“So if we can see beyond our cultural differences to the heart of the person in front of us, we can communicate.”
Two springs ago I visited Pioneer Bible Translators near Dallas, Texas. During this visit I learned about the amazing work God is doing through this ministry to reach areas of the world with the gospel who have never heard the Bible in their heart language. Teams go out to places like Papua New Guinea and West Africa in order to invest years into translating the Bible for groups of people whose language does not have a Bible translation yet. I contacted Pioneer Bible Translators to see if I could interview one of their team members. They introduced me via email to Sherry Fariss, a sister in Christ I have not met in person, but whose heart closely aligns with my own heart’s passions. Her experiences and insights are heart-warming, and I am so grateful for her willingness to allow me to share a part of her story here.
Sherry is from the United States but grew up in Brazil, where her parents were missionaries for many years. Since then she has also lived in France, Canada and West Africa. Her travel experiences extend to many parts of the world including Mexico, Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, England, Togo, Benin, Niger, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal and Australia. From connections with friends, family, neighbors and colleagues, the cultures of Uganda, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, China, Thailand, and South Korea are also near and dear to her heart. Sherry wrote that she speaks five languages! They include English, Portuguese, French, Spanish and Sankaran. Click here to learn a few expressions that Sherry recorded in each language!
Below are Sherry's thought-provoking insights and inspiring perspectives on life given her multicultural experiences.
How has getting to know more than one culture influenced your perspective on life?
“I realize that there are many ways of living, thinking, seeing the world. Some are more efficient and time-oriented, some are more people-centered, some are more fatalistic. All ways of living have pros and cons. But all are legitimate in their own way. I can appreciate another culture without having to change who I am inside—seeing and understanding differences just gives me the ability to communicate with people from other perspectives without judgment.”
What is something that you admire about each culture?
“I admire cultures in which people are more important than projects or time constraints. I admire a culture that is efficient and that figures out ways of doing things without wasted energy. I admire cultures in which people live in the moment. But I also admire cultures in which people plan ahead. I admire cultures in which people are creative with what they have, often very little (a duct tape mentality, so to speak). And I admire cultures in which people are not satisfied with the status quo but work hard to make needed changes, advances (e.g. in medicine, in infrastructure, in education…). I admire cultures in which people fight to free the world of injustice. And I admire cultures in which people learn to work within a system and be content.”
What is something you miss from a country you have lived in or visited?
“I miss stopping and talking to neighbors as I go for a walk, getting to know what’s going on in their families’ lives.”
What is a Bible verse that has meant a lot to you as you have experienced living in more than one culture?
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
What advice do you have for others when meeting someone from a different culture than their own? How can they be most welcoming?
“Culture is fascinating. Why do people buy just enough food for this day at the market in Manila when it would be financially advantageous to buy enough for a week? [Possible answer: they don’t have enough money to buy “in bulk”, so they buy what they can afford for today.] Why do the Sankaran go to mosque on Fridays, even when they don’t believe what they are taught there? [Answer: group solidarity; without belonging to a group, you have no identity, no friends, no help in your field or with your kids, no financial recourse.] Why do some people groups smell strongly of garlic? Why do some people groups only wash once a week while others wash twice a day? Why do Americans drive on the right side of the road while people in England, Japan, Kenya, and Australia drive on the left? People have reasons for the choices they make, whether social, financial, religious, political (which can be akin to religion), historical, and so on. Rather than judge others who act differently from you (because they come from a different culture), seek to get to know them, first by watching and listening (and even smelling) them, then by asking questions, not too invasively at first (think what kinds of questions you would like to be asked and how, and ask those, especially at the beginning of a relationship). Learn to read body language, and back off if you seem to be offending or invading a person’s social space.”
Was there a defining moment/event that caused you to identify with another country?
“When I was about 12, I was riding a bus home with my mom and siblings from the downtown area of our city in Brazil to our home. I looked out the window and saw a young man selling fish on the side of the road. For some reason, I realized in that moment that he and I were kindred human beings. That even though I did not know his world (nor he mine) that we could talk and share about things related to all humans. I knew that he had things he could teach me, and I had things I could teach him. From that point on I have rarely been truly afraid to talk to anyone. We are all humans and share so much more in common than not. Culture is more than outward trappings, but it is not at our deepest level of our human experience. So if we can see beyond our cultural differences to the heart of the person in front of us, we can communicate.
Is there a story that you would like to share about an experience living in another culture that would inspire readers to understand a new perspective/develop a multicultural heart/appreciate a new culture/etc.?
“When we first moved to our village in W. Africa, a young woman close to my age came and grabbed my arm and indicated she wanted me to go with her to get water. Without being able to speak any of the other person’s language, we managed to communicate just enough. She took me to the local spring, and I watched her get water and helped her put the water tub on her head (very heavy). She had twisted some grass together and floated it on top of the water to keep the water from splashing much. From that moment, I knew I wanted her for a friend. She eventually became my language helper, my go-between with the other women in the village. She taught me about her life of planting and harvesting peanuts, growing eggplant and other vegetables, and spoke for me to others in the village. Sometimes others couldn’t understand my accent, so she was able to interpret for me (and for others to me). When I needed someone to clean our floors, she was the one I trusted to work in our home (theft is a big problem in our village). We shared remedies for medical issues with kids, we walked places together, we talked about our lives and families. When our house burned down, she grieved with us and even tried to return some clothes that I had passed on to her earlier that day (since now we were the ones lacking). But I never would have had this rich friendship had she not reached out to me, a foreigner in her country.”
Sherry's story beautifully depicts the mutual encouragement and blessing it is when we get to know our neighbors who have immigrated to our country. Reaching out to someone from another country not only provides a welcoming atmosphere but also opens the door for some of the deepest, most incredible friendships.
I marvel at how Sherry explains looking beyond our cultural differences to the heart of people in order to communicate. There is a deep connection when we see the soul in a person's eyes, in their expression to discover who they are inside. We see this modeled by Christ in the gospels. Christ never focused on the outside. He always was and still is concerned about the heart. He loved people where they were at. His love transcends culture. Thank you, Sherry, for explaining this in such a beautiful, thought-provoking way. I pray that her story will inspire readers to consider a new perspective that helps them relate to a friend, neighbor, family member or stranger in a new way in order to bridge communication and foster love. I pray for God to bless you as you open your heart and mind to new cultures and discover a joy from the Lord in developing friendships with people from around the world living among you.
*Photos by Sherry Fariss used by permission