“Mama, she is sitting alone on the floor in the corner of my room with her plate, eating her lunch there!” cried my then 7-year old son. This was the second time we saw Tere, our once-a-week “maid” take her afternoon lunch break this way. Not only that, but she shuffled when she walked and swept, keeping her eyes downcast. All of us felt like we had hired a slave, especially when we learned what the going-rate for such help is; barely $12 for eight hours of work!
In sixteen years of marriage, I never had consistent help with the basic upkeep of running a household. It was unthinkable that I would in the US, even as a busy home school mother raising three children. I spent many years of my childhood helping my mother clean houses and doctor’s offices and felt that sort of pampering was only for the wealthy. But, I never knew both the expectation in Mexico in terms of house help, nor the differences and difficulty in keeping house in a dusty, dishwasher-less and at times, water-less place.
Moving to Mexico brings many changes to our family and Tere is one of them. By her third week we had upped her wages (at the tearful request of our fiscal son who demanded to know what we were paying her). Tere is also a follower of Jesus. Knowing this, I asked my husband to translate this truth: When we come to Christ, He invites us all to the table to sit side-by-side and feast on all the benefits of our salvation, together. She is our sister and we want her at our table. Aside from that, she is a fellow human made in the image of God, thus sacred and worthy of dignity.
Most families in developing countries use house help. Here in Mexico, it is no different. There are two distinct social classes that draw a sharp line between those who are house helpers and those who hire them: the upper and lower class. Middle class does exist, but it is quite small. Anthropologist Geert Hofstede coined the disparity between these two main classes as “power distance”. This is a way of measuring the extent to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. It suggests that a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders.
Charles Tidwell, who has taught Hofstede’s power distance concepts, summarizes it well: In high power distance societies, “powerful people try to look as powerful as possible.” But in low power distance societies, “powerful people try to look less powerful than they are.”
The power distance in the United States scores a 40 on the cultural scale, making it a low power distance culture. The United States exhibits a more unequal distribution of wealth compared to Austria, who scores an 11. Arab countries score around an 80. India, where we immediately think of the caste system, functions at a 77. Mexico is higher in power distance than even India, scoring an 81! Globally, only Malaysia (the highest in the world), Guatemala, Panama and the Philippines score higher.
In a high power distance culture such as Mexico, decisions are made by a few at the top autocratically with little resistance from the lower class. High power cultures are also prone to unethical behaviour. This is because those in the ruling class do not justify their decisions to the lower class. Unethical behaviour gets covered up or goes undetected. The recipe for corruption is inevitable.
The distinction between the rich and the poor in Mexico is even visually decades apart. Contradictions abound. The upper class drive sleek and clean cars, live in nice houses with groomed yards and work in the corporate world or own small businesses. They have walls, gates and bars around their houses for their status makes them the most vulnerable. They are predominately from Spanish descent. Their skin is light, their clothes stylish and they are usually are well-educated and bi-lingual. They are the class featured on every billboard, television show and advertisement. They are the “haves”.
The lower class are of indigenous Indian descent. Their skin is darker, they ride old bikes (with their whole family on it) or drive a beat-up truck, they live in brick houses with curtains for doors and windows, they sell tamales on the streets or handmade items. They farm and plough their fields with donkeys and horses, they work in the markets, they teach in rural schools and they often hand-wash their clothes and may or may not have a bathroom in their home. Their teeth are often rotting or missing and their feet calloused and worn. They are the “have-nots”. The “haves” hardly notice the “have-nots” exist.
Recently some students from a prestigious university visited some villages an hour away for a service project and in shock commented, “I thought conditions like this only existed in Africa!” Uh, try most of your country!
And our family? We are an anomaly to both classes, fitting in neither. We puzzle them, for we don’t have the money the upper-class has nor do we function in the simple ways of the lower, less educated class. We don’t care about status and reputation in terms of our clothing and our vehicles, yet we do go to Costco every month to buy items like meats and some familiar things that cater to the upper class. Our daughter is in ballet and attends a little private (and safe) school. My husband happily sits down on dirt floors with farmers and gets his hands dirty next to villagers doing water projects. We gladly eat where no gringos have probably ever been and other times dress up for a nice date. As American guests in this country, we would be looked down upon if we do not hire house help to do our share in keeping the society functioning. All in all, it is difficult to find our place, when there is no cultural place to be found.
