Changing Perspectives: Cobber Cross Cultural Testimonies
Organized by Mark Del Greco
There is nothing more captivating than setting foot on foreign soil half a world away. All senses are awhirl taking in the sights and sounds of your new surroundings. Your heart skips a beat and a surge of adrenaline rushes from head to toe, as feelings of excitement and fear arise all at once. Thoughts of conquering the unknown push you onward into this new world and an experience that will change you forever. The following intercultural testimonies by Concordia students showcase these kinds of life changing experiences. So sit back, relax, and join your fellow Cobbers in becoming immersed in studying abroad down under; hospital work in Russia, athletic competition in South America, and so much more.
Mark Del Greco
Last summer I travelled to Morocco, the exotic kingdom of North Africa, to study Arabic and work with a humanitarian aid organization. To many, visiting Morocco is packed with intrigue. It conjures up images of spectacular natural wonders, exquisite ancient architecture, and colorful people. I testify it is all that and more.
I had the opportunity to trek through the remotest mountains and deserts and to live in the ancient city of Fez which is like taking a step back into medieval times. Fez is made up of a labyrinth of over 9,000 streets criss-crossing and winding through towering ancient buildings which have stood for more than a millennium. There are no cars on these streets because many are the size of hallways. The city is full of simple shops and markets selling everything imaginable from camel meat to beautiful Berber carpets to exquisite jewelry. Everything is purchased by bartering, a "game" of negotiation which the locals have mastered over the years.
It was a glorious experience to submerge myself in the simple lifestyle of a culture that has hardly changed over the centuries. I gradually gained trust and found acceptance into the neighborhood and built friendships that bridged gaps of language, faith, and culture. I found that although we are different in so many ways, we are still so much the same. I fell in love with this way of life and the people who made me feel like family.
I sometimes long to go back to where I had no worries and life was not a chaotic rat race. A life in which all that mattered was relationship with your fellow man and what you were going to eat for your next meal. A culture of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." People had nothing yet they still had so much joy. I question where this is in our culture. It seems so often we get caught up in ourselves and this high stress, materialistic world we live in. We have so much yet why does it seem so many are still unhappy? We forget the things that really matter: faith, family, and friends.
In summary, my Morocco experience forever changed my life. My eyes were opened to a whole new worldview. I now realize how blessed I truly am.
In the summer of 2009, I traveled to Yaroslavl, Russia, with an organization called Cross-Cultural Solutions. While there, I volunteered in a women's psychiatric hospital, a children's psychiatric hospital, various elderly centers, and children's city camps attended by children from low-income families or orphanages. Although I knew only a very minimal amount of language, the interactions I had with people in these places changed my perspective and my heart in a big way.
Each day all of the volunteers would be driven to various locations, where we would spend the day in groups of four or five, with a translator present, as well. The most meaningful places that I spent time at were the hospital for kids, which was like a children's psychiatric hospital, and the women's psychiatric hospital.
Most of the kids at the hospital had various behavior and emotional problems, and were sent by their families to stay for differing periods of time in order to be evaluated and treated. Because I could not speak Russian and there was only one translator available, I was unable to really talk to the children, but just being able to play with them and show them love was more than enough for communicating. Each day when we arrived, the kids rushed to greet us with exorbitant amounts of touching and hugs, since touch was something they otherwise did not receive. Many kids wanted to spend our time together simply playing with my hair, resting on my arm, or petting my back. We would play indoor games and do an art project, and then the children would get to spend a small amount of time playing outside of the building they were otherwise locked inside. While outside, many of them wanted only to run and be chased for extremely long periods of time, and they were overjoyed to play catch with a baseball. It seemed that when volunteers were not present, these children received extremely little love and positive attention, so when we gave it to them, they soaked it up.
