Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Things I learned on my recent cross-cultural sojourn

I always challenge the students who accompany me on their cross-cultural program to be alert to how much they learn/change during their stay abroad. I contend that by living abroad, we feel more dependent on others, more vulnerable because of the risky nature of such a study, and more open to hearing the voice of God. The result of all this is learning about self, others and God, is far beyond what would happen if we stayed in the comfort of our own home.

I have been a student of intercultural learning for many years. In fact, I have an intercultural marriage. But I learned a few things in my recent six-week stay in Mexico that I normally would not associate with intercultural learning.

1.     I can be without a car for a significant amount of time. I did not get behind the wheel of a vehicle for six weeks. Mostly I walked where I wanted to go or took public bus. If I were in a city that had decent public transportation, I am certain I would use it more to get around. I can’t say that I missed having a car at my beck and call 24/7. I learned to negotiate where I was going by other means.
2.     Walking takes time but it is worth it. I averaged over 12,000 steps per day according to my pedometer. I never walked under 10,000, and one day I walked 20,000. That’s averaging 6 miles per day with a high of 10 miles. Granted, most of the places that I wanted to visit, or where I had business to attend to were located relatively near to where I was staying. When we had to go farther away, we negotiated the bus system or took a cab. We only resorted to a cab four times in six weeks. I did not walk at a rapid pace so I’m sure I didn’t get a lot of aerobic benefit, but I still lost weight.
3.     Following the Mexican pattern of eating seems to be healthier. We ate a normal breakfast, then had a Mexican buffet at 1:00 pm. We helped ourselves to a large meal every day from the buffet, then had little to eat thereafter. Some evenings we didn’t anything; other days we at a light snack. We seldom felt hungry after eating the big meal shortly after noon. The typical Mexican pattern is to eat their main meal between 2 and 3pm and eat a very light supper. Eating like this coupled with walking everywhere we went helped me to lose over 10 lbs.
4.     I can live without a cell phone. I knew this before I left, but the trip helped reinforce the idea. I was dependent on land lines and email for the whole six weeks. I really have difficult understanding people on a cell phone, and when it isn’t in my native language it is even more difficult.
5.     I never thought I would resort to texting to communicate with my students, but many no longer read or answer emails. I couldn’t understand why I would get texts from students asking me to check my email because I normally had already read the email by the time I got the text. Then I realized that this is the way to alert someone to something important in their inbox that would otherwise be ignored. I don’t like texting because it reveals my cell phone number, and I do NOT want to be available 24/7 with a phone I can’t understand. However, most students would text before they would call. It’s those people my age . . .
      6.     A city of 2.5 million people can still have a small town feel. We spent our weekends in the Central Square of the town called the “Zócalo.” People were there to see and be seen. Many were there with their families. We were approached by numerous people who wanted to strike up a conversation with us. They wanted to know where we were from and to practice their English or German. Many were surprised that we spoke Spanish and wanted to know where we had learned it.

These things I learned do not fit the objectives I had for my students during their stay in Mexico. Nevertheless, being out of our normal context can allow us to learn something on many levels. Not to fear. My students learned all the traditional cross-cultural objectives.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Peanut Butter

When my wife and I were being interviewed for a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) many years ago, I jokingly remarked that “I would go anywhere in the world so long as they had peanut butter and baseball available.” They sent us to Mexico.

Indeed, Mexico had both available, although peanut butter was a little more difficult to manage than baseball. We had to travel nearly 80 miles to Guadalajara where the larger supermarkets carried it; it was unavailable in our “smaller” town of 250,000. Between trips to the Gigante supermarket, we pureed readily available peanuts in our blender. Don’t remember how many blender motors we blew out in the process.

Of course, with the advent of the Internet, I would no longer need to request baseball being available. I remember watching the first spring training game of my favorite team on my iPod from Guatemala one year, then the first regular season game from Mexico the same year. But this post is not about baseball.

Peanut butter is unquestionably a main staple of the US American diet. However, not everyone in the world has the taste for it like we do. I remember finding a teeny jar of peanut butter in a grocery store in Switzerland and forcing some on my Swiss mother-in-law, hoping that she would like one of my most beloved foods. She smacked her tongue trying to unglue it from the roof of her mouth while being a good sport and trying what I had described as so tasty. She managed a polite, “Yes, it’s pretty good,” in her Swiss German dialect, but never asked for any more when I delightfully placed it on the breakfast table in the future.

In some ways I was glad she didn’t especially care for it. That left me with more to savor on her delightful homemade Swiss farmer’s bread. Combined with their special forest honey, I could think of few better ways to enjoy a breakfast in Switzerland—or anywhere else in the world. 

So that brings me to the present. I am leading a group of 24 students in Mexico.
Recently we were visiting a Mennonite church in Mexico City, and they were to provide us with a packed lunch to eat while we spent the afternoon and evening in downtown Mexico City. They wanted to give us their best, so they offered to make us the famous Mexican sandwich called a “torta.” They make them with ham and cheese, with leftover “chicken and mole,” scrambled eggs, or anything else you can imagine except peanut butter. They doctor them up with hot peppers, slices of avocado, tomatoes, lettuce and whatever else is available.

When they told me this, I thought of my students. Some didn’t eat meat, some didn’t eat dairy products, some didn’t like avocado, and the list went on and on. To satisfy 24 different tastes and dietary needs was nearly an impossibility. So I suggested that they make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We took orders. Every student ordered one or two. The only variation on the theme was one student who only wanted peanut butter, and another who only wanted the jelly.

Beyond the various tastes in food our student group was quite diverse. We had various ethnic groups along, kids from very rural areas as well as others from large metropolitan areas. There were various faith groups and some with no faith at all. But the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches united us. Is there any kid (or adult) in the United States who doesn’t eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

I have traveled the world. I have acquired tastes for many different exotic and traditional foods from many different countries. But I have never lost my taste for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It still remains one of my favorite ways to satisfy my hunger when there is little time to prepare something more substantial.

As a student of intercultural relationships, I often say: “There is no perfect culture. All cultures both reflect and distort the image of God.” As such, I try to take the best values from each culture and try to include them in my own life, and try to downplay the less than perfect values from each culture. This integration of various cultural values helps to make us more whole.

I use peanut butter as part of a symbol of my cultural integration. The majority of my experience overseas has been in Mexico and Switzerland. So I take wonderful Swiss bread, spread a layer of US American peanut butter on it, then top it off with a layer of Mexican cajeta ( ). The combination is a world-class taste that helps to keep in check my ego- and ethnocentrism.  

What is your favorite use of peanut butter?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Christian Hospitality in Mexico

“Where are my students?” the lady calling my friend asked with a bit of desperation in her voice. “I saw them walking down the street with their suitcases and you haven’t sent any to me yet.”

I was leading a group of 24 Eastern Mennonite University students on a cross-cultural program to Mexico. We were going to spend the weekend with some dear friends of ours belonging to a Mennonite church in Mexico City. This was the third such group of mine to appear on the streets of this working-class neighborhood on the north side of this sprawling, largest city in the world.

My friend seemed undaunted when I told him we were bringing 24 students to spend two nights with them. Their houses or apartments were small by our standards and most of them were full of family members. My friend, who had helped to arrange housing for us on our previous visits, found seven families to host our students. Most took two, but several took four and my friend took eight.

As we were assigning students to the number of beds available, we came up two beds short. When I told him 24, he thought that included my wife and me. But I had meant to say 24 students plus the two of us. He was in the middle of convincing a family to take two extra students, to which they quite willingly agreed, when the phone rang. It was the family around the corner who wondered where their students were. Two extra beds needed, two extra beds found. My friend had forgotten about them, even though they were one of the first families in the neighborhood to offer their home. They REALLY wanted to host our students.

“I was in heaven,” wrote a student about her host family. “Both the mother’s and the daughter’s selflessness overwhelmed me.” Their children gave up their beds so that our students would have a place to sleep. Similar sentiments were expressed over and over again by my students. “I felt like they genuinely wanted to get to know me, they asked many questions about my life in the States,” wrote another student. “I felt authentic Christian love and hospitality.”

This kind of hospitality is very evident in the Mexican culture. When the Mexicans are followers of Jesus, this hospitality takes on an even deeper meaning. They long for fellowship across the border, they long for relationships with the young people in our churches. Whenever we bring a group, they go way out of their way to host us, to go way beyond the call of duty to make us comfortable. In spite of the fact that some of our students were crowded, slept on a mattress on the floor, or experienced cold showers, the majority of them sensed their family’s warmth and hospitality. The experience left a deep impression on them.

