Don’t burn your boats or bridges

Photo: Aleksandr Barsukov, Unsplash. Photo: Aleksandr Barsukov, Unsplash.

Our family recently had a visit from friends from Indonesia. They brought us a lot of oleh-oleh (gifts). It is a custom for Indonesians to bring gifts when traveling from far away.

But their most precious gift was their presence. Zoom or social media can’t replace this genuine experience. We are grateful that even though we live 10,000 miles apart, we haven’t lost our relationship and connection.

Our family came to the United States in 2016. You could say we are still fresh off the boat, if that means “not yet assimilated.”

The phrase could be derogatory, but I don’t mind. We do bring something fresh. There is much that others can learn from us without traveling across the world.

For us immigrants, living in a new country means we need to comply with certain standards. It is necessary to do some things differently than we did back home. Failure to change could cause harm. For example, some immigrants need to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road than they are used to.

But the host culture should make some adjustments, too. In the U.S., some things need to be redefined, reworded, restructured. I’m grateful that two states, California and Colorado, have changed their laws to replace the word “alien” with “noncitizen” or “immigrant.” To me, “alien” feels negative, in the same way that if you type “alien” into your Google search engine, a picture of an ugly monster from outer space pops up.

When we make adjustments for each other, we reject the culture of fear that has become common today. We adopt a culture of love: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

There is much work to do in bridging cultures. I believe it starts with a relationship. Then we can make a brave cultural crossing and be transformed together.

We need to learn from other cultures, not only tasting their food but learning their ways, like trying their approaches to solving problems or handling tensions.

I’m grateful there is an initiative from churches in my conference, ­Mosaic Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA, to have a combined service with the Indonesian churches in South Philadelphia.

“We can’t all go to the Mennonite World Conference in Indonesia, but we can take a short trip and worship together while learning and sharing experiences and a busy life,” said Sonya Kurtz, lead pastor of Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, Pa. I’m grateful to be one of the hosts.

Living as an immigrant can be lonely. We desperately need genuine connections and relationships. We need to be intentional in making those connections.

And we need to be countercultural, because there is a culture of fear that benefits from a segregated way of life. Let us unite and let the spirit of God work in our communion.

The Apostle Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Maybe you have heard a quote that says, “To be successful, you have to burn your boats” (or bridges). Meaning you should never look back. You should even make it impossible to go back.

But, in the intercultural context, burning our boats or bridges is unnecessary, even wrong. We will need those boats or bridges to connect two worlds — the past and the present, the old and the new.

Each of us needs to seek our identity in Christ in our time and place. Yet, we know we were created in God’s image from the beginning. No matter how far we may have come — by physical distance or by the passage of time — we carry a sacred connection within us that can’t be broken.

There is a saying in Indonesia: “Don’t become like nuts that forget their shells.” In other words: Don’t forget your roots. Remember where you came from. Don’t be ashamed of your identity. Embrace it, and be transformed with others along the way.

Hendy Matahelemual

Hendy Stevan Matahelemual is an ordained minister in Mosaic Mennonite Conference and lives in Philadelphia. 

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