When I was working in South Asia, the girls at the college where I was filled the gaps in my story according to their cultural norms and came to this conclusion about who I was and why I was there. Because I was at an age where I should have been married according to that culture, and was not; and because I was single and living alone in a foreign country without family, not a normal practice for that place, they concluded that it was an embarrassment to my family for me to stay with them when they could not marry me to someone, and so they had sent me overseas to avoid that embarrassment. Of course, I can laugh about it, and did laugh about it when they finally told me their story.
What I have noted over the years is that our friends fill our story out with their frame of reference and understanding when there are things they don’t understand about who we are and what we are doing.
I started thinking about this again when reading Paul Hiebert, The Gospel in Human Contexts. Hiebert says that if cross-cultural workers are to be effective they need to be incorporated in local social systems. While our role as missionary, or cross-cultural worker, may be something that is understood by our own communities, it is not one other communities know or understand and so, as my girls did with my story, they place us in a category they know and understand, reframing our story to fit their frame of reference.
How are you known in the community you work among, whether that is in a Muslim majority country, or among a diaspora community? It can be equally confusing for people if we move to an area of our city where there are few other westerners living, as if we move to another country.
Often when we make those moves we establish our identity based on work. I am a teacher, or doctor, a business person, or work for the church. We look for categories that people know, and we believe understand, and seek to fit into them. But for many it still does not answer their underlying curiosity or open questioning, who are we and what are we doing there. And often we go on to do things that don’t really fit with their idea of a teacher, or doctor or business person.
Do we know what categories our local community has for women that do anything like we might do and how we fit into that? Is there a broad category that we can borrow and reimagine?
And what place does faith have in the identity we become known by, or which is created for us? Work among Muslims has long been premised on antagonism toward Christians and so, often, workers have been encouraged to minimise exposing that label at least. Whereas the label Christian is contestable, are there other ways of being known as a person of faith, a spiritual person, a holy person, a servant, that could open different doors for us in connecting and being known in the community?
Looking back at Jesus, I have been trying to see if understanding how he was known by women in the gospel story could help us. One of the things that is striking is that women who were otherwise excluded, marginalised, or who didn’t belong came to him.
The Syro-Phoenician woman is one of those. We read her story today because she saw in Jesus one who could help her with the illness of her daughter. His reputation was so known that she searched him out. While the disciples wanted to get rid of her, Jesus journeyed her, and us, to know that his love is not bounded by the distinctives that traditionally separate or exclude.
Then there is the woman who was bleeding. She had heard enough about Jesus that she was willing to risk the wrath of the community for making them unclean to reach out to him. Jesus is moved with compassion and sets her free, both from the illness and from her marginalisation. With that he shifts the discourse on purity and belonging and this woman’s faith is made whole.
How was Jesus known? His identity is perhaps one of the most contested we will ever find in history, and even today it continues to be a matter of dispute for many. The religious leaders of his day saw him as a problem, a threat, that needed to be dealt with. His disciples grew to understand that he was the Son of the Living God. For those in the communities where he went, they knew him as a man of compassion who could change their lives. He gave them hope. He broke barriers for them. He included them. He was a man of power, love and mercy.
In the incarnation we learn that being know by people is more than living among them. The incarnation calls us to a heart of compassion so that we are known as those who serve, so that people trust us and will reach out because they see we include the least, we cross barriers, we love in deed as well as word.
People continue to disagree about who Jesus is, so perhaps we should not be so concerned when people can’t decide who we are. The bigger question is whether they see in us the living Christ and are drawn to reach out to him in and through us.
How do you want to be known in the community where you are? What can you do to enhance the way people know you as a follower of Jesus, whatever the limitations of that in your context?
 Hiebert, P., The Gospel in Human Contexts. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids. eBook edition, 2016. p. 180
Featured Image: https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference/2020/0113/Defense-ninja-One-Muslim-woman-s-journey-to-empowerment
(c) When Women Speak … October 2020
CH spent more than three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).