Moving to a culture where the power distance is double that of the United States is one of the defining features of my cultural adjustment.
I come from a culture and a generation where the powerful don’t want to be seen as powerful. We play down power with our casual coolness. We are better and more comfortable with egalitarian living. My husband is fond of saying “we are all naked before God.” Whether by nature or nurture, inclusion with respect is one of the values we try to model for our children most consistently.
All through history and in biblical teaching we see the vices that destroy men: money, sex and power. We tend to see those things as having more evil-potential than good-potential. And some of us don’t give them much thought. Here, I am forced to give them all a serious look. I was not ready to enculterate into a place where I am looked upon as possessing power. This is perhaps the last thing the heart of a missionary wants to meet. But to the masses here, I posses what only they could be born into. I am white. I am American. I have an education. I have traveled. I must have money and I must hold influence. I can’t ignore how I am perceived, as much as I would dearly love to do so. Being viewed as powerful can easily go to one’s head. It can make one haughty and apathetic. On the flip-side, it can entice one to take on a theology of self-inflicted pious suffering. Neither incarnate the Gospel.
I often think through how I should respond to power distance with the power of the gospel.
I think of Tere, of my daughter’s Spaniard classmates and families, of the village women I have gotten on my knees before and wept with them over their pain, of riding to a concert with a local storekeeper and her husband in a modern car that cost more than I dare to know, of the man who owns most of this town so is sure water gets to his properties first and the leftovers to the rest of us, and of the dark-skinned Mexicans who get off the buses in the mornings trailing down the streets to get to their work in the nicer homes.
I see it all, I live it all and I wonder.
I read the Gospels for clues on how to follow in the steps of Jesus, for I often am at such a loss. This is all very, very hard. He loved the poor and esteemed them, yet He invited Himself into the homes of the rich and made some His friends. This then, is what is true:
The power of the gospel is greater than power distance.
Although in this after-Eden world, power-distance is a cultural reality, it is cannot be ultimate reality. Power is a gift; one to be used with humble authority to serve all classes, never to subject. Throughout the New Testament, the Gospel is usually associated with power (strength; ability; moral excellence)! See for yourself in Romans 15:18-19, I Corinthians 1:18, I Corinthians 2:4-5, I Corinthians 4:19-20, I Thessalonians 1:5 and Romans 1:16-17.
The gospel is the news that Jesus Christ died and rose for our salvation! The gospel tells us, as Timothy Keller states, “You are more sinful than you could dare imagine and you are more loved and accepted than you could ever dare hope.” The gospel is a transforming grace that changes our hearts and inmost motives. The gospel brings a new order to living in which believers are no longer controlled by material goods or worldly status and have solidarity with others across any and every social barriers. The gospel doesn’t give a hoot for power distance.
When I live in depths of the gospel, I live under the gaze of God. I no longer need to care how others are perceiving me. But, I must live in godly consideration of them and as the Apostle Paul, “Be all things to all people.” My confidence stems not from my white skin. I don’t need need to apologize for what I have been given. I belong to Jesus and here I live as an ambassador of His gospel, in all my stumbling and fumbling and trying to make sense of it all. It may all feel awkward at times, but I live to be about the business of my Father. Every day it looks and it feels different.
From that day forward that I spoke with Tere about the ramifications of the gospel, she now eats lunch with us. She tells us her stories as we ask, holds our hands as we pray together, looks us in the eye and is a gentle and quiet servant. Every Thursday she is a blessing to our family who brings not only physical help, but also the sweet presence of Jesus.
I have learned to provide Tere with good lunches and at what time she prefers to eat. I have learned to give her a bonus on her birthday and the day off. I have learned to save up to pay her every December a month’s worth of wages, as is the custom here. She is tired by the end of the day, I have noticed and is grateful when I drive her all the way to the bus stop, much to the looks of my neighbors who cannot believe a gringo would do such a thing. I have learned to ask her about foods and customs and words of which I am unfamiliar. I have learned she will not wash another dirty dish after she has done them all in the morning. I have learned she does not like ironing. I have learned she is slow, but meticulous. I have learned she loves egg dishes. I have learned if I give her a gift, she will inevitably pass it on to her daughter, so I better just label it for her.
I have learned I cannot do it all here and I do need help.
I have learned that I don’t need to be embarrassed or apologetic to let my US friends know that I have a weekly helper.
I am learning that the power of the gospel is greater. Greater than anything.