I did not want to be in there, in their inner city confused and deflated. I told Natasha that I was not a mission type guy. I liked my routines and comfort, and I may not have had much, but at least I had a roof over my head, a familiar terrain, and a culture that I understood. She was relentless, however. She wanted me to join her and a team to go to an island in the West Indies, Barbados. I finally gave in.
I had no clue where Barbados was, or of their culture, other than what Natasha had told me. But I went on this mission leaning into what I know and what makes me comfortable. On my first day, I learned my first valuable uncomfortable lesson. As I walked down the streets of Bridgetown, someone asked, “You need a ride?” and my response was, “Nah, dog! I’m good.” Translated from slang to common American vernacular, it meant: “No thank you, I am fine.” Well, that was not the case in this country. I knew this to be true when the man responded to me with a barrage of insults, vulgarities, and aggression. He ended with a statement that gave me the answer as to “Why the aggression?”; “… I am no dog!” Most dogs on that island are scavengers, unkept, and homeless. My words were insulting. So I shifted gears, and I decided to let myself take a swing using a simple American rejective pleasantry; “No. Thank You.” This time the local yelled out of his Zed-R (his private taxi), “Oistins silversands. Fat boy, you need a ride”. I politely said, “No. Thank you!”. “NO or thank you?” he responded. “What?” I thought to myself. “No, but thank you for offering,” I clarified back. To which he stated, “Oh! Confusing but OK. Oistins silversands” he yelled to the next tourist. But as they say in Barbados, “De higher de monkey climb de more he does show he tail.” In other words, the more I leaned into my comfort, the more visible my fault, which was ignorance of culture. I did not fit the motif. I was not a laid-back island guy. I was impatient, extremely hood mannered, and did not know the faith enough to communicate it. Lo and behold, here I was offending and confusing people on day one.
Then I heard a guitar play. One of the missionaries started strumming. I started just making up lyrics, rapping about the beauty I saw, how lost I felt, and how amazing God always is. Before I knew it, a crowd formed. Barbados made me fall in love with mission work. I ended up going over 10 times back to Barbados, then Jamaica, then Hawai’i, and now a new mission area: the Catholic Church in the United States. What do these areas all have in common? The need of the Good News of Jesus Christ via the Sacramental life of His Church. Though Barbados, Jamaica and Hawai’i are not conventional mission territories, the people were, and continue to be, hungry for the hope of things unseen. And by divine providence, these three islands were also the places where I learned the most valuable lesson of effective ministry: inculturation.
Paul, one of the greatest evangelists and missionaries of our faith, understood inculturation well. In his interaction with Jewish worshipers, as well as Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens, “Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: ‘You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
During that interaction, Paul noticed that the debate may have planted the seed of curiosity: “We should like to know what these things mea.” (v.20), but nothing clicked more for the people of Athens than when he found the intersection of commonality [‘ I see that in every respect you are very religious’] and spoke to that. He knew to use their culture as a tool of ministry. In his writings to the Church in Corinth, he doubled down on this experience, and he instructed the Church saying: “To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the Gospel, so that I too may have a share in it” (1 Cor 9:21-22). The difference between most approaches and Paul’s approach is a reactive versus a proactive model of ministry. Paul in Acts reacts to Athens, yet in the Letter to the Church of Corinth he asks the Church to be proactive, and “be all things to all people.” In ministry, we can no longer be the people that simply react to a cultural shift. We must be proactive by keeping our finger on the pulse of the people we minister to.
The youth culture in particular is a more difficult missionary territory because of its subcultural influences and the impact social media has in young lives. Their subcultural trends are normally fast and ever evolving. Clothing has found a retro resurgence with color schemes revisiting the 80s and 90s neon bright colors. The music has fused different genres into one, hence hip hop getting an aggressive and emotional transition into trap music, and the introduction of K-Pop (Korean Pop Music) which is a fusion pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, and electronic music. Verbal slang, although still present, has taken a back seat to encrypted slang via text, gifs, and emoticons.
Anyone working with youth may feel like he is on a foreign mission, but the evidence of their desires is interwoven in what they consume. When you understand the culture, you begin to see the clues more vividly. Bright colors equals “do you see me?” emotionally stimulating music equals “I have feelings too.” Communications via text equals “I want you to know what I am saying, do you understand?” Although we cannot shove all youth into these unspoken translations, you can get a glimpse into the desire of the culture and what we need to do in order to accompany and advocate for them on their journey towards eternity.
I stood at the runway at Grantley Adams International Airport, holding my Chefette bagged lunch, emotional because I truly became Barbadian (Bajan) for the Gospel. I refused to make the same mistake twice. I respect the culture so that they can respect, follow, and devote their lives to Jesus Christ. Have you taken the time proactively to know the culture today, or will you learn, as I did, from a reactional mistake? De higher de monkey climb de more he does show he tail.
Anchor columnist Oscar Rivera Jr., is director of Youth Ministry in the diocesan Secretariat for the New Evangelization. firstname.lastname@example.org.