This was our 5th Christmas to celebrate in Peru and over the years we have had to adjust to the different ways it is celebrated here. For one thing, it never FEELS like Christmas because summer vacation begins in December which also means December is usually one of the warmer months of the year. So, no white Christmases here. Christmas is celebrated here the 24th. A late dinner (beginning anywhere between 10PM-midnight) is served and fireworks across the city are shot off at midnight. Also, the Santa decorations that you see decorating houses either have Santa climbing a ladder or with a parachute. I guess since there aren't chimneys or snow there is no need for a sleigh.
Sunday October 22 was Peru's national census day. What this meant was that it was forbidden for anyone to be outside of their home on this day starting at 8am until 5pm because an army of over 1 million volunteers was walking around the country filling out the census reports by hand. A country of more than 30 million people was put on hold for a day. It was forced to rest.
Kool & the Gang would have loved Arequipa. Almost every week of the year here we could sing: “There’s a party going on right here, a celebration, to last throughout the year”. There are tons of celebrations here. Some are characterized by traditional rituals, but many share common features: music (religious, local, traditional, mariachi-type, and pop), cohetes (what my husband calls “fire crackers on steroids”), cakes, sodas, and beer, and the hora loca, the ‘crazy hour’, a time to dance, make noise and wear funny hats, masks and ties that signals the ‘nearing’ of the end of the party.
Since moving here two years ago I have begun to understand a piece of the culture that I had no idea existed. Trust and mistrust are two sides of a coin that are very significant here in Arequipa. Getting to know people and building a level of trust with them is no easy task. Once you do build trust with a Peruvian you have made a real friend and it’s a beautiful thing
Incense. Candles. Live bands. Fireworks. Veils. Popcorn. Cotton candy. Barefoot reverence. Purple vestments. Dueling bands. Balloons. Crosses. Flowers. Candied apples. Priests. Banners. Crucifixes. Ornamental street tapestries. And people. Lots of people. Men dressed in purple are carrying a massive painting of Jesus on a heavy pedestal. Others dressed in purple are following close behind, reciting their prayers and showing their devotion to the Lord of Miracles, some by walking barefoot.
The adults on our team have done extensive pre-field work and have had numerous conversations on spending dedicated time on culture learning (especially the first two years) and being prepared for culture shock and its effects on our families and our personal selves. We did, however, leave the kids out of these conversations. Maya was five months old when we moved here and has suffered no visible culture shock. Lorenzo and Evan did go through periods of adaptation, each at their own pace. It has been beautiful to watch how natural and theory-less their inculturation has been.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a story of a Jewish man named Tevye and his family in a small, turn-of-the-century Russian village. It’s cheesy and it’s a musical, but the reason I like it is that Tevye’s whole life revolves around God. He’s a peasant milkman, not a rabbi or a priest, but every facet of his life is shaped by his relationship with God, with whom he’s constantly talking. I want to be like Tevye.
What began as four American missionaries sitting around a living room with one Peruvian listening to his ideas for development projects has grown into something much bigger. In 2009 we had one library functioning with an impact of around 20 people, in 2015 we will impact at least 650 lives in the library program alone. We have helped over 200 small business owners through loans, business management training, technical training and private management counseling...God has done more these last six years than we ever imagined, and shown us that there is so much more to come.
This is the standard response when our study of the New Testament deals with first-century church practices that we no longer observe. The usual contenders are direct commands such as “greet one another with a holy kiss” or, paraphrasing, “women must wear head coverings.” The observation is not wrong, per se. These certainly are cultural practices. But putting it that way reveals a key assumption about both the Bible and church practices: that some things are in the category of “not cultural.” We fancy many of our practices are universal and immune to the dangers of “cultural relativism.” This assumption, I suggest, is wrong. “That’s cultural” doesn’t get us very far, because everything is cultural.
If that opinion sets you on edge, well and good. You might explore those emotions in order to empathize with the cross-cultural missionary. To come humbly into a foreign culture seeking to bring the kingdom of God to expression in contextually meaningful ways means experiencing the loss of the pat solutions “That’s cultural” provides. The experience blesses us with the realization of how much of our taken-for-granted way of life as a church community is actually meaningless or confusing in a new context—maybe even meaningless or confusing in our home context, but I digress. And the experience blesses us with the discovery of new ways of representing the good news about Jesus, ways that would not have occurred to us because they are cultural and are, for that reason, the right ways for a particular community in a particular place to say and do the gospel.
Obviously, sorting out the relationship between culture and gospel is a big conversation. Oceans of ink have been spilled to that end. I merely mention these concerns by way of introduction to the analysis of culture under way here in Arequipa. Without indulging in too much self-deprecation, I confess that one of our shortcomings over the last six years has been a failure to engage in significant cultural analysis. I think we knew better but gave other concerns priority. Anyway, I’m glad that the arrival of fresh missionaries affords the opportunity to address that failure. The Arequipeño churches we have planted stand to become significantly more indigenous as we foreigners learn to be more culturally appropriate and help lead the church into the freedom to express itself more naturally. It’s an exciting thought!
This December, with the help of Bill and Holly Richardson, the church will gather for a time of reflection and re-visioning. The foreign missionaries who set many of the church’s current practices in motion will seek critical feedback from our Peruvian brothers and sisters in order to place many of our own assumptions prayerfully under scrutiny. The recent arrivals will bring the fruit of their cultural analysis to bear as questions about the meaning of various cultural practices—religious and otherwise—and about the possibility of adopting new practices that might express the gospel more clearly from and to the Peruvian worldview. We are all so thankful that at this juncture, we share the conversation with godly Peruvian disciples. Please pray for the insightfulness of our research from now to then and for the Spirit-led discernment we will need as a community when it comes time to make new decisions. We ask God for the faithfulness and the innovativeness that service to God’s kingdom requires.