I recall the past number of years that our congregation of over three hundred members in the USA was asked to host a group of students from China for a week. The coordinator of finding housing for these students had to beg people to host them. After several years of pleading, she finally decided not to be the coordinator. It was just too much of a hassle to find people willing to host these students.
What a tragedy. These Chinese students were not Christian. This would be an incredible way to practice Christians hospitality, to live the Gospel while having them in our homes.

We are called to offer hospitality to the stranger because of what God has done for us. In turn, the hospitality we offer is from God. “When faced by a stranger, those who extend the embrace of hospitality have a keen awareness of God’s hospitality toward them,” writes David Buschart (Buschart 2006).  “Furthermore, this hospitality includes not only a sense of who they are (namely strangers) and what God has done (embraced them), but also an awareness that what they have to offer in hospitality is ultimately from God.” Hospitality reaffirms our relationship to others and to God.

The Mexicans offered us this kind of hospitality. Should we, especially Christians, not offer the same to strangers who visit us? “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,” states Hebrews 13:2, “for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sing Unto the Lord an Old Song

We walked into an old convent in the town of Cholula, Mexico. A choir from the University of the Americas was rehearsing for an evening concert. The program included  music composed by Mexican and Spanish artists from around the 16th Century. The music fit the venue. If you closed your eyes, you could visualize a group of monks chanting their evening office.

Capilla de la Tercera Orden del convento de San Gabriel,
San Pedro Cholula, Puebla, México
We are in Mexico leading a group of 22 students on their cross-cultural requirement. We were invited to the concert by a friend who had taught a class for a different Eastern Mennonite University cross-cultural group over five years ago. We have remained in contact over the years, and along with attending the concert, we enjoyed catching up with each other.

The sounds of Tomás de Victoria were reverberating through the convent as we entered; four-part polyphonic a cappella music rendered in straight-tones to keep a perfect blend while combating the tendency for the voices to splatter in the echo chambers of chapels. I was mesmerized. My eyes filled with tears as the veil between heaven and earth seemed to be especially thin.

Over the past month before bring the group to Mexico, I have attended a number of spring concerts featuring various groups given by high school and college choirs. I have always been a choir groupie. Perhaps it stems from the fact that choir was the only activity in which I was allowed to participate in my public high school. I sang in choirs throughout high school and college and until recently have sung in an assortment of adult choir groups.

Over the years I have collected a wide assortment of choral music that spans the decades  and genres. I am well-versed in choir repertoire. Unfortunately, as simple guitar-and-drum-accompanied choruses become more and more popular in church circles, I have often been afraid that my beloved choral music would die out. The verse “sing unto the Lord a new song,” which I deliberately mis-quoted in the title, is used as justification for their use.

I know this puts me on one side of the worship wars which is not my intention. However, I think we are missing a lot when we totally eliminate the old songs. I remember trying to sing traditional Christmas carols or Easter hymns when most of the people present did not know them. Within our old songs resides the collective memory of our Christian tradition. Can we just throw it away?

So aside from how glorious the music sounded when I entered the convent the other night, another thing lightened my heart. Something that gives me hope that the choral tradition will not die out. Here were nearly thirty young folks in Mexico, not exactly known for a great choral tradition, singing in perfect unaccompanied four-part harmony to a packed audience. I could see from the looks on many of their faces that the music was as transcending for them as it was for me.

One could say the same for the dozens of youth who sing in choirs at the universities in my home town of Harrisonburg, VA. You expect Eastern Mennonite University to have good choirs since four-part singing has been part of its tradition since their beginning. But one can even be more impressed with the choirs that the public university across town produces. Their select choir, the Madison Singers, features some 40 voices and the University Chorale features some 80 voices. Their repertoire includes many “old” songs and choral works of the church, and one observes how many of the singers are moved deeply by the old music as well.

So, sing unto the Lord an old song. It doesn’t have to be four-part a cappella. It can be accompanied by a majestic organ, a small ensemble of instrumentalists, or a full orchestra. Just let the collective memory and accumulated wisdom from across the centuries wash over you and lift your soul.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Thirty-year Fraud

When I retire after the 2015-2016 academic year, I will have completed over thirty years of teaching Spanish and other subjects at the university level. Twenty-eight of those years were full time, with four years as an adjunct.

