Culture and Authority in the Workplace

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By Rev. Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt

Culture is rich and beautiful, but it’s also complicated. It’s so much more than how you dress or greet or what you eat.  As I mentioned in my first blog about culture, the diverse team I lead at CAST represents eight different cultural groups, and if I include all the other groups we encounter in our ordinary working week, it comes to at least fifteen.

I cannot pretend it’s easy to make sense of all the complicated dynamics this gives rise to but we have learned to anticipate and manage certain perceptions and reactions—I confess at times I get a horrible knot in my stomach before I make certain decisions because I know that some people are going to struggle to understand why, or even find them hurtful. Sometimes I try to talk through cultural dynamics with staff who find themselves reacting negatively to what others have said or done. I honestly do my best to manage such situations, and sometimes I’m better than other times.

I remember during our early years at CAST, in our small and the predominantly “white” female team, how easily perceptions of colleagues were clouded by colour and culture issues. At times the race card was played—something that is thankfully seldom, if ever, played now. Nobody thought they were being racist, but the environment was challenging for an infant organisation trying to establish team dynamics, and organisational identity and culture.

I think it’s important to realise too, though, that “cultural confusion” is not simply limited to language and race groups. One household is not the same as the next, and hundreds of factors influence why we think and respond the way we do, not least of all friendship circles, work environment, schooling and (in our context especially) church/denominational background. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to people, so the disciplines of listening, questioning and seeking to understand will remain the heartbeat of good relationships—among friends or in the office.

When I think about the way culture affects our business, there are three main issues that come to mind: authority, hospitality and time. I was going to write about all three of these in this post, but as I began to write, I realised that I can’t really speak meaningfully to any of these in a mere paragraph or two. So instead I’ll cover these issues one blog at a time. The things I am going to say are generalisations, but for our context I find them helpful in predicting responses and shaping policies and general approach.

So what about different views of authority? Is there a right view and a wrong view? How much does it really impact workplace dynamics, productivity and good leadership? From my perspective it’s been quite a big deal at times causing misunderstanding, hurt, anger and even factions. So often when these issues have arisen in the team, staff have been completely unaware of the cultural influence on perspectives and behaviour. I have become increasingly aware of the dynamics as I’ve noticed how often it’s “all the Indian staff who have a problem with that person” or “all the white staff complaining about that new policy”. As I’ve asked questions and reflected on the answers, patterns have emerged—which are the patterns I am reflecting on in these blogs.

First we need to understand that different cultural groups view authority and the role of leaders differently. Some cultures have a “high” view of authority and others have a “low” view.

For me (as for many “white” people) we naturally have a general distrust of authority. At times we see authority as a “necessary evil” and interact with it based on the maxim “power corrupts”. We are worried that leaders will abuse their power, so we look for leaders who are servants of their people and their office. Many times we will see it as our responsibility to question and even oppose leadership. We have more respect for leaders who exercise leadership quietly and don’t “flaunt” it. And we tend to look down on leaders who make a big deal of being “in charge”—we naturally assume they are in it for themselves, not for their people, and so our distrust of them increases.

This view of authority is relatively good at curbing corruption and ensuring higher accountability among leaders. Handled well, it can sharpen and challenge leaders positively. The problem is that it can easily become disabling for leadership. My senior pastor once said to me that most pastors do not give up and leave the ministry because of one or two big crises, but because of the paper-cuts. In other words, it’s the myriad of criticisms and obstructions that eventually bring the leader to breaking point. And this is very true.

In reality, the mantle of leadership is much heavier than it looks to those who don’t wear it, the decisions leaders make are more complicated, there is more history and risk, more factors to consider than it seems from the outside. And opposition—even at times from people who are inherently loyal, but especially when there is a veneer of loyalty covering an underlying “I can lead better than you” attitude—can eventually bring a leader to their breaking point. When this happens those who have set themselves up as the opposition will take the opportunity to rejoice (privately or publicly) that they had recognised and pointed out the flaws in the now broken leader.

Sadly, I’ve been that kind of follower at times, honestly believing I could do a better job than my boss or my pastor … making a pain of myself by challenging continually. To this day I believe that I’ve always, genuinely had the good of the organisation at heart. In reflection, I still feel my questions and concerns have usually proven to be legitimate, yet I also now realise that the way I have exercised this power of questioning has sometimes been arrogant and has been experienced as disloyalty and distrust by those who led me.

Part of that is the arrogance and naivety of youth, part of it is the influence of my culture. But the longer I have been a leader myself, the more I have realised how damaging that kind of attitude can be to leaders. I have had my fair share of people who have hampered my ability to lead by constant questioning, opposition and distrust—at times driving me almost to the point of burnout. Over the years, opposition to my leadership has been single biggest inhibitor of organisational growth and success at CAST because it has, at times, created doubt and confusion in the minds of staff, factions, wasted time and given rise to many doubts about my own capability.

This is where I have really come to value the high view of authority I find among my “black” and “Indian” staff. For many other cultures, leaders are revered, respected and not questioned. This is because it is seen as good and right to honour leadership. A leader is seen as a “father” or “mother” and it is right to know one’s place in the organisation or family. Objectively this enables good leaders to flourish in a way that constant criticism does not, and it promotes stability and productivity. On the other hand it also opens the doors for corruption and power-mongering that infects leaders everywhere, especially in Africa. And so leaders who should be removed can easily continue to manipulate people for their own egos or personal gain.

At CAST I have found my naturally “humble, down to earth” approach to leadership to be both very attractive to staff from “non-white” backgrounds, but at the same time a cause for concern. While many staff will express appreciation about the way I consistently listen to them, care for them and take them seriously, making myself and my feelings vulnerable with them—and not seeing any job as beneath me but rather being willing to “get my hands dirty” with them … they also typically feel I need to take more authority and less nonsense from other staff. They will often emphasise my right to make more unilateral decisions without consultation with staff, and they are regularly concerned that some staff would “walk all over” me.

I would love to say that they are wrong about this and that my approach to leadership is watertight, but in reality their concerns are absolutely legitimate.  I have experienced firsthand the dangers of the extremes in both perspectives—both dictatorial leadership and the freedom of staff to question leadership decisions. Instead of saying to one or another group, “Your understanding of authority is wrong” I have found value in listening to the varying understandings my staff have and trying to build an organisational culture of authority that draws from the best of both perspectives—or at least takes cognisance of the understandings of both—creating stability and productivity, but encouraging respectful interaction, maintaining the checks and balances.

Several incidents quickly come to mind, and most involve the way staff interact in meetings. Often my “black” staff have been slow to speak or express opinions—especially where they have concerns, and instead the “white” staff have dominated the conversations and opinions. This does not foster unity and mutual understanding in the team and needs to be managed. Several times in the last few years I have had staff “of colour” express shock or distress at how other staff have addressed or questioned me in meetings. Most times I can hardly remember the incidents they are referring to because the interactions seemed completely normal to me from the perspective of a culture that values questioning of leadership.

However, this only works smoothly in an organisation when everyone is more or less from the same cultural group. It becomes an even bigger deal when subordinates who find it normal to question and even oppose leadership at times do so with leaders who come from cultures where this is unacceptable, or where there are different norms for when and where it is acceptable to question. If not managed well it may be experienced as insubordination (even though it may not technically be insubordination) and lead to breakdown of relationships—often to the surprise of the subordinates who feel they were acting responsibly and with adequate levels of respect.

In our context, differing views of authority also affect the decisions that team members feel they have the right to make or to act on. For one person doing something without instruction is seen as initiative (typically those with a high view of their own autonomy), for someone else it is seen as insubordination (acting without the sanction of the leader). So what one staff member does naturally, causes confusion with others, or is seen as disrespectful.

What makes this a more serious issue than just the psyche of the leader is the effect it has on other staff. Those who operate with a “high view of authority” will watch what appears to be disrespect towards the leader from some staff, note that the leader does not discipline these staff and conclude that the leader is weak or soft. This can erode their own respect towards the leader, or it can rally them to become angry and defensive towards other staff. Either of these can add to organisational instability.  It can also make people feel empowered or disempowered, which is a major driver of productivity and what empowers one group can disempower another group as leadership is a scale that needs to be weighed from all groups.

It’s not only the act of questioning though, or the decisions people make, it’s also the manner, place and time in which people communicate.

The formality or casualness of dress or language can be a big deal here. With the culture of “white Westville” exhibiting the extremes of casualness, I have watched in horror as good-natured, well-meaning young people from my church have stood up in the pulpits of Zulu churches dressed in shorts, slops and a T-shirt (a place I would not venture without at very least a jacket and tie), and referred to the pastor or other senior members of the community on a first name basis—blissfully unaware of traditional protocols. While for “white” people this may express warmth, trust, acceptance and normality, in this context it is typically experienced as disrespect for the church, the office of the pulpit and the leadership.

The use (or non-use) of titles is another thing that expresses differing views of authority. Recently this issue came up with one of my pastor friends. He was incredulous, and visibly shocked, that in our church we call our senior pastor “John” rather than “Pastor Benn” or at least “Pastor John”. His response “How can people be so disrespectful to the man of God?” betrays the very deep impact our different cultures have on the way we view authority.

“White” people will often go along with respectful terminology, language or dress when in a more traditional setting, but they may subtly express a slightly patronising attitude—as if people need to be liberated from that kind of bondage to tradition and authority. In doing this they might unintentionally give the message that “I know better than you” to those they interact with.