The women's psychiatric hospital was the other volunteer placement that had the most impact on me. Women of all ages and diagnoses were housed in this locked building containing rooms with rows of beds and a recreation room. We would go here twice a week to play games and do art projects with the women. Walking into this building was always shocking, as there would be some women lying on the floor in the middle of the dirty hallway, others moaning in their bedrooms, and all of them wearing dirty night gowns and looking disheveled. The smell of this place was so terrible it triggered my gag reflex. Because of the language barrier, it was difficult to discern what exactly these women's circumstances were, but there seemed to be a wide range of mental illness, going from depression to other completely debilitating illnesses. Regardless, in America today, it would be considered horrific to house mentally ill in the conditions that these women lived in.
One day we were able to bring lipstick and lotion to the women. This day was very memorable for me, because these items were considered delicacies to them. They were so grateful just for some lotion, as their skin was so unbelievably dry. After putting the lipstick on, all of them would stare at their reflections in a little compact mirror we brought,just smiling to themselves for many minutes. One woman said that she was not going to wash her face for three days so that she could look that beautiful for as long as possible.
Volunteering in Russia was extremely rewarding but also heartbreaking. It was hard to leave these people knowing that I was going back to my relatively perfect home and they were staying in the same conditions. It was also difficult for me to handle the language barrier, because I wanted so badly just to tell them that they were beautiful and loved. However, this forced us to rely on other ways of communicating, which were very meaningful. I grew a lot from this trip in my faith and in my understanding of people. I would absolutely love to do something like this again and I would recommend it to anyone.
I left the comfort of my rural North Dakota life and boarded an airplane bound for Singapore where I would do construction projects at a Christian drug-rehab center. It was a life-changing experience starting with hearing and seeing the in-flight instructions in Japanese and Mandarin as well as English.
After landing in Singapore at one in the morning and exiting the airport I was greeted by the most humid air I had ever felt. Even in the middle of the night Singapore was like a sauna. The American couple that I interned under drove me to the Teen Challenge drug-rehab center where I would be staying for the next twelve weeks. Those twelve weeks passed quickly with me learning how hot 34 degrees really was (Celsius of course) and how to eat briani rice and curry-covered roti prata with my Indian friends without using utensils.
The food in Singapore was incredible. Roti prata, a soft Indian pita bread that was drenched in curry sauce, was my favorite. The first time I ate roti prata was after arriving back in Singapore from a weekend in nearby Kuala Lumpur. I flew into the Singapore airport at midnight and was picked up by two of my Indian friends. They asked if I was hungry, which of course l was, so we drove to a local coffee shop to eat. By the time we arrived it was well after midnight, yet the tables outside were filled with people, teenagers on dates, families with young children, and senior citizens. My friend Michael ordered for me, and when my order arrived asked the cook to put more curry on it. I spilled all over the van on the ride home making a huge mess, but the prata was delicious.
There were many frustrations with being outside the United States. First there was no Home Depot that I could visit and purchase all of the tools and supplies that I needed to do a project the "American way." Needless to say I learned that there was an alternative "Asian" way to do almost every project that I needed to do. The first day I was asked to hang a set of drapes in the cafeteria and then given a concrete drill. I insisted that I only needed a power screwdriver to hang the drapes until I discovered that all of the walls were concrete, not the wood that I was used to working with.
One memorable experience was attending a Tamil church service. The service was conducted entirely in Tamil which I didn't learn at all so without the man whom the pastor assigned to interpret for me I would have been completely lost. It was amazing to see a group of people who were so passionate about the same God as I was, yet in such a different looking and sounding way.
I was also able to play soccer for the Teen Challenge Football Club. I was by far the largest, and most inexperienced soccer player on the field in all of our games. I cannot say that I made a huge impact on the game, but f hope I contributed positively to our team at least a little bit. I would play defense, but on comer kicks 1 was called forward to try to head in a goal. It was never successful, but l was a giant distraction as three or four of our opposing defensive players would come over and cover me to keep me from scoring. Little did they know that I had almost zero soccer experience. One game I was assigned by my teammates to chase one of the good players on the other team to keep him from getting the ball and scoring if he got the ball. I was able to keep him from scoring, including one time that I was able to head a high pass from getting to him.