I never prepared to be a teacher. I majored in Spanish because by testing out of numerous levels of the subject, it was the fastest way to complete a BA that I could find. I got my degree in three-and-a-half years. In fact, I have more hours in both music and communications than I have in Spanish.

While taking the requisite courses in Bible and Anabaptist thought at Goshen College, I became interested in pursuing a seminary degree. After graduating from Goshen, I enrolled part time at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. I loved my studies there more than my courses in Spanish, but after only one year, Hesston College, knowing my abilities in Spanish, called me to teach Spanish. It seemed like a great opportunity, so I accepted and began teaching Spanish. I only had a BA and no courses or experience in education.

As part of my employment agreement, I had to pursue a Master’s degree in Spanish, which I did. I enjoyed these studies greatly and did well enough to be nominated by the Spanish Department at Wichita State University for a Danforth scholarship to pursue my PhD in Spanish. They were stunned when I didn’t get the scholarship. I pretty sure I know why I was turned down. I had too many interests and was too honest. I said I wanted to be a missionary or a teacher. They were looking for a focused scholar/teacher.

I was invited to teach Spanish at Eastern Mennonite College after a successful 7-year stint at Hesston College with the promise that I would pursue my PhD. After teaching for two years, a budgetary crisis hit the college and there was a change in some of the promises I had been given to lure me to EMC. This was a disquieting time for me, and some of my earlier interests started to surface. I turned down an exciting opportunity to work in the travel industry and decided do a stint with Mennonite Central Committee. We went to Mexico for three years. That postponed my interest in pursuing a PhD.

Once again Hesston College called. Could I return to teach Spanish and German after the three-year term with MCC? Having a young family with no way to look for other opportunities while abroad, I readily accepted. I lasted for five years before the restlessness of wanting to pursue interests once again surfaced. Those of you who have studied the Enneagram will not find it surprising that I am probably a seven. We tend to be “gluttons” for new experiences. So off I went to work as the director of communications for Virginia Mennonite Conference and Missions for seven years. During this time I taught as an adjunct at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).

You guessed it. Another attractive position for director of cross-cultural programs opened up at EMU with a half-time teaching load. I have been there ever since, returning to full-time teaching discovering after five years that academic administration wasn’t for me.
Throughout my years of teaching at the university level, I have felt like a fraud for two reasons. First, I had never had any training in education and although I was considered a good teacher, my mind was always fanaticizing about other more interesting pursuits. Secondly, I never attained that PhD.

I have been reminded on many occasions and in many ways of my lack of a PhD, each time enhancing my sense of being a fraud. Many times I have been introduced as “Dr. Clymer” with the assumption that by working at a university, I had attained this level of education. Over the years I have received lots of correspondence addressed to “Dr. Clymer.” I was grandfathered in as “Assistant Professor;” under current policies, I could not have this title, cannot be tenured nor apply for a sabbatical. I have been denied the teaching of certain classes because of my lack of a PhD.

Instead of pursuing a PhD, I returned to studies in seminary and graduated with a second master’s degree in 2008. My concentration was in spiritual formation and I found tremendous catharsis in examining the intersection between spirituality and cross-cultural experiences; especially my own. Perhaps to vindicate my sense of fraud, I poured myself into writing and have been published widely with dozens of articles in church periodicals and several books. But within some academic circles, these writings have been dissed for not being academic. Feelings of fraud reared its ugly head again.

In spite of these feelings of being a fraud over the years, I have come to realize that I have made significant contributions to the lives of hundreds of students and others. I have hundreds of notes from them to back this up. I continue to mentor students who have entered my life, and none of them have asked me why I don’t have a PhD. In spite of how difficult it is at times, I also have come to realize that I am not defined by my educational level.

Groveling in the dirt with a student during a service project
 in rural Guatemala.
Tomorrow for the last time, I will be leading a group of 24 students on a cross-cultural adventure to Mexico, some for three weeks and the rest for six weeks. I am confident that for many of them this will be a life-changing experience, and I thank God for the privilege I have of having a hand in this. It is my relationships with these and many other students that I choose to remember as I ride off into the sunset.