Rather, as people of varying cultures, let us suspend our judgement and learn to find what is good and valuable in each other’s approach to authority. There are strengths and dangers in each. We see this not only in the workplace, but also in the community and family dynamics … the role of husbands and wives in the home, the respect of children towards their parents, loyalty or disloyalty towards friends, business relationships, staff dynamics, success or failure in our interactions with government.  So let us be the kind of people who reflect on the question, how does my low or high view of authority positively or negatively affect the world I live and work in?

In conclusion, I’d like to make some remarks about building organisational culture. I believe the secret of stability in a multi-cultural setting is to build a strong organisational culture—one which takes into account the various cultures of team members, but which supersedes these individual cultures by creating a new culture which team members learn to operate in, in the context of the work space.

We often think of organisational culture as pertaining to things like excellence, hard work, customer relations etc. And all these things are important, but it is also critical that we think through things like how we address each other and the manner in which we communicate internally and externally; how we encourage or manage initiative; how we dress and what that expresses; how we consult with staff and stakeholders; and how we encourage or silence the various voices around the “organisational table”.

At the end of the day, any business, church or charity has certain goals it is striving to achieve—achieving these goals are paramount to the ultimate success of the venture. Our responsibility as leaders is to build an organisational culture that moves the team members towards the goals. And our success or failure in these areas is going to depend both on how we listen to the staff, clients and other stakeholders who are on this journey with us—and especially seek to understand the value in their cultural perspectives—and on our ability to build an organisational culture that supersedes the individual cultures of the team and effectively unifies them into one group.

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Attitudes that help us thrive in a Multi-Cultural Environment

By Rev. Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt

Culture is so much more complex than any of us realise, it involves an intricate system of beliefs, values, symbols, language, relationships and history … everything works together to make absolute sense to the people on the inside—it’s the way they understand the world. Unfortunately for people from another culture, that world view might make no sense at all. It might even seem barbaric, archaic, or just plain stupid!  Of course that leads to all kinds of problems between people.

All of us are increasingly exposed to different cultures through our neighbours, work, church, etc. It’s just not something we can escape from any more. So for this week I’d like to talk about four attitudes that help us thrive in a context of cultural diversity, rather than crashing and burning.

  1. Be inquisitive:

You will never understand someone else’s culture completely—you will always be an outsider to some extent and so there will always be things that surprise you.  You can let that frustrate you, or you could treat it as an exciting journey into an undiscovered world.

I will always remember the profusion of colours and sounds that bombarded my senses during the first few hours and days in Nepal. Everything was different, exciting and fascinating. I took hundreds of pictures and wrote copious notes, trying to immortalise the magic of those moments.

I’ve tried to maintain that same level of inquisitiveness ever since. It helps us to be caught up in the sense of fascination for all the differences and stops us from taking offence. It also sharpens our ability to assimilate new information, and encourages people to share their lives and thoughts with us. Never tell yourself you’ve figured it all out, but treat each new insight as a rare gem you’ve discovered.

So be adventurous with culture by trying to actively experience them as you eat traditional foods in the traditional way, learn phrases from their language, visit homes, travel together, and join in cultural traditions.

But always remember that culture is not so much about what happens on the outside, but what is going on in the inside, so all the time learn by observing and asking questions. Ask your friends …

“Help me understand why you do that…”

“What’s your opinion about this?”

“Am I understanding correctly that you think of that this way…?”

This is very important. We can easily be under the illusion that we understand something just because we’ve seen it many times, but seeing what people do is not the same as understanding why they do it.

Sometimes in South Africa we’ve fallen into the trap of believing that everyone now only needs to understand “black” culture (as if that is the same for all tribes and language groups). Maybe we’ve assumed that everyone already understands “white” culture. Maybe we think that “black” people have done all the listening in the past so they can stop now, or maybe we’ve bought into the underlying belief that so-called “White”, “Indian” and “Coloured” people don’t really belong in this country at all—as well as the many Africans whose origins are from other parts of the continent.

Honestly I think it’s true to say that very few South Africans have ever really listened to each other or really understood each other’s cultures at all.  We’ve all carelessly made generalisations and assumptions about all other groups in this country, and people are never really going to listen to us until we really start listening to them.

In reality, the apartheid legacy is always going to be in the background of any inter-cultural relationship, along with the inequalities of wealth and opportunity that it brought. For more than two decades, thousands of dedicated and intelligent people have devoted their lives to restoring justice and there is still a long way to go—but that is a topic for another blog.

But I dream of a time when guilt, anger, resentment, bigotry, entitlement, pride, misunderstanding – all other obstacles that have deafened our ears to each other will be relics of the past and we will simply treasure the experience of journeying into the minds and hearts of our compatriots.  This brings us to the next very important point.

  1. Don’t judge until you understand:

As we learn about each other, we will come across things we don’t like or even things that shock us about each other. Our tendency is to judge these things. This judgement becomes like a lens through which we start to interpret all kinds of things about the culture. Don’t do that! Once you start judging, you immediately put barriers between yourself and people of that culture— your understanding will start to be clouded, and they will stop sharing and trusting.

