It took me 15 years to realize I went to school to learn. That’s right—only as a junior in college did that profound truth dawn on me. Of course that should’ve been obvious, but I spent elementary, middle, junior, and high schools and the first two years of college completing assignments and taking tests without learning on purpose. When I decided to start learning (and that that was part of the point), everything changed. I found out it was more than just a classroom activity and more so a way of life that enhances everything from coffee and snowboarding to relationships and travel.
I love when folks older than me talk about the act of learning being never-ending. For some reason it holds more weight when a 70 year-old says “You can never stop learning!” than it does for a 27 year-old whippersnapper like me who’s done little in life other than go to school. Katie and I connected with two groups of Christians at our sending churches who live out this learner’s attitude: Cedar Lane’s “Golden-agers” and Central’s “Forerunners.” We loved getting to spend a few months learning with them—studying the Bible, meeting people, and benefitting from their lives as learners with these incredible churches.
Anytime you move to a new place, job, and culture, there’s learning to be done. Because of the nature of our work in Arequipa, we planned for learning to be our primary job for two whole years. That’s a long time.
So what does learning look like as a full-time job?
At first, it’s the most obvious stuff: learning the language, grammar, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, slang. Learning basic cultural expressions, like greetings and saying goodbye, knowing when to speak formally and informally, figuring out lunch is late and huge and supper is tea and bread. And experiencing the city’s main attractions, visiting to museums and cathedrals, and climbing the nearest 19,000 ft volcano.
Next, it’s all about lifestyle, the day-to-day things that make life work. Like going to a market—or several: to the vegetable market, the fruit market, the meat market, the bread store, as well as to the supermarket for things that you can only find there. It’s finding your vegetable lady, your milk man, and starting to build relationships with them. It’s learning how to get around the city using public transportation, learning the bus routes that most people take to get around. It means figuring out what people do for fun, like playing soccer, volleyball, and grilling out.
In the learning process, there’s a point where you move from survival mode into thriving mode—or at least getting by with a bit more ease. You can accomplish all sorts of normal tasks without expending too much extra energy. That’s a great place to be, it’s necessary, but the learning process doesn’t stop there.
There’s a deeper stage to learning, where you start to ask questions about a culture’s values and a people’s worldview. This is where you start to learn what real relationships are all about, and how long it really takes to develop trust in a mutual friendship. You try to answer questions regarding family and community, how small groups form and what holds them together. Figuring out what motivates people to study, make a living, start a family; what is the meaning in life? What purpose, hope, or dreams are there? Is the question of “dreams” even within the framework of the average Arequipeño? What does it look like to reflect the image of God in this culture? It’s starting share faith and study the Bible with people, all the while asking questions about how it’s being received and how our different sets of lenses affect our understanding of Good News.
It is at this level that questions of faith and reconciliation are most exciting. But that’s also why our strategy assumes two years of full-time learning, because most of this can’t be learned inside a classroom. It’s discerned by participating in social groups, observing analytically, and assuming that we’re probably not even asking the right questions at first. There’s a trial and error process where even the questions we’re asking must evolve.
This is where we find ourselves, aspiring to a deeper learning mode. Our ministry-minded inclinations push us to want to fill up our weekly schedules with work: appointments, Bible studies, development projects. But if we’re to arrive at a deeper understanding of what God is doing here in Arequipa, we can’t cut the learning process short in the name of becoming busy or forging ahead with our strategy. After all, we believe Good News is to be culturally relevant as well as paradigm-redeeming—and we can’t hope to figure out what that looks like unless we learn.
There’s something foundational to the human experience about being a learner. God is God and we are not. The learning process won’t ever really stop. So we spend time with other people, God’s image-bearers, learning from our similarities and differences, and in so doing we learn more about God and creation in this part of the world.