos!” with a grain of salt.


  1. I used the wisdom from this blog in a conversation with an Hispanic colleague here at the seminary. It was refreshing. Ah, let me share what happened. He moved his chair back when we were invited to engage in a small group discussion. I simply said: "Feel free to come close so you can hear. I'm no gringo." He moved in and later told the group that this blessed him. He touched my arm as he spoke--which both of us recognized was not common on our campus.