For almost a decade, most of my social, work and church life was lived on the Cape Flats among the “coloured” people. Now, first of all, it’s a dangerous mistake to put all “coloured” people into the same cultural category, just like it’s a mistake to put all “black”, “white” or “Indian” people into the same category—all groups have groups within them. Although things are changing now, in many coloured communities it has been quite acceptable to bring lunch boxes and ice cream tubs to a social function and fill them with food to take home. This, of course, is the same in some “Indian” communities, and used to be common in “white Afrikaans” culture in previous generations.

I know that many people (especially “white” English people, and people of other racial groups who have been strongly influenced by Westernism) find this shocking and rude—tantamount to theft, displaying uncontrolled greed, lack of respect for the host and other guests. I know people who mix quite freely across cultures but will still find it embarrassing and offensive when the “bakkies” come out and people start stocking up for the coming week.

Unfortunately all this tells you is that whatever food is being enjoyed, and whatever language and music accompanies it – the “judgers” are still bound to their own cultural understanding of what it means to entertain.

One of the big differences between Western cultures and most others is that Western entertaining is really about the host impressing the guests (that’s why the guests wait for the hostess to start eating before they do). But in most other cultures it’s all about meeting the needs of the guests—the hostess is probably in the kitchen, not even at the table.

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The host feels good he/she has provided so well for the guests that there is enough to take home and the guests express their appreciation by gratefully accepting the generosity of the host. Everyone expects this to happen. It is part of the joy of the occasion and the guests will enjoy that experience for another day or so afterwards. Why become judgemental about this? Why behave in a way that seems to say “I don’t need your hospitality,” “I didn’t really enjoy it that much anyway …”

At the same time, if this all sounds normal to you—remember that for other cultures, respect means eating delicately, not excessively. Taking too much is seen as greed, and excess is seen as wasteful. You show your respect by appreciating what is given to you, and your self-sufficiency by the fact that you didn’t come for the food, but for the company.

There will be times you feel shocked or offended by the way another culture does things. However if you can suspend your judgement  and look a bit harder, you will almost always find that the motive behind the behaviour comes from a valid point of view that may challenge your own cultural paradigm. If we can’t suspend our judgement, we will never really understand why people do the things they do.

In fact, as outsiders, we will never completely understand. So let’s be willing to hold our opinions lightly and keep learning. Rather let’s allow insiders to judge their own culture – and we just focus on learning about it.

  1. Tell yourself the positive story:

Because you will always find plenty of things you don’t like in different cultures, it’s important to focus your attention as much as possible on things that are inspiring and wholesome. Actively appreciate them and celebrate them. In the workplace, if you are a leader, validate different cultures by asking them to share perceptions on things in staff meetings, etc. Never demean them as if their views or traditions are “quaint” or “cute”—but view their perspectives as being of equal value.

When it comes to things that bother you, always look for the positive story—because there is going to be a positive way of understanding it. It takes time to practice this way of thinking but it changes your ability to be positive. What is good in arranged marriage? What is good about honouring of the dead? What is good in praying five times a day? What is good about serving food to guests when you don’t have enough for your family? What is good about sticking rigidly to time, or not?

Understanding why people do the things they do and being willing to appreciate them does not mean you have to throw away your own beliefs or take on their practices. However you will grow enormously in your understanding and effectiveness with people if you look for the valuable lessons that you can learn from them about their culture and about your own.

  1. Be self-critical about your own culture:

When we blindly believe that everything in our own culture is good and right, it is harder to value the culture of others—it’s also very narrow minded and is one of the reasons there have been so many wars and injustices in the world. Let’s face up to the fact that there are things in other cultures that can teach us valuable lessons about our own. This is one of the most exciting things about cross cultural interaction—another point of view creates a counterpoint to help see another way of looking at the world and evaluate your own point of view. It’s okay to say “I like the way you think about that … I like it better than the way we do things … It’s made my understanding richer and I’m going to start doing it myself.”

It’s not disloyal to your own culture to admit that someone else has a better way of doing things. And culture is not a closed system—you don’t have to “become” another culture to value and incorporate some of the things they value.

In fact, if you are able to verbalise the things you have come to value about another culture, and perhaps even the things you think are better than your own – you open wide the doors of communication, appreciation and trust.

 

Becoming inquisitive, withholding judgement, looking for positives and being willing to look critically at yourself are all skills that will help you understand people generally—not only when it comes to inter-cultural relationships. So let’s learn to be the kinds of people who are open and generous towards others.

Next week I’m going to look at the issues of authority, hospitality and time—how different cultures view these things and how it affects the workplace. I’ll reflect particularly on how we as staff and management at CAST have come to understand these issues and how we have done our best to create a harmonious working environment despite our differences.

