By Nabil Cornelius
“I see by your passport that you have just come from (and he named the restricted-access country). Why were you there? How long did you stay? Do you speak their language?” An official in a major European city interrogated my traveling companions and me on these, and other matters, before we boarded our plane for America.
“Restricted-access” countries have either Marxist governments or religious groups in control that are antagonistic to Christianity. Not all these nations are restricted to the same degree. In some places it is against the law to own Bibles or meet in churches. In others being a Christian or practicing the faith is not forbidden, but it is illegal to evangelize.
My wife and I have resided abroad and traveled extensively. Here are some practical suggestions we have learned that help us be more effective, less offensive, and not as likely to be a danger to local believers and churches.
DO THESE . . .
1. Respect their history, their government, their culture, and their traditions. The irritating habit of thinking my way is the only right way is called ethnocentrism. Let’s avoid it.
2. Know as much as you possibly can about the places you will visit. Your local library or the Internet can help you learn what you need to know. Before leaving home my wife checks on the weather and reads the local English-language newspaper (if they have one) online.
3. If there are believers and churches already present, seek and follow the advice of their Christian leaders. They can tell you how to eat, dress, talk, act, and speak.
4. Do all within your power to protect your brethren in that country. If you do or say something unwise, likely the worst that will happen to you is that their government will expel you. But your actions could have serious consequences for the local believers and foreign Christian workers who live there.
5. From the time you board the plane, begin to think and act like what I call a world-class citizen. Obey the laws of the nation(s) that you are visiting and conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Like the apostle Paul, consider your citizenship to be in Heaven (Philippians 1:27 and 3:20). “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
6. You are a guest; conduct yourself like one. Practice good manners. Express gratitude. Accept hospitality when it is offered to you. Should you be given something to eat or drink that offends your principles, learn to refuse it graciously.
7. Be discreet in carrying your Bible or Christian literature in public. In taking my Bible to church I always have it inside a briefcase or a shopping bag.
8. If possible keep in contact with the U.S. Embassy. The State Department issues regular alerts about possible dangers to U.S. citizens. Should there be a difficulty of any kind go to the embassy for advice and help.
9. Never let your guard down! When in one of the restricted-access countries, assume that you are constantly being observed. I have noticed that even in church buildings, among believers, the local folk will either speak in hushed tones or not talk at all on certain sensitive subjects.
10. Trust God. In this day when world terrorism is being exported around the globe, our only safe place is in “the hands of God.” You are traveling on kingdom business. Remember that God is able to protect when no one else can. King David wrote in Psalm 23:4. “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
AVOID THESE . . .
1. Don’t be an obvious American. It is fine to be patriotic, but in other countries don’t wear garments or jewelry with American flags or such symbols. In your conversations avoid references to the way we do it back home.
2. Don’t gather with Americans in large clusters. Several colleges no longer take groups to work at archeological sites in the Bible lands. A team of U.S. students could become a target for radicals.
3. Don’t talk politics. During election year 2004 I found many locals, especially taxi drivers, wanting to know which presidential hopeful I supported. It was difficult to keep it to myself, but I had not gone overseas for political purposes.
4. Don’t talk loudly. We Americans have a reputation of being heard before we are seen. Talkative, boisterous visitors can be offensive to the local population. I sometimes need to be reminded when I forget and use my resonant “preacher voice.”
5. Don’t use “Christian talk.” Refrain from discussing matters relating to church, conