When I was a little boy, the tinkling of teaspoons and teacups coming from my parents’ bedroom on Sunday mornings was the signal it was time to jump out of bed and join the fun. Once I was properly settled between them, they would hand me my cup of tea and my saucer of maria biscuits and the sipping, dipping and nibbling would begin. I can’t remember what else we did during that fifteen minutes of togetherness, but I certainly do remember what came next. When my mom had finished her tea she would go downstairs to make breakfast, my dad would pour some more tea and tell me a story.
Many of the stories involved a young man going out into the world to seek his fortune. Invariably he would meet someone along the road who had a special talent, like swinging his sword so fast he could use it as an umbrella during a rainstorm. The two would decide to seek their fortune together. Soon they would meet others with special abilities and they would join the group. Eventually they would meet a problem, a princess being held by a giant, for instance, and the young man and his group would devise a plan to defeat the giant and rescue the princess, each member using his unique skill. The end result was often measured in bags of gold for each of them.
Each story my dad told was different, but each had that same theme and they made a profound impression on me. Not only did I make up similar stories to tell my children, and later my grandchildren, but when I became a missionary, I saw myself as the young man going out to gather a group of people with compensating talents to work together to “seek our fortune.” That is why my wife and I joined Wycliffe, a mission agency that values people with a wide variety of skills, people who consider themselves part of every translation team.
As Jo and I began living with Brazil’s Canela people, we prayed that God would help us find Canelas who were teachable and had natural gifting in various areas. We built into the lives and minds of the villagers we worked with by teaching them, strengthening their self-confidence, stretching their minds with new ideas, and expanding their lives with new skills.
One became very skilled at extracting rotten teeth. Several had the skill and patience to teach others to read. Another illustrated the Scriptures with his drawings of Canela life. Some were typists, some proofreaders. One was very good at making sentences flow smoothly. For some time we had seventeen Canela men and women working together with us. Canelas already were used to working together as an interdependent group in their own culture. We fitted in and were able to accomplish things so difficult and complicated, no single one of us could possibly have achieved them as an individual.
In North America when I talk about interdependent team building, working together in community and developing partnerships, I have to overcome a cultural bias against this concept. American cultural heroes are not about a tightly knit group with each member depending on the other, but about a lone pioneer family, going out to conquer the wild west, building a log house with their own hands in the middle of the wilderness, and clearing the farm land with their own axe. The cooperative harvesting and barn building came a generation or two later.
In that respect Canela culture is far more godly than North American culture. Here’s why. God said, “Let Us make man in Our own likeness.” God is a community of three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They made human beings in Their likeness, to be people with the same need to live and work together in community as They had.
This kind of working community is a far cry from the military and industrial model of exploiting the labour of people to accomplish objectives set by generals or executives. The strength of the interdependent community lies not in its bosses but in its people. The more people grow in skill, high motivation and positive attitude, the more effective the community becomes.
What does your family look like? Your college? Your workplace? Your church?
Are people exploited and used, or strengthened and built into an effective community?