CAST Voices Devotion: Heritage Day

CAST Voices Devotion: Heritage Day

By Rolan Gulston

Acts 17:26-27

26 From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us.

Reflection:

These words spoken by Paul to the people of Athens teach us that although we are all created in one image, it was God’s divine plan that we live differently from each other; during different time periods and in specific places, each country distinguished by a particular set of cultural norms and values.

Similar to our time, although living in the same place during the same period of history, the group that Paul addressed was culturally and spiritually diverse: a number of them were Jewish believers in the word of God; some were God-fearing Greeks; while others among them worshipped idols of an “unknown God” (Acts 17: 23). Paul’s mission was to spread the word of Jesus’ resurrection with the hope of uniting them all in one common belief despite their cultural differences.

Becoming a follower of Christ therefore does not mean that we have to abandon our cultural values and practices – because this is what forms part of our unique identity as individuals, but rather, modify our thoughts and behaviour to live out our cultures with love and grace.

Likewise, Heritage Day celebrates the unity in diversity of South Africa, with the ideal notion that we may not live in ignorance of the many cultures that we are blessed to have in our country, but rather gain a better understanding and follow Christ’s example of treating each fellow citizen with respect, regardless of cultural background, and furthermore, to see God in each person we encounter because, although we are separated from others by our differences, as Paul says, “[God] is not far from any one of us.”

Questions:
1) Are there cultural differences that you find challenging in your ministry, and how have you dealt with it?
2) Have you ever felt that your cultural identity conflicts with your faith?

My Journey through the Looking Glass of Culture

My Journey through the Looking Glass of Culture

By Rev. Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt

September is Heritage Month in South Africa, culminating in National Heritage Day on the 24th. For some it’s celebrated as Shaka’s Day, for others as National Braai Day, but whatever your background all South Africans will be encouraged to eat a lot of meat and celebrate our cultural roots.

Our list of eleven official languages bears witness to the fact that South Africa is one of the most culturally diverse nations of the world, and places us third in the “number of official languages” list after India and Zimbabwe. However besides those on the “official” language list, there will be a vast number of other cultures remembered and celebrated across the country this month.

At first glance, the idea of being a culturally diverse nation is magnificent and colourful, bringing to mind the phrase first coined by Desmond Tutu in 1994: Rainbow Nation! But the reality can also be complex and even ugly when our profusion of differences manifests itself in intolerance, superiority, prejudice, conflict, culturocentrism and xenophobia.

Despite growing up as a so-called “white” child during the apartheid era, being a South African meant a much higher level of exposure to cultural diversity than children of other nations would likely experience.  Many of my early memories involve everything from playing in the dusty sand of the Cape with children whose languages, cultures and skin tones were different to my own, to climbing exposed flights of steps to sit through Sunday school lessons led by my parents in dimly lit one-roomed family apartments on the Cape Flats. The apartheid struggle was a daily reality for us, especially in the way it affected friends, neighbours and colleagues of my parents. I was privileged to grow up in a family that helped us understand the injustice of the regime we all lived under. When it came time to choose a career I chose to study in a “non-white” area and caught a minibus taxi to college most days until my rusty red mini was roadworthy enough to brave the streets.

Those were the days, during the political tumult of the early 90s, that I first experienced what it was like to be a victim of racism—something many of my friends had experienced throughout their lives—and came face to face with ideas and philosophies I had never known. The political pain of that time coupled with the robust conversation of student life forced all of us to re-evaluate our self-understanding as people of different races and cultures.  My studies in missions and cultural anthropology set a valuable academic platform in understanding the world of diversity that would later become my life. But I think the first time I really understood with any real gravity how divergent cultures could be was when I landed in Kathmandu in January 1996 for a five month mission / teaching experience.

The Indian subcontinent not only presented a plethora of sights, sounds and smells, hitherto unfamiliar to this 21 year old blonde African boy—but a host of new friends, philosophies, experiences and emotions which would change my perception of the world forever. I found myself immersed in a world utterly foreign to me in every way and I began to realise not only that my limited perceptions of success, happiness and meaning meant very little in this world, but that if I was going to be able to contribute anything of substance in a foreign culture, I must first allow God to strip away from me many of the perceptions of right and wrong, normal and abnormal, acceptable and unacceptable that had for two decades been so carefully constructed around me. Everything had to be re-examined and reinterpreted in the light of an unfamiliar cultural paradigm.

Whether I was walking in the streets, or travelling on the bus or train, the one question I was constantly assailed with was, “In your country … is it arranged marriage or love marriage?” At first it seemed an odd question, but quickly I began to realise that I was now living in a world where, not only did few people expect to be able to choose their own husband or wife (the family, local priest or pastor would organise all that for you), but where all life choices were dictated by caste, family and society: from who you marry, to your diet, career, dress, behaviour, education and religion. At the same time, this world was being confronted through the media with an entirely different and strange paradigm—a paradigm of choice from the west: a world where choice is seen as a basic human right. Everything the Asian people knew about love marriage they had learned, of course, from the great authority on all things … the television.

