“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.*” We pulled over at the side of the road to admire the handmade pottery of a Zulu craftswoman. Her earthenware was rough: clay scooped by the handful from the earth, shaped into a rustic earthenware pot with a sturdy swell at the base tapering into a gorgeous, distinguished neck. I knew we were flying half way around the world just a few days later and that our luggage allowance was limited, but I had to have it. It was all the rough beauty of Africa in a single urn.
My brother-in-law constructed a custom box for it: repurposing old computer boxes with tape and tenacity. We stuffed its graceful neck with strips of raggedy, old newspaper. I remember brushing away mouse droppings and wondering if they would cause the sniffer dogs at customs any alarm: animal products, and all that. I found the biggest red marker possible, and stenciled FRAGILE! THIS WAY UP!! in alarmist lettering on every side.
I checked my bags through one, two and then three flights, but kept my cardboard box with me on each. I cradled it baby-like through each security checkpoint; held my breath through every bumpy landing. 11,000 miles later, I exhaled slowly as we taxied down the final runway. I was nearly home.
A long, snaking line at Passport Control. Arrivals forms efficiently scanned. A scurry through baggage claim. And finally: the last stop at customs and excise duty – a checkpoint which had only ever required a polite nod and a wave before the blessed reunions of the arrivals hall.
But not this time.
A man in uniform politely waved me to a counter, where I dutifully unpacked all my belongings and watched in fascination as my underwear and toiletries appeared in ghostly X-ray outlines on the screen. My polite chit-chat was interrupted by the customs official.
“What’s in the box?” she asked.
“It’s my pot,” I answered proudly, ready to tell her of the lovely road running from Ixopo into the hills. The expression on her face stopped me short.
“What is it?” she snapped.
I pointed to the screen where the graceful outline was clearly visible. “It’s my p…… ”
In slow motion, I realized how incriminating my South African noun sounded to her Californian ears. My scalp prickled.
“It’s my vase! It’s my vase!” I sputtered. “I promise! There is absolutely NO pot in there whatsoever. Just a vase. Made of clay. Nothing else.”
It’s not the only time my words have raised eyebrows. Our first year in the States was replete with moments of social humiliation and hilarity, but slowly our comfort with the local language grew. Our settling into life and community was matched (and facilitated) by a settling into the language of the community. A growing sense of belonging wasn’t just about getting to know people, or being known by them. Grafting into our community included grafting the vernacular into our conversation: once we talked like locals, we began to earn street cred. All our words were still said in a South African accent, but the actual words themselves changed too: diaper, not nappy. Faucet, not tap. Gas, not petrol. Oh for the love: eraser, not rubber.
Accidentally choosing my native words in conversation was like waving an “outsider” flag. Conversation would stall while we awkwardly stumbled to translate our intention. An offer to “fetch someone on my way” was met with suspicion and a shudder of offense. “Fetch” is a verb used for dogs chasing sticks. The more appropriate word here was “to give someone a ride”, or to “pick them up”. We made dozens of these adjustments: taking down linguistic barriers so we could reach across to form deeper friendships.
I noticed it in the church most of all, probably because it was the place I needed to belong most keenly.
The cultural phenomenon of figuring out “who belongs” as defined by their language is a heightened reality within the evangelical church. Aware of theological threats on every side, we parse our words carefully. Some of Christendom’s deepest divides have been chiseled by disagreements over words. Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christendom parted ways over precise words, because of course it wasn’t just about the words – but rather that the particular words represented very nuanced (and divergent) theological views. Church history is littered with word-wars.
And the church today is no different. We think carefully about whether we describe ourselves as reformed, or evangelical. As a Christian, or a Jesus-follower. We choose those terms because they represent something significant about the way we understand our faith. It means something to be a Baptist rather than a Presbyterian. To be an Anglican rather than an Episcopalian.
Beneath the layer of formal Christian titles, there is the second tier of language, in the way we talk about everyday things. Do we talk about being “born again”, or having “come to Christ”, or “becoming a believer”. To move from a culture where people are “born again” into a culture where people “come to Christ” presents some challenges. When you tell the new group that you were “born again” – instead of initially seeing a similarity (yes! you are one of us! you belong to Christ!), the hearers might at first hear difference (that’s not how I would have put it. I wonder if she’s one of those hellfire and damnation folks. They talk about born again a lot. If she says “the blood of the lamb” in the next sentence, I’m outta here.)
It took nearly a year in the US for me to feel I could really trust my new church theologically. They spoke a different dialect of Christianese: similar enough to mine to understand it, but just different enough for me to be on guard. Just in case. Like the maps of yore, the edges of my theological map contains seas marked “here be dragons”. After a year, I had learned enough to know that even though the expressions of faith were phrased a little differently to where I’d come from – we were still kin, and the bedrock of our faith was common after all.
Every new believer we meet, whether we intend it or not, faces new customs when they visit our churches, and not unlike the Customs Official I met, we find ourselves wondering: what’s in your box?
Let’s not be alarmed if the answer comes out as something like ‘pot’. It may well be that they really do love Jesus, but they speak a slightly different Christian dialect. We have eternity to figure out the details – but for now, let’s give some grace to those who speak with a different faith ‘accent’ before we jump to conclusions.
- The opening lines from Alan Paton’s most beautiful book, Cry, The Beloved Country.