Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ill Communication (Brian Konkol)

When I was sixteen years old, my older brother introduced me to an album that quickly became a favorite. Ill Communication was a chart-topping hit for the Beastie Boys, enjoyed by massive and diverse fans from all around the world (including rural central-Wisconsin high-school students!). With their “punk-rock rap, alternative hip-hop” style (…which received much disapproval from my mother), Michael "Mike D" Diamond, Adam "MCA" Yauch, and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz continue to sell records and pack concert venues more than twenty years after their debut.

Ill Communication was originally released in May of 1994, and last month it was re-mastered and made available online through the official band website. A renewed interest in “the Beasties” has developed, and as a result, I have been thinking about Ill Communication not simply as high-energy music, but “ill communication” as a daily reality of global mission service. Specifically, as citizens of the “global north” such as Kristen and I attempt to serve alongside our companions from the “global south”, there is a vast variety of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misinterpretation – all of which could be designated the “ill communication”.

While ill communication can sometimes lead to complications (…to be mentioned a bit later), one can recognize the various humorous moments as well. Two examples – one my own, and one recently shared with me – come to mind.

One of my first experiences of ill communication in global mission service came during my initial days as a minister serving in Guyana. Much to my joy and amazement, within a few days of arrival my early morning jogging sessions included repeated shouts of “Pastor! Pastor! Pastor!” To hear members of the surrounding neighborhood recognize me and offer morning greetings was great motivation, that is, until about a week later when a friend finally explained: “Pastor Brian, they are not saying “Pastor”, they are telling you to run “Faster! Faster! Faster!” A humbling experience, to say the least!

Another story worth sharing was told to me a few weeks ago by a local South African Lutheran Bishop (…yes, he did give permission to share the story). He told me of a visit to the United States a few years ago, and how when sitting around the dinner table of a very kind and hospitable mid-western Lutheran family, he needed something to wipe his face. As he looked around for a piece of tissue paper or wash cloth, someone asked if he needed a “napkin”, which to him was quite a shock, as his understanding of “napkin” in his native language is associated with a dirty diaper! While the Bishop repeatedly refused the invitation to use a “napkin”, the host insisted. When the guests and Bishop finally realized what had taken place, they received a good laugh (and a fun story).

Naturally, many (if not most) forms of “ill communication” are not much fun or delightful (or worth repeating!). I know firsthand what it feels like when “signals do not match”, “wires are crossed”, and even when there are good intentions, the result can be a great deal of frustration and confusion on both sides of the interaction. And while ill communication is a consistent reality for Kristen, myself, and those from our host church here in South Africa whom we serve alongside, the fact of the matter is that, as our world becomes increasingly “smaller” through globalization and information technology, we as a human race are now attempting to communicate across various “boundaries” (geographical, cultural, social, political, generational, theological, etc.) more than ever before. As a result of these current global trends, one could make the argument that there is more “ill communication” now than ever before.

As Kristen and I coordinate the Young Adults in Global Mission volunteer program here in South Africa, we are given a firsthand view – not only of our own attempts to properly accompany our local companions – but also how challenging it can be for incoming young adult North American volunteers to be faced with language barriers, cultural differences, as well as alternative opinions on politics, faith, global economics, poverty, gender roles, etc (…in addition, we have been totally amazed at how gracious and forgiving our South African hosts can be in the midst of these interactions). While the initial “culture shock” can be quite daunting for some North American visitors, especially those who have never experienced immersion in a foreign environment, even in the midst of a multiplicity of differences, volunteers and local hosts come together as people of God, and awesome interactions and relationship building takes place. While ill communication takes place throughout the term of service, one can notice an increasing level of comfort, as both guests and hosts realize that God is present “in”, “between”, and “around” them. In the end, local companions and their North American visitors realize the goal of the overall program is not to ignore differences and/or try to make people more similar, but to embrace diversity, acknowledge those things which seem to be similar, learn throughout the process, and grow alongside one another like “God’s symphony of people” called to offer unique gifts which come together for a beautiful “sound” of peace, justice, and faithfulness in the world.

The recent history of South Africa has witnessed a significant decline in racial segregation and a steady increase in people of diversity joining together to build a “rainbow nation” of love, solidarity, and mutual respect. In many ways South Africa is a miniature example of the world in which we live – a world that is becoming increasingly smaller with a growing need for people to learn how to relate with those “others” whom are quite different from themselves. Due to these changing global circumstances, there are – in my opinion – essentially two primary choices: On the one hand, people can chose to retreat from the world and try to only accept and engage with those who look, talk, smell, and think the same as they do, and on the other hand, people can embrace the increasing diversity of this world, learn from it, grow, and remember that “different” does not always mean “wrong”, and that amazing things take place when people come together and relate with one another. My hope is that the people of this world will resist the enticement to “retreat” into small corners of isolation, overcome fears which often result from misinformation, and accept the beauty which is experienced through diversity.

One of the things I have learned over the past years with ELCA Global Mission is that, at its core, international companionship is not about projects or programs, but it is primarily about people. And specifically, it is about how people relate and accompany one another respectfully, acknowledging differences, learning from one another, and recognizing the “face of God” in their presence and the spirit of God in the deepening connection and growing bonds. As much as the mass-media might try to make North Americans fear “those people” who seem “different”, those who follow the call to “come and see” realize that day-to-day realities are much different from what is filtered through television, internet, or magazines. Whether it takes place thousands of miles from home or with those who live a few doorsteps down the street, when one is able to engage in genuine relationships with those who think, speak, believe, and act differently, the fears quickly wash away, and an amazing amount of learning and growth is the result.

While there is a natural temptation for “birds of a same feather” to “flock together”, the reality of our world is that no two people are exactly the same, and the result is that “ill communication” is a natural consequence to the way in which God has created us. One need not travel far to find diversity if it is truly sought. We are all different. Some are women, while others are men. Some are “baby boomers”, while others are “Generation X, Y, Z, or Millennial”. Some are North American, while others are South American, West or East European, Asian, Australian, African, and so forth. Some are Christian, while others as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Agnostic, Atheist, and so on. And in the midst of each “category” is an endless list of additional sub-categories, which in the end accounts to billions of global citizens who each hold different viewpoints, beliefs, and observations. The diversity that fills our world cannot be escaped, and even if it could, I cannot imagine why one would even try.

In the midst of it all, my hope is that we may all take a moment to consider how much diversity we choose to surround ourselves with. Yes, no two people are alike, but some are more similar than others. Do we only engage with people who look, speak, and think similar to us? Do we only read newspapers and magazines that confirm what we already believe? Do we only visit websites which place “stamps of approval” on our pre-set ideals? Do we only listen to politicians who fall in-line with our previously held understandings? Do we only associate with those who hold common interests? Do we only watch television programs that reinforce our longstanding perceptions and priorities? Do we only speak with those who perceive God and faith exactly as we do? Are we willing to allow ourselves to be challenged instead of only being comforted?

With increased diverse interaction comes various forms of ill communication, yet I believe it is a consequence fully worth the effort. Yes, it can be challenging, and I (as well as our South African hosts) can personally attest to the struggles which one is forced to endure, and the temptations to try and resist. Nevertheless, I believe the future of our global community rests not merely upon acknowledging one another exists, but actually meeting, embracing, listening, and accompanying each other in the journey of life as fellow children of God. Like the tune of a symphony, or high-energy bounce of punk-rock rap, we were not created to make indistinguishable “sounds” in this world, but we were made to bring all of our unique “joyful noises” together, and to enjoy the results of diversity coming together. Instead of trying to make our global harmonies identical, perhaps a willingness to experience the ill communication of diverse life is just the sound our world needs.