But Western paradigms about relationship and marriage seemed bizarre in a culture where tradition, honour, family and clearly defined marital roles had kept society stable for millennia. In Hollywood (a.k.a. the Western Christian World), anyone would have sex with anyone—and that all seemed to work out just fine. In this strange western world of the movies, marriages would be entered into easily without the normal considerations of family honour or couple compatibility. They could also be ended just as easily, and usually were.

To someone in a world where society, family and culture would dictate your life, this world of choice was fascinating and strangely alluring, yet also incomprehensible, rebellious and dangerous. A young man with a “white” face must surely be from America, and would certainly be able to explain all this!

The initial response of anyone who has grown up in a culture that values choice is to see a different ideology as inferior, something people needed to be liberated from … and yet I found myself asking whether choice had served the West well. Were marriages and families happier? Were people more settled in their careers? It is strange that we seem to find it easier to accept our siblings who we never chose and can never “divorce” than our spouses who we did choose. Clearly western “choice” had backfired on the family somehow.

Quickly I became embarrassed about my own culture, partly wanting to say to those people “you have misunderstood it, my world is not Hollywood,” but also painfully aware of how true so many of their perceptions were. Of course there are many positives about the ability to make personal choices, but I had to realise that there were many dangers in it too. A “choice” culture is less stable and maybe a less happy one—at least for many people in it. South Asian culture and practice was not inferior to mine, and neither was their way of thinking inferior. Many aspects of it is superior — something all of us will ultimately be forced to admit as we witness the economic rise to “superpower” status of India and China.

There were things that my culture could positively contribute to theirs, but equally things their culture could positively contribute to mine. And this is more than an exotic curry or exquisite silk, it has to do with eyes that see the world differently to mine, because those eyes will see colours and shapes that I cannot see, unless I learn to see through them too. However my ability to glimpse the world through those eyes would depend on how much I could suspend my own judgement about right and wrong, just to listen and seek understanding. And if I could not do that for them, how could I ever expect them to do it for me? Our perceptions of each other would always only be through the eyes of our own culture – arrogant eyes of judgement.

Those months on the sub-continent re-shaped my understanding of everything from necessity and luxury, material possessions, the spirit world, faith, power, hospitality, friendship, patriotism, education, discipline and so many others.  Many things I believed to be normal or unquestionable in my childhood, ceased to be from that time on.

In my life so far, I have been privileged to travel to sixteen different countries and spend significant amounts of time in several of them. Each one has invited me to experience not only the diverse sounds, sights, tastes and smells, but explore different value-systems, paradigms and world views – all of which I have treasured.  Appreciating and loving the way people see the world from so many different angles has become a passion for me. I try to absorb all that I can of value and allow them constantly to challenge and broaden my understanding of God, myself, people and the world.

Most of my working life I have had the joy of working with people of different cultures and at CAST I now lead a diverse team of twenty-two staff representing eight different cultural groups, and if we include former staff, volunteers, partner churches, and programme participants – that number swells to more than fifteen cultures that have been part of the shaping of this beautifully colourful movement.

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If you’ve ever worked in this kind of environment, you’ll know what a challenge it can be because culture comes packaged with a whole lot more than how you greet and dress.  Our team enjoys a surprisingly high level of harmony, but this harmony has not come easily. Building an organisational culture in which everyone feels empowered and at home requires an ongoing process of listening, wrestling with ideas, adjusting, communicating, and being willing to make bold changes and entrench them in the operations and organisational culture despite raised eyebrows and sometimes opposition.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging about some of the specific cultural differences we’ve encountered and how we’ve worked on reworking our understanding of how to lead and influence in this environment. I’ll include things like conflicting understandings and expectations of authority; hospitality and how it’s supposed to work—especially food; and an understanding of time—not just being on time for meetings, but how it relates to planning and goal setting.

I’ll also be reflecting on what attitudes and practices are essential for building (or being part of) a harmonious and constructive multi-cultural team. But for this week, and particularly for Heritage Day on Sunday, I wish you a time of rich celebration of everything that is good and beautiful in your own culture, because celebrating your own culture is at the beginning of celebrating all that is good and beautiful in the cultures of people you interact with each day.

CAST Voices Devotion: Gender Equality

CAST Voices Devotion: Gender Equality

By Rolan Gulston

Scripture: Galatians 3:28-29

Reflection:
Today marks the start of ‘Women’s Month’, which commemorates the bravery and determination of the 20,000 women who united to march against the extension of Pass Laws in apartheid South Africa on 9 August 1956. Without knowing the political history of context behind this month, many might mistakenly assume that it was just a randomly-chosen time to elevate and praise women – for being women. “Why not ‘Men’s Day’ and ‘Men’s Month’?” some people ask. This is still a valid question. Empowerment of one group should not come at the cost of devaluing another.

Men and women were, after all, created equal, and it was only through sin that brought about the subordination of one by the other, the message in this being that: love unites; and sin separates.

