Going Native

cowboy and indian

There is an unhealthy mentality to which any missionary is susceptible, especially one who truly loves the people among whom they are working. It’s called “going native.” Going native isn’t just learning to eat strange foods and adopting new customs. It is the delusion that a person can actually become someone other than who they are. I fell into this delusion while working with the Okanagans of Canada. We worked together, ate together, swam together, rode together and stood around talking together until the sun finally disappeared at 11PM each night. And I was soon walking, talking and acting like an Okanagan. It wasn’t intentional. It was just the natural result of wanting to be one of the guys and accepted in spite of my being a white American male missionary.

Old Ben was the owner of the ranch where I was staying in a trailer in the middle of his horse pasture, and he was everything a family patriarch should be regardless of ones culture. In his youth he had been a real “rounder,” but age had transformed him into a quiet, gentle man who spoke rarely, but when he spoke the others listened. Then one day out of the blue he said to me. “Mark, you will never be an Indian. You will always be a white man.”

I confess that I was shocked and hurt. It felt like I was being rejected and excluded, in spite of my best efforts to be culturally sensitive. I responded by asking him what I was doing wrong. He looked at me like I was crazy and asked “What makes you think you are doing anything wrong? You are not doing anything wrong. You are thinking wrong, You want to become something you are not, and by doing that you are dishonoring the person who you are. Do not try to become an Indian. Just be a good man.”

Those words went deep, but I confess I lost that message along the way. I went to Dallas Seminary and read “Dress for Success,” and lost my way in the vain pursuit of being one of the “sharp guys.” Then I came to Brazil and did everything I could to become a Brazilian. I worked hard at the language. I bought Brazilian clothes, wore Brazilian shoes and even on occasion had my hair cut by a Brazilian barber. And then one day as I was sitting in the Congonhas airport in São Paulo, dressed like a Brazilian and reading a book in Portuguese, they called my flight. As I stood up, a young businessman sitting next to me bumped into me on accident, and then with all sincerity looked at me and said “Excuse me.” In English. I asked him in Portuguese “É tão óbvio assim?” (Is it that obvious?). And he responded in Portuguese, with a compassionate smile, “Sinto muito.” That literally means “I’m very sorry”, but the meaning was clear: “Yes. I’m afraid it is very obvious.”

In the eyes of Brazilians, I will never be a Brazilian. And the fact that I am a conservative, evangelical, dispensationalist American who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and accepts the apostolic prohibitions against ordaining women as pastors guarantees that no matter how hard I try, or how politely I speak, there are those who truly feel deep animosity for my being in Brazil.

But I have also found in Brazil the closest, deepest friendships I have ever had in my life. People who love me and accept me not because I am an American, nor because I have become a Brazilian, but who in spite of our differences, have accepted me for who I am. And forty years later, I’ve finally learned to live what Old Ben was telling me on the Okanagan Reserve in Canada: don’t try to be someone else. Just be the best YOU that you can possibly be, and for me, that means becoming the man God intended. And I’ve written all this today just to share that message with you. There is only One person in the entire universe whose opinion of us truly matters, and His purpose for our lives is just that: to help us become the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be.

5 thoughts on “Going Native

  1. Not a Christian, but honestly a good article. We have to have respect, and at the end of the day, realize what we are and we are not

    1. Hi, Jessica
      I did not know people could leave remarks until about four minutes ago! Thank you for your kind remarks, and you are so right. The basic “you” (personality, intelligence) never changes, but we can become better versions of ourselves!
      Most sincerely,

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