Updated: May 8
I recently took a long car ride with a family from Honduras who have been living here in the United States for about two years. I expected them to put on some music and to spend the hours with my own thoughts, but the music was never set up. They wanted to talk instead. They asked me all kinds of questions that I think they have always wondered about but in the normal rush of the day-to-day, they never get a chance to ask.
They asked: How come the streets are so quiet here? Where are all the people? How come children so rarely go outside to play? How come children don’t spend every afternoon with friends? How come children are sometimes so sad here? How come people work so much? How come when we go to a park people don’t invite us over to talk to them? How come actually they sometimes get angry if we are in “their” space?
I felt a little bit like the representative of an alien planet where they had landed, trying to explain why here in the United States we behave the way we do. It’s different here, I said. Our culture envisions families and individuals as separate. And that makes us, for instance, very productive, but also makes us lonely and more likely to be divided and in conflict. We talked for a long time as the scenery passed by.
I think it’s easy to over-generalize and over-elevate the people who are arriving here from other countries that we see in our ministry. Just as we have learned through getting to know hundreds and hundreds of people, that they are not all criminals as the narrative is sometimes written, we also have learned that they also aren’t all people of great faith or incredible strength or who have faced unbearable adversity. Some of them are. But, just like you and me, they have a complete diversity of stories and experience and personalities. Some of them are stuck in maladaptive, destructive behaviors. Some of them just want to earn money to send home to their families and don't really care about anything else.
But if there is one thing that does distinguish them almost universally from us–if I had to draw a dividing line between immigrants and people who were born here–the one I would draw is between collectivist and individualist cultures. Our cultural norms towards separateness and individual achievement are almost universally foreign to the immigrants we meet and host. In their home countries, everything is shared. When a neighbor needs help, first of all, you know about it and second of all, you give what you can. You rely on one another constantly.
There is strong evidence, by the way, that people in collectivist cultures are less affected by trauma and show fewer and less lingering maladaptive responses to trauma. This fact makes me think sometimes that when we see strength in an individual who has been through difficult experiences, I wonder if what we are actually seeing is the strength that they have received from a lifetime of living in a connected, even if extremely impoverished and besieged, community.
This picture of community was really clarified for me this week. I listened to a woman tell her story of her journey here. She described the suffering and the struggle. She had to leave her mother back home who wasn’t strong enough to make the journey. She had to walk on foot without enough food or water through terrain that was made dangerous by mud, rushing rivers, and mountains and also by people who waited to prey on the vulnerable. She had to stay in hiding sometimes. She had to sleep on the streets sometimes.
But she also described the community that she found on this journey. A community of people that loved one another even though they had just met and would probably never see each other again. A moving, shifting community-of-the-moment. She described how people would give all their food to someone else’s children who didn’t have enough. And how a man in Honduras bought 200 pizzas for all the immigrants coming through one day. And how a woman let them stay in their backyard while danger passed. There are so many examples of this type of loving kindness that I have heard from her and many others–this traveling, completely fragile and ephemeral community that feels, nonetheless, like being rooted beside a flowing river of love.
And then this woman said by way of explanation, "Solo no eres nada. Solo no eres nada. Tienes que poner tu orgullo a tu lado." (Alone you are nothing. Alone you are nothing. You have to put your pride to one side.)
I hope that this is something we can all learn. I hope this is something I can teach my children well. I hope that this idea of community over individual is something we can create space for, especially here, even as we are surrounded by forces pushing us apart. I hope that our church can continue to welcome in and empower people who can teach us what it means to live and love well with one another.