Love unites us to build relationships with people based on trust, understanding and mutual respect, while sin separates us into thinking that we are in competition with each other. But what is it that we are competing for? Our evolutionary biology might lead us into thinking that we are to compete for limited resources as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, or that the Natural Law of ‘survival of the fittest’ means that you must constantly outwit and outplay your peers to better your chances of success. In any scenario where this takes place, bonds inevitably grow weaker as distrust grows stronger.

Though it may be unrealistic to hope for a world where genders can be equal in every way, there are steps we can take to close the gap. By empathizing with each other, and not subjecting anyone to conform to gender stereotypes, but rather, encourage each other to explore the many gifts of being human, we can begin to change mindsets that trap us in a system of patriarchy and discrimination, and instead be “one in Christ” as God intended.

Questions:
1) How do you feel that your gender defines you?
2) How do you envision a gender equal society?
3) In what ways can we help others to move past gender bias/discrimination?

CAST Voices Devotion: Prayer

CAST Voices Devotion: Prayer

By Nomakaya Mpambaniso

Scripture: Ephesians 6:18-20

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

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Devotion:

The Spirit of God is the one that helps us how to pray, and will guide us to the truth. God and the Spirit are one, so the Spirit will intercede for us to give us more hope and more strength. Our fight is not against flesh and blood, we are fighting the darkness; things we do not see. The Spirit of God is hovering over us and helping us to overcome tough situations. We must not get tired or give up. We must continue praying. Greater things will happen.

Let’s pray for our country, for our president and all the ministers to find direction. Pray for our families, for marriages to be honoured, and for the youth to come to know the Lord Jesus and not be influenced by the world. Let us also pray for our local churches to become more involved, especially with the youth, our future generation. Pray for all of our communities, for their hearts to have passion in our programmes and build relationships to support one another. As the schools reopen for the next term, let us continue praying for Wordworks and the pregnancy group that provides support for young mothers still attending school.

Without prayer we cannot do anything, because God is the one changing people’s lives. When we commit ourselves to the Lord Jesus, and call on him, He hears us. So let us be with the Spirit all the time, even if we are busy driving or working, God is hearing us, and His voice is so near to us.

Questions & Reflection:

  • Think about our youth, in terms of mentoring and parenting, and how the power of prayer can change their lives.
  • Can you make time to visit in the communities, go to the shacks and sit down and listen to the stories of different families and pray with them?
  • So often we forget to thank God in our prayers for what we have been blessed with. Reflect on this, and pray for those who do not feel God’s presence in their lives.

CAST Voices Devotion: The Importance of Faith-based Camps

CAST Voices Devotion: The Importance of Faith-based Camps

29 June 2017

By Thandi Gova

Scripture: Romans 12:2-3

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I am both privileged and grateful to be working for an organisation that values the presence of the youth and recognises the importance of girls’ ministry.

On a weekly basis, we engage with girls through sport, dance, support groups, tutoring and Friday-night youth. Time together is limited, as the girls need to get home to do chores, complete homework, look after siblings, or because they have a 6pm curfew for their safety.  During this time, we get to discuss certain issues, but are only able to just hit the tip of the iceberg.

Camp gives us an opportunity to connect with the girls over an extended time, where they have reprieve from the day-to-day routines and responsibilities, with the purpose of creating an environment that makes them feel valued, heard, and supported. This allows them to ‘chill’, make new friends, have fun, learn, grow, and teach.  Above all, it opens the door for them to experience God.

This year’s theme is “Resilience” and the camp title is “Siyanqoba”, a plural in isiZulu that means: “We are conquering”, carefully chosen to tie in with “resilience”: the ability to bounce back, which is “ukubuyela” or “ukunqoba”. The plural emphasises the spirit of unity, community, teamwork, and knowing how we are stronger/more effective when we work together.

By the end of the camp, we hope for the girls to develop strategies to build their resilience physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and intellectually, and for them to return home with a sense of hope, knowing where they can turn to for advice to boost their resilience, and remember that God is the centre, the source of all resilience.

I would also like the girls to return home with this verse as motivation:

“Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – Romans 12:2-3 NIV

Questions:

  1. What are the patterns that we do not want the girls to conform to and why?
  2. How are we helping to renew the girls’ minds?
  3. How are we helping girls to know what is God’s good, pleasing and perfect will for them?

 

CAST Voices Devotion: Youth Identity

CAST Voices Devotion: Youth Identity

13 June 2017

By George Mwaura

1 Peter 2:9 For you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.

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I love working with young people because I truly believe each of them has a future in Christ despite their current situation.  If we bear this in mind, it changes the way we look at young people.

