Creating Communities of Mutual Understanding
by Marlene Bylenga, SCSBC International Education Coordinator ◊
One of the most important tasks of administrators, board and committee members is to ensure that the mission and vision of the school is communicated and upheld. As we develop new programs and seek to improve our current programs, our challenge is to ensure that the vision is reflected in the policies and procedures we establish. Many schools have established a rationale and vision for establishing an international program, but how do we continue to uphold that vision as our programs become more established and as we deal with the reality of differing cultural expectations and norms? If our program’s goal is to model inclusivity and mutual respect, how do we stay the course when tensions arise and we are challenged to look at things from the perspective of another culture which differs from our own? How do we “listen” to each other in a way that brings positive change rather than resulting in misunderstandings and breakdowns in relationships? How do we continue to maintain our vision and yet have the flexibility to adapt our way of doing things to reflect the diversity of cultural perspectives which are represented in our schools?
Bringing groups of individuals from differing cultural perspectives doesn’t necessarily involve mutual understanding. Christian school leaders need to be intentional in building communities that affirm each other’s values and seek to develop meaningful relationships with each other. “Believers share the same identity in Christ, however each have a personal history and come from differing cultural perspectives. When individuals and communities seek to follow Christ and live as He lived, their values and rules are transformed as people apply them in such a way as to honor Him and love others. Our school communities should model forgiveness and grace as we seek to understand each other.” The keys for successful relationships “are obedience to the commands of Scripture and accepting that others have a viewpoint that is as worthy of consideration as our own. Obedient Christians create communities of inclusion and embrace. Such communities stand in contrast to the communities of exclusion and rejection that are typical in the world’s cultures.”
It has been my experience that the reason for tensions and communication breakdowns is largely due to the fact that the parties involved do not listen to each other or are unwilling to take the time to hear each other’s perspectives. We often unwittingly offend each other because we do not have an understanding of each other’s culture, language and non-verbal communication patterns. We also tend to judge individuals based on the stereotypes we may have of their culture. “In intercultural encounters then, there are several filters that can prevent us from accurately understanding what others are trying to communicate, and that can prevent others from accurately understanding what we are trying to communicate: our tendency to interpret and evaluate behavior before we understand it, and our willingness to stereotype groups of people, which prevents us from interpreting behavior accurately. When we are looking and listening, the remedy is to try and increase the range of our perception, to observe and suspend our interpretation (what we think) and evaluation (what we feel), to ask for clarification when in doubt. When speaking, we should take care to clarify the intention behind our words and check to see if our message has come across correctly.”
So then, as we deal with change within our school communities, let us be intentional in our interactions. Let us challenge each and every one in our schools communities to take time to hear each other’s stories and to be willing to share in each other’s joys and sorrows. Take time to hear how God has worked in the lives of your students and families and celebrate the differing expressions of the Christian faith within your community. And as you do that, be sure to take the time to evaluate what you have learned and if necessary make changes to policy, curriculum etc., all the while maintaining the vision and mission of your school. It is my prayer that our school communities will become examples of what it means for Christian brothers and sisters from every tribe and nation to live in unity, the unity that comes from serving the same Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
1 Ministering Cross-Culturally An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships. Sherwood G. Lingenfelter. Baker Academic. 1986, 2003
2 Exploring Culture. Gert Jan Hofstede. Intercultural Press Inc. 2002