Crossing cultures

Robyn Atkinson

As part of my degree in French and German, I spent my year abroad as an intern with churches in Belgium and Germany. I really felt the contrast in culture between the two countries. Going to Jena after Brussels was like jumping into the sea after sitting in the sun.

When you switch cultures, you are confronted with different ways of relating to people, different norms and different ways of doing things. It feels bewildering and strange. You have to re-learn and re-interpret how people communicate. It was a surprise for me, but no surprise to the Creator of them all. What an amazing thought that God intimately knows all of his children around the world and how they think and work in such different ways!

The buzzing, international atmosphere in Brussels makes it quite a friendly place. People are welcoming and flexible, often because they themselves are not from Belgium either. You immediately have something in common. When I left Brussels and entered a small, remote city in the middle of the east German countryside, I initially felt as though no-one liked me! People in Jena could be rather abrupt and closed. But God, in his grace, was using this experience to teach me to find comfort and security in him. 

It’s often when we’re out of our depth and comfort zone that we experience the reality of truths that we know already. I knew that God was my rock (Psalm 18:2) and ‘near to all who call on him’ (Psalm 145:18), but it wasn’t until I was in a new context where I felt very alone, that I learned to trust this in a way I perhaps hadn’t before. 

When I arrived in Jena I felt like I was the odd one out. For example, hospitality is commended (1 Tim 5:10) and commanded (1 Peter 4:9) in the Bible, but cultural traditions and ideas mean that it can look very different in different places. In both Belgian and German cultures, hospitality involves a top-notch dinner party with three-courses and professional-style hosting. While this is good fun, it can be difficult to sustain as a student! I therefore aimed to practise and demonstrate a more low-key way of doing hospitality - a way that was sociable, fun and sustainable in the busyness of normal life. 

I regularly invited some girls from church over for pizza-making and film-watching. It was a joy for me to get to know them better, but also to see how they got to know each other better, started sharing lives and even organising similar evenings themselves. Although I was in Belgium and Germany for a mere five months each, I’m so thankful to God for the friendships I made, his sovereignty over placing me with the people I was with, and for the privilege it is to see him working in their lives. 

Before I began my year abroad, Crosslinks asked me to write down my three aims for the year. My top one was learning to trust God more. Up until that point, I’d always been in an environment where it was relatively easy to be a Christian - my faith had not been particularly challenged. I really wanted to grow my trust in and dependence on God - and that certainly happened! If you have a desire to grow in a similar way and have some time, I would wholeheartedly recommend a Crosslinks short-term mission trip

Photo at top of page: Robyn teaching her German friends how to make chicken pie!