For me personally, growing up in the Mathare Slum of Nairobi, Kenya as a young person was not easy, especially when it came to the people who influenced me.  When I was 12-16 years old, I identified with anything that seemed meaningful.  Part of me knew I could find meaning in Christ, but I did not have someone to help me explore that option.  Most of the time I leaned towards what my friends identified with, such as hip-hop culture or Rastafarianism.  Despite all my efforts to immerse myself in these popular trends, nothing was meaningful.  I knew deep down in my heart that whatever I clung to would lead to meaninglessness as my predecessors had not led meaningful lives.

From my experience, finding your identity is a critical stage because whatever you settle for defines who you become in the future.  Yes, some might meet Jesus later in life, but then you have to face so much embedded in your old identity.  In order to take on your new identity, you would need someone to journey with to solidify your identity.

Finding our identity today continues to be challenge.  It is one thing to claim Christianity, but it’s another to fully embrace that identity.  It’s like having an ID, but never using it.  I believe if most people understood the value of their IDs (and the rights thereof) they would take better care of it, and use those rights.

We have so many youth around us.  They are full of potential, but unless they can figure out their identity, they might not ever become who they are meant to be.  Lack of stable family structures in our society doesn’t help, but this can’t be an excuse.  As Christians, we are called to point people to their Creator.  This calls for intentional living.

  1. How do you identify with Christ?
  2. Are you aware of young people struggling with identity?
  3. Do you have someone you are intentionally working with to help them find their identity in Christ?

Understanding the Needs in Our Community

CAST Voices Devotion: Understanding the Needs in Our Community

The woman who touched Jesus’ cloak: Luke 8:41-43

By Yasmin Adams

Reflection:

Jesus was on his way to Jairus’ daughter but made space for this woman in her desperate need. Jesus was surrounded by need and opportunities that day, and chose to heal this woman.

Jesus could see the woman’s deepest needs were peace and wholeness. The woman took initiative, in desperation and in faith, and Jesus responded.

Jairus was an important person in his community, and the woman was considered unclean and was therefore isolated. As a result of this they both had different ways of approaching Jesus. Jairus was not afraid to ask, the woman was. This shows us that to really understand the deepest needs of our community we may need to dig deep. The most marginalised people will not necessarily come forward for help.

It shows us that in a world of huge problems, Jesus cares deeply for the individual. The woman just had to reach out – he responded, he valued her, he healed her and met her deepest needs. He does the same for us today.

When we look at all the need around us, it can be overwhelming, and we might feel a sense of guilt at what we are not doing. Jesus healed the woman, but he did not heal everyone. Whatever we choose to do for others is important, it is Christ-like.

Questions:

  1. In what way was the woman isolated in her own community?
  2. Do we make space for others when preoccupied with other concerns?
  3. What are the deepest needs of the people in your community?
  4. In what way can we help the people in the community take initiative to change their situation?

Prayer:

Dear Lord, we know you care deeply for our needs and for our community. Show us how our church can be a cloak of healing and peace for those in need.  Amen.

CAST Voices Devotion: Ascension Day

CAST Voices Devotion: Ascension Day

25 May 2017

By Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt

Matthew 28:18-20

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you all the time until the end of the age.

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Today is Ascension Day – and these words are the very last ones Jesus spoke to his disciples on that day before he ascended into heaven. This is how Jesus handed over of the baton of messianic ministry from Himself to us.

On Tuesday we talked about God’s intention to bring blessing to all nations through the seed of Abraham—while we realise the seed of Abraham refers to the nation of Israel, the New Testament tells us that it refers particularly to Jesus.

But on Ascension Day we realise something else: that when Jesus left this earth he handed that responsibility over to us. The promise is not only about Israel, it is not only about Jesus, it is about us too. We are now the ones who, in the name of Jesus, carry the responsibility of bringing the blessing of God to all nations. This is God’s special calling on us. Remember that we said the Bible describes the blessing of God as happiness or joy, protection and security, favour, honour, peace, authority, long life, good relationships, many children, material abundance and most of all, the presence of God.

Remember also that it is through covenant relationship with God and obedience to Him that we receive His blessings and that we teach others to receive them too.

In this passage the word “All” is used five times:

First: All authority in heaven and earth is given to Jesus—so it is certain that we will succeed if we do what he tells us to.

Second: He tells us to go into all the world—no place is to be left out.

Third: He tells us to make disciples of all the nations—not just the individuals, but all nations. Whole nations are to be brought into the kingdom, every person in the world.

Fourth: We are to teach them to obey all the things he has taught us—this is real discipleship: absolute obedience to him in every way.

And Fifth: He will be with us all the time. We will not take a step or make a move where he is unable to guide us, rescue us or support us.

The blessing of God is much greater than the assurance of going to heaven, it is salvation every day in every part of our lives.  And it is not only for us—it is for every person on this planet. The blessing of God is a result of the kingdom of God and our mission is to bring that kingdom to every place and every person.

Questions to ponder:

  1. What is the difference between what Jesus says about all nations and the way we usually approach evangelism?
  2. How can we be better as Christians at making the connection between blessing and obedience for the people we serve through our ministries?