Power Distance and Gospel Power.

“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.

Resurrection Day in San Pedro Cholula.

In a culture where the name of Jesus is not unknown to anyone, the meaning of His death and life is strangely obscure. Which is why, in some ways, it is said that it is harder to bring others to the Gospel here than in a Muslim country. Why? Here, they are so close, yet so far away. So very far away. Here, Jesus stays on the cross. His suffering is still happening and the more one can share in that suffering the greater one can earn favor in heaven and heaven itself. Which is why, when working in many of the villages where the more “simple” dwell, there is little grumbling or complaining. They are conditioned to be content with their lot in life not out of gratitude, but more so out of the belief that if they suffer well and suffer much, divine favor will rest upon them.

San Pedro Cholula is known for its fireworks on almost a daily basis.  Legend says there are 365 ancient Catholic churches, one for every day of the year here.  A family in the vicinity of the parish buys the homemade fireworks. Usually that family that has to pick up a couple of extra jobs out of obligation to take their turn to buy the colorful and fantastically loud explosives and offer a meal for all.  They have no alternative; do it or risk excommunication from their community and all the benefits of baptism, first communion, a blessed marriage and hope for an eternity.  The fireworks are not only tradition but many still believe that the loud pops will call the attention of deceased saints and ancestors, maybe even the Virgin herself–all who can help get their prayers answered or their loved ones out of purgatory when their piety is heard. Easter (Pascua) weekend was not different, just louder with peals of bells ringing in greater frequency.

The week leading up to Pascua, called Santa Semana  (Holy Week) elicits the bells. On Maundy Thursday, most people stay home after attending mass. The streets are empty.  This is the night they take their last shower until Saturday.  On Friday, the tone is somber with processionals going through the streets with downcast eyes, purple and white paper-cut flags, statues of Jesus on the cross or even dramatizations of Jesus carrying His cross and being nailed for all to see.  There are no bunnies or eggs, candy or decor.

On Saturday, Sabado de Gloria throwing water to passerby’s is symbolic for holy cleansing.  Because of the water shortages, the government forbids this, but in smaller towns where a river is nearby, one sees small crowds of people making their way to the water to carry on the tradition.  This is the night people bathe again.  This is the night the air fills with the music of fiestas, and alcohol is bought in great volumes, even 10 peso bottles of tequila. It seems sacrilegious. On Resurrection Day, for those that attend their parish, they wear their nicest or newest clothes.  For many this is perhaps the only day of the year they might attend church; it is no different for nominal evangelical Christians. The streets are again, void of the usual traffic.  All is quiet, the Resurrection of Jesus less of a cause for ceremony that His suffering.

In a culture where the name of Jesus is not unknown to anyone, the meaning of His death and life is strangely obscure.  Which is why, in some ways, it difficult to speak of the Gospel of Grace. Why?  Because here they are so close, yet so far away.  So very far away.  Here, Jesus stays on the cross. His suffering is still happening and the more one can share in that suffering the greater one can earn favor in heaven and heaven itself.  Which is why, when working in many of the villages where the more “simple” dwell, there is little grumbling or complaining.  They are conditioned to be content with their lot in life not out of gratitude, but more so out of the belief that if they suffer well and suffer much, divine favor will rest upon them.

Another missionary, years here longer than mine articulated his observations on Easter this way on his own blog,

“Easter morning…the resurrection of Christ and what were these Catholic faithful doing?  They were there in their work clothes with wheelbarrows doing construction on their perpetually unfinished building. The finished work of Christ on Friday somehow only leads to their own efforts to impress God and man by showing up on Easter morning for a work project.  I assume they know that Jesus rose from the dead, but there is no understanding of the power of the resurrection and the true purpose of the cross. For these people in that community, the events of the week merely point toward how great Mary is.  She loved her son and wept for him.  The Father cursed and abandoned the son.  The loving, faithful mother stayed with him and wept for him.  The son did as he was told. It’s a cultural story that results in an elevation of the maternal god who loves us and weeps for us too.  They’d better be about her business because for them, that’s where Easter left us.”

Many would not be able to articulate all this so precisely; it is hard-wired from generations of not being the ones colonized but conquered.  They are a people who carry the stories of generations past, connected in a way that would seem backward to the mindset of the independent, pioneering American.  For those called here to proclaim the power of the full Gospel, the need to reexamine and define one’s own theology of suffering based on the full counsel of God is imperative (and a good topic for another post). For the Christian churches here whether consciously or unconsciously, they do whatever they can to separate themselves from the Catholic traditions, Easter is too silent.

It comes and goes with barely a ripple, in my novice observance.  There is the knowledge of its profound importance, but the expression is lacking.  The reasons for this goes further than what I have already mentioned, but again that could be another post (biased, from my own observations and questioning).  Still, my heart missed the jubilant celebration I experienced among the believers where I come from.  Very much.  I missed the clarity and passion that the truth of our great hope brings.

Our small bi-lingual more urban church hosted a quiet Easter breakfast potluck.  A pool filled in the jar din for the two baptisms scheduled before the service.  We all gathered around nonchalantly (Mexicans are reserved in a warm sort of way).  Two went under the water from death to life, the promised power of the Holy Spirit coming upon them like the book of Acts proclaims.  One, a precious woman I prayed with just a weeks ago, comes from a background of demonic activity many of us have never seen, emerged with new light in her eyes.  I wanted to clap and holler, but I was coming from my culture in this wish.  Or was I?

We have made it a tradition to invite the church over for Easter afternoon.  What joy, after our move this past fall into a new rented house, to finally be able to open up our home again and fill it with the joy of fellowship.  It has taken me time to learn how to host here. The informality is less than what I’ve been accustomed. The way the women take over your kitchen and they take seriously that mi casa es su casa is really a delight.

