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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Building Trust

Learning to know a new culture and appreciate its ways is not enough. We can do this and still remain outsiders whom the people view with suspicion. As Marvin Mayers (1974) points out, the most important step in entering a new culture is to build trust. Only when people trust us will they listen to what we have to say.

Trust has to do with the value we place upon a relationship, although it is something we seldom stop to consider. Since we build relationships in order to accomplish something-to carry out business, to teach or learn a lesson, or to enter a marriage-we normally focus on what we want to achieve. We stop to consider the state of the relationship only when things go wrong.

Within our own culture, there are many cues that help us evaluate our relationship with each other. They include such things as titles and roles (we would normally expect to trust a preacher or judge); social context (we do not expect a checker at a supermarket to shortchange us); and social standing (we are more suspicious of a vagrant than of a well-dressed person).

In a strange culture, however, we do not recognize such cues. Consequently, we find it hard to judge when we can trust a person. Nor do we know how to convince other people that we are trustworthy. There is therefore a great deal of mutual suspicion when a stranger comes to town, particularly when she or he is a foreigner. Relationships in mission service must take priority over the task, particularly at the beginning. Trust in the message depends first upon trust in the messenger.

Trust building begins with an interest in and acceptance of those among whom we serve. We have our reasons for coming to minister, but these are of little concern to the people. They have their own motives for wanting to relate to us. Only as these are fulfilled will they have reason to continue the relationship. Much later, after a relationship has been established, the people will continue the relationship for its own sake, as friendship and companionship.

Our interest in others must be genuine. People soon detect and deeply resent our building relationships simply to carry out our own goals, for this is a subtle form of manipulation. They feel "used."

True interest expresses itself in many ways. It is seen in our desire to learn about the people, their lives, and their culture. It is reflected symbolically in our willingness to wear their type of clothes, try their food, and visit their homes. It is demonstrated in hospitality when we invite the people into our homes and let their children play with ours. And it is shown in formal rituals, through official visits, exchanges of gifts, ceremonial banquets, and polite introductions. These formal ways need to be carefully studied and informally checked beforehand with those in the culture, for a mistake here is a public affront and hard to undo. Mayers (1974:34) tells how he invited the assistant mayor of a rural village to a banquet because the mayor was absent, only to find that he had offended the man who was hosting the occasion. The host had a higher social status in the village than the assistant mayor. When, through Mayers's error, he was forced to entertain the assistant mayor, he was publicly acknowledging the superiority of the assistant mayor.

Acceptance begins when we love people as they are, not as we hope to make them. At first, this may be hard to do, in part because they are so different from us, and in part because we come with strong desires to bring about change. Unfortunately, we often unknowingly show rejection of other people as individuals. We cut them off when they are talking, laughing at their remarks, question their facts, talk down to them, and compare their culture unfavorably with our own. Or we avoid them, forget their names, or fail to trust them with money or tasks. One missionary never gave tickets to the "natives" because he was afraid they would lose them. By doing so, he expressed distrust as loudly as if he had said it in words.

Building trust requires openness. It is a two-way street. Before we can expect others to trust us, we must trust them. If we expect them to open up their lives to us, we must open up ours to them. We need to tear down the pretenses and masks we wear to impress others and must allow them to see who we really are, revealing our weaknesses and fears as well as our strengths. Trust also requires consistency. We need to be predictable so the people know what to expect, and what we say in private needs to correspond with what we say in public. It does little good to praise local customs if we make snide comments about them when alone with friends, for what we do in private reflects our true attitudes toward the people.

Finally, trust must be nurtured to maturity. At the outset, it is often fragile and easily broken. Consequently, we must focus on building the relationship. We often agree with people not because we accept what they are saying, but as a sign of trust. Disagreement in the early stages of a relationship is often seen not as a difference in opinion, but as a rejection of the person. Later, as the relationship grows, it can stand arguments and dissensions. It can also serve as an effective bridge for the communication of the gospel, for the people can now trust the message because they have learned to trust the messenger. The final stage of a good relationship implies full trust and confidence in another person and a total willingness to entrust oneself into his or her hands.

No task is more important in the first years of ministry in a new culture than the building of trusting relationships with the people. Without these, the people will not listen to the gospel, nor will we ever be accepted into their lives and communities. Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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