I heard a lady in Mississippi say that—“In the South, relationships matter”—but the phrase keeps ringing through my mind here, in Zimbabwe. That’s strange, I guess because it’s not exactly the American South, but I’m learning that there are striking similarities. The weather is warm (even in their winter, as we are) and I know it gets very humid (though not as much in this winter season) and there are bugs like in the South (something we have few of in Colorado).
Not only is the climate similar, but we ate greens (they don’t call them collard greens here, but I think it may have been) and we had a maize dish that, again, wasn’t called grits (they called it sadza), but if it wasn’t grits exactly, it was remarkably close.
So here I am, in the South of Africa, eating grits and greens and fighting off mosquitoes and struck again, as I am every time I’m in the South – and all the more so since I moved away from the South – about how relationships matter.
My friend, roommate in Africa and worship leader/singer/musician extraordinaire, Megan Isaacson has been reading a book Foreign to Familiar which talks about the differences in warm climate cultures and cold climate cultures. You know what it says? In the South, relationships matter.
Well, not in so many words, perhaps, but essentially. It points out that the people in colder climates value thoughts and ideas and principles. They come together to get a job done, and if relationships happen along the way, then that’s a bonus. In the South, people come together valuing the relationships first and foremost, and if work happens to get done along the way, then fantastic.
So I’m apparently completely unsure of where I fall into this spectrum, my natural tendencies and Southern roots having been somewhat obscured by a Corporate American sense of urgency and business focus. This leaves me conflicted. When I set aside business to focus on the person (and it happens a lot), I inevitably feel guilty…very guilty…for not making work the priority. On the flip side, it also happens far too often that I run over someone because I don’t take time for the relationship and I just rush straight into business. This was what I ran into in Zimbabwe – or would have, had it not been for my sweet Zimbabwean friend, Faith, who kept me from steamrolling over the very relationship-centered Zimbabweans in my very American, headlong rush to the point.
This is how Faith saved me.
It was late. We’d been at the conference all day and it started early the next morning. The women were all back in the dorm getting ready for bed. I wanted to offer to the women staying in the dorm with us a chance to tell their stories on video for a project we were doing with work. Faith and I thought it would be good to go ahead and mention to the women that we’d like to get them on video so they could think about what they wanted to share, and then the following nights we could come to the rooms with the camera. Faith offered to take me around to each room and help with introductions.
I thought this would only take a few minutes…run around to each dorm…pop our heads in…”Hi! I’m Stacey. I am working on this project. Here’s our vision for it… Wanted to invite you to be a part of it. I’ll be filming each day, so catch me anytime.” Done and done. We only had about four rooms to pop our heads into with four women in each. Shouldn’t take too long.
I was naïve. VERY naïve. Why? Because in the South, relationships matter.
Faith knocks on the first door. “Excuse me, ladies!” she says in her very sweet, peaceful, calm, soothing voice. Once invited in, she graciously says, “Hello ladies. We just wanted to come and introduce ourselves. We want to have relationships with you. We want to get to know you.” I swear her voice has a “soothing” setting.
“Ahhh! Come in! Come in! Have a seat!” they say, excitedly as everyone stops whatever they are doing to focus on this interruption…on relationships in the room. Sitting down should have been a sign. It was a 2 minute announcement, or less…and we were sitting…aka we were going to be there more than 2 minutes. Faith then again explains that we want to “have relationships” with them. She explains to them that we want them to feel comfortable to come to our room and visit any time. (I find this so interesting because we kept the door shut and locked. There are only about twenty girls in the dorm. I didn’t see the need to keep each room locked fast. Especially in a culture that so values relationships. In America we often keep things unlocked and often wide open, but don’t welcome people coming in nearly as much.)
Then she proceeds with introductions. Every person shares their name (and giggles when I get it wrong), where they are from, little details that they feel are significant to who they are—their work and ministry, their family, their children and grandchildren, etc. It takes some time. We eventually, slowly get around to the point. Faith eases into the transition, slowly, gently, with that lulling tone of hers… Which, can I just point out – I thought we’d already been quite slow about easing into our objective just by taking all this time to visit first, but even still Faith was in no hurry to get to the point.