It felt good this the second year around and I could relax more in the understood expectations. We ate and ate and ate, played games and then some left and some stayed to hike up our local mountain. Of course, my dear husband had to shoot off his massive homemade potato guns too and we all laughed at the flying potatoes crashing into a distant field of new crops. In the midst of our fun, there were moments of ministry through prayer and counsel.  Our body here is a broken and hurting one in many ways.  Redemption is an idea that so many cannot believe is true.  The work of establishing a healthy body here, growing in wholeness and knowledge is one that takes years.  I have much to learn.

Most of our friends have never hiked our local mountain.  They had never seen their land from tall heights.  We took them to the place where we have often gone to pray in earnest over Puebla and Cholula, for God to pour out His Spirit upon these people.  Oh, how we long for this in greater measure!  We joined hands and some of us prayed.  Again, I am longing for faith’s expression to show itself in fervency and passion as if our prayers do change things, as if they cannot be under-estimated.  I wanted to kneel and weep over this city with my brothers and sisters, but again was that coming from where I have been?  Or not?

We quietly hiked back down, tired from the day but with a satisfaction that it had been good.  As the custom here, you say good-bye to everyone with an embrace and a sort of blessing and then they eventually leave. There is no slipping out.  After the last farewell, we locked our door.  Benjamin got our happy and weary kids into bed and I stayed downstairs to sweep floors, wipe counters and gather up garbage bags to take outside.

The air was fresh, the stars were clear and my heart was full.  After awhile Benjamin came downstairs and we sat on the couch together for a moment.  Both tired, we managed a short but sincere prayer.  Gratitude for this beautiful house to share, for the mountain, for our church family, for the Resurrection.

For the hope that Jesus will continue the work of making bringing the fullness of life to the most desperate of places and people.

To Him be all the glory forever and ever, amen. tumblr_mp496402Rj1r9x307o1_1280 IMG_20150405_104439857 4RtUVUy0KQ1qJ4ECqghrS7l_vylnAx27uHafa5FOYckS=w1394-h1296-no J7faHJkZwjdnq9bZzpmPabAKEZmgvOwHFcmkc050936g=w1914-h1140-no k6SixQSTFRMQmh46VLbvyJOBdp5HLnk2Se8u52XpqQMv=w1574-h1296-no RNZUJCa6PnKgdUfB9S5kLAtmULti8NAudtveWDnuoUMM=w1914-h1028-no IMG_20150405_185651356_HDR XvXhnylg2pD0dRSJvUjnX2gJGTnp6WWKD6q1sHGflhB4=w1762-h1296-no 5mD8tbN4PkU56Zf4qQwR5c70MDBovSpDMoPDv6djL0Yo=w1916-h1010-no

The Business of Getting Visas.

Becoming a missionary in foreign soil has a way of making your roots looser—the tentacles to this world don’t attach so tenaciously. How can they when you find yourself in a place that is utterly unlike all of your cultural programing? Your anchor is no longer hooked between the rocks of familiarity, but in Who is there when all those rocks roll away — Jesus.

The bible tells us that those who are children of God are strangers and aliens in this world. Our “true passports” are stamped with the blood of Jesus, our real citizenship in heaven.  Heaven.  It is a place we have never been, yet we know when we arrive it will feel like we have finally come to the Home of all homes and all those we’ve had here have been but a beautiful tease of what awaits us.

We all have this innate want to belong, to be home, to know that we are rooted in some place for some time, connected to something bigger than our smallness. It is all more than the instinct to nest, it is eternity set in our hearts.

Becoming a missionary in foreign soil has a way of making your roots looser—the tentacles to this world don’t attach so tenaciously. How can they when you find yourself in a place that is utterly unlike all of your cultural programing?  Your anchor is no longer hooked between the rocks of familiarity, but in Who is there when all those rocks roll away — Jesus.

At first it is jarring, this sense of rollicking over new waters. You find yourself still grasping for all that you can understand and all that can bring you comfort. But after a while, when the weaning is more complete it offers a new kind of rest.  The fact that you can abide anywhere safely, legally and with contented joy on this earth is but by His gracious hand.  This truth sinks deep.

I felt this yet again yesterday as we spent several hours at the immigration office in Puebla.  The colors of the Mexican flag decorated the long counter.  The signs, of course, all encoded in Spanish and not a blue-eyed blond in sight, albeit our family.  After our first turn at the counter, we walked across the street to a hole-in-the-wall photo shop that catered to visa needs. We slicked our hair back, removed jewelry and donned most serious expressions for the flash.  Twenty minutes later we trotted back with our packet of tiny and very expensive photos, dodging the smeared tamales dulce on the sidewalk.  After being asked the usual questions, translating our heights and weights into meters and kilos, we were all fingerprinted.

An hour later we received our visa resident cards—good for the kids and I for three years. Praise be to God! No messing around with paperwork and lawyers and so much money for a long while when then we can apply for permanent residency.  What a far cry from the boyhood days of my husband in Central America when he and his family had to drive up the US border every six months!

We are legal.  For a long stretch.  Home in a country that is all my daughter remembers as having that fond title.  Home in a land where God called us to come and abide.  Strangely home in a place that still holds more questions for us than answers.

This all has me thinking: If everything in our lives is a show in the heavenlies illustrating redemption and to declare His glory in the ages to come and to prepare us for eternity, than living here in Mexico is quite significant.  And making your home where you do now is as much this truth.

And it doesn’t hurt being legal.