The shoe that doesn’t exactly fit
July 9, 2017
In some ways, my marriage is a reverse Cinderella story, one in which I realize that no matter how hard I might try, the shoes of my husband’s family might never really fit me—and that’s OK.
I’ve learned that when it comes to marriage—and mission work—it’s not about making the shoe fit, but the relationship that develops after we try it on.
I married Elmer, a Honduran pastor from a large, mostly rural family who would be considered poor by middle-class, U.S. standards. Early in our marriage one of my brothers-in-law asked me point-blank: “Your dad is rich, right?”
I paused to think how to respond. Relative to Elmer’s family, my family is rich. I grew up in an affluent university town. My parents had advanced degrees and worked. They owned our three-bedroom house, and we never worried about our next meal or how to cover a medical bill. We could take family vacations each year, and it was expected that my brother and I would go to college.
In the community in which I grew up, my family was not considered wealthy. But to Elmer’s family we are rich. The idea of what it means to be poor or rich has been shaped by our communities and life experiences. In the United States, I’m middle-class. In Honduras, I’m rich, even if I don’t think of myself that way. I know this intellectually, but I can never truly see myself from my brother-in-law’s perspective.
I just cannot get into his shoes to see myself clearly. Nor can he fit into my shoes to see himself either. But that’s what the mission journey is about: trying on different perspectives like shoes and discovering new ways of seeing the world. My in-laws’ shoes and perspectives will never be my own, but every time I try to put them on, my worldview gets bigger.
By knowing that we can’t truly walk in another’s shoes, we can become humbler and gain a healthy perspective of God’s mission as a journey founded in grace-full, equitable and sometimes challenging relationships.
The things I’ve learned in my marriage are similar to the experience many of us have on an international mission trip. Often, we have a romantic notion about helping people who are poor and making the world a better place. But the reality is that rich, poor and what it means to help are all seen differently, depending on where you are from.
Hundreds of thousands of Presbyterians get involved in mission and outreach locally, nationally and internationally. We have the best of intentions for helping others. “But how do we know we’re really helping?” asks Fran Early, co-author with Connie Newton of Doing Good . . . Says Who?
Newton added that an effective partnership recognizes the local culture and doesn’t simply import and impose its own standards. Newton and Early’s guidelines for successful partnership include listening to what is needed in a community; remembering that our partners are people who can lead and participate in their own development, in their own context and on their own terms; developing realistic expectations (and likely focusing on developing a partnership for at least a couple of years before starting a project together); and seeking long-term relationships with two-way giving and two-way receiving.
Mission partnership is a commitment that leads us to the unspeakable beauty of relationships across an ever-shrinking and ever-widening globe. As Christians, we never stop learning, loving and living into God’s mission. We keep striving humbly to walk in one another’s shoes. In doing so we continue to discover new, more faithful ways to engage in God’s mission, together with brothers and sisters in our communities, our nation and around the world.
Ellen Sherby, coordinator of Equipping for Mission Involvement for Presbyterian World Mission
Today’s Focus: Mission Work
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Gracious God, you are right beside us. Help us to see the opportunities we have to be present with others and to be grateful for those who are present with us. Amen.