“Well, ladies, like I said, we just wanted to get to know you, to spend time with you, to invite you into relationships with us. We are all here at this conference, together from different parts of Zimbabwe and the world, and we wanted to know something about you. And Stacey, she had some ideas. You know, she thinks you have something valuable to offer. She wanted to invite you to share some of your story, if you want to…” (You have to read all of this with your most calming, soothing voice…and insert ellipses and pauses between every phrase to begin to get the full effect.)
I think it was about this point that I couldn’t stand it any longer and I finally jumped into the conversation, so, so excited about my project, and about capturing the stories of these women’s lives. It was actually a good transition.
I learned a lot from Faith that night. I learned everyone’s names (more on that later), and I learned to slow down and take time to enjoy the people. I learned put business on hold and go through some formalities, to not be in such a rush to get to the point. I learned that, especially in the South, (or a warm climate culture) it’s important to be sure people feel that they matter more to you than your agenda. (Although this is probably true everywhere, people like to feel special and to feel that they matter.)
I didn’t know it then, but that night, that long, late night that took more time per room than I expected to take as a whole, was critical to much of what came from the rest of the trip. We planted a seed that night that bore some very rich fruit. And you know what? I enjoyed every minute of it. That night with Faith, meeting each of the women in our dorm, learning to linger over things the way they do—that is one of my most treasured memories from Zimbabwe.
I can’t help but wonder if maybe God isn’t just a little bit Southern in his approach to relationships. I mean, obviously God’s neither warm nor cold climate, neither Southern nor Northern—but I think to God, relationships matter. This is why He tells us that they will know we are Christians by our love (John 13:35)—the defining characteristic of His followers has to do with how they relate to each other, not with the miracles they do, or the size of the ministry they have. Just look at Jesus. He took time to eat with people, to talk to them, to attend weddings, to cry with them in their grief. He didn’t just come and get to the point. He didn’t just come and die and pay for our sins. I mean wasn’t that the point? Didn’t Jesus come to earth to die for our sins? I mean, why not just get right to it? Why spend thirty-three years living as one of us? Why go through nine months in the womb? – yech! He could have shown up, been crucified right away and been on with it. But he didn’t. He took his time. He got to know us; let us get to know Him (seeing as He’s all knowing and created us, that letting us get to know Him was really the bigger point). He slowly, gently, carefully began to introduce the point, the ultimate point, to his disciples. It was a process, not an agenda.
All of Scripture should reveal to us that relationships matter to God. The Trinity itself should be proof of that—three in one, our God lives in an intimate state of fellowship that we can not even fathom. But to make sure we don’t miss it, to make sure that we don’t feel that we are just part of God’s plan, a point on His agenda, He came incarnate, in the flesh, as one of us. He took His time getting to know us, letting us know Him. He lived showing us that relationships matter to Him—and that He desperately desires one with us.
You know what the sad thing is? I keep missing it. I don’t really value the time God wants to take with getting to know me. I keep wanting to speed up the process and get to the point. It seems to me it’s a little as if I was on a date with my boss. (Hypothetically, of course. My boss is married…my old boss was a woman…also married. I’ve never been on a date with a boss of mine—just to be clear!) Anyway – it’s as if I’m on this date and while he’s trying to date and get to know me, I keep asking for my “orders.” I’m constantly looking for the agenda, the to-do item, the next thing on the task list. I’m looking for him to correct me, or say something about work, to focus on the practical things that we need to get done. But he’s not focused on work at all, he’s just trying to focus on me, and get me to focus on him…and frankly, that’s a little unnerving to me. For some reason, I don’t really know how to go there with God.
A kindly neighbor just recently said to me, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). I think that verse is so poignant to us because it reminds us that God isn’t our boss, wanting us to get a job done. The relationship images He uses to describe our relationship to Him are more personal than that. He’s our Father, we are his sons and daughters. We are the bride of Christ. So He tell us to be still, stop looking for the agenda, stop working and doing, know who He is, take time to truly enter into that relationship. It’s not a 5-minute meeting. It takes time. It takes slowing down. It takes focus.
I have no doubt though, that, just like that night with Faith when we slowed down to take time to enter into relationships with those women in Zimbabwe, when we do the same with God, it too will be the planting of seeds which will reap a rich, plentiful harvest, and those times with God will become our most treasured memories.
To read another post about relationships in Africa, click here.