From Feb 2009- July 2009, I got the opportunity to study on the east coast of Australia. I took four business classes at a local University and lived amongst other college students. I lived with two Australian females and one South African male. Not only did I take classes, I bought a surf board and experienced the surfing lifestyle. A quick 10 minute bus ride to the coast allowed for many trips to the beach.
When I was not in class or at the beach, I was; lucky enough to be able to travel elsewhere around Australia. I visited major cities and scenic attractions around Australia, taking in many tourist attractions as well as partaking in various domestic lifestyle cultural activities. Traveling internationally, I was able to visit Japan, but even more amazingly was able to experience the beautiful country of New Zealand.
After the whole experience of being "down under," many of my perspectives and world-views changed. I was able to meet many students from all parts of the world. From Africa to Europe to Latin America, I found out that there are many people taking on different experiences and cultures besides their own. It was incredible to see how different people can be, yet still be so similar. The ability to travel internationally today is amazing. With a simple passport, one can experience many great lifestyles and cultures around the world. Overall, my global experiences have developed me into a person without a single mindset and have shown me how much life has to offer beyond domestic borders,
Traveling has been a huge part of my being and has helped shape my view on life in many ways. One way in particular is by helping me recognize the fundamentals of life that I often take for granted, like the simple privilege to drink clean water.
Being born in America I've been raised taking a lot for granted. I especially recognized this when I went on a mission trip with my family to Mexico. The Mexican families walked about two hours one way, over "hills," which I would classify as small mountains, in order to have their children attend a Vacation Bible School we were organizing. In preparation for this mission trip I packed my grungiest clothes but people who walked two hours in the sweltering Mexican sun daily dressed in their very best and their most special outfits.
It sounds cliche but people were living in poverty, suffering from illnesses caused by the pollution they lived in and yet they found joy in the tiniest little things like paper.
It is so important and necessary to break free from our comfort zones because we have so much to learn about other cultures. When we reach out to each other we often discover that we aren't as different as we perceived. There are endless opportunities for going abroad and in my own experience I have been so blessed with what I have learned and for the travel bug that keeps urging me to go and explore God's great world even more!
My trip to Colombia in the summer of 2008 with an Athletes In Action basketball team began for me a fulfillment of the idea that sports cross all boundaries, allowing me to connect with people from a completely different culture and hopefully to use that common ground as a platform to share the gospel. It ended up opening my heart up to love in a new way, and letting that instead be my motivation and the one thing needed to cross all cultural barriers.
Athletes in Action is a global pioneer in sport ministry, existing to bring Jesus Christ and His message of victory into the hearts, homes, and communities of millions of people around the world. I traveled with thirteen others to four of the major cities of Colombia over a span of two weeks, playing 10 games as we went. The games served as our main outreach, sharing testimonies at halftime with the crowds, and then having time to share with the opposing teams after the game. We were blessed to have two amazing players native to Colombia on the team, who greatly helped with translating, provided a greater number of connections to build off of, and most importantly they demonstrated to us what defines Colombia. They helped us to see it as a country where community and relationships are of the most importance. This is something that I witnessed every day, seeing people everywhere I went greeting each other with excitement, with hugs and kisses. I saw huge capacities to love, even when circumstances were not the greatest. I saw kids roaming in rags, looking for ways to have fun, smiling as they took interest in strange new-comers. We had the warmest welcoming wherever we went. Churches took us in as their own, feeding us. entertaining us, and overall just showing a deep desire to bless us, showing the utmost appreciation for our presence.
I left for this journey very much hoping to find ways to use something I loved, the game of basketball, to bring something to others. On the way, my heart was opened in ways that I am unable to describe on paper. God tore down major walls in my heart on that trip. and from that gushed a new outpouring of His love that could then freely flow from me. The people of Colombia showed me that what matters all stems from the relationships we have. Love, l came to see. is what first and foremost has the power to step over any boundaries that cultural differences create. It is God's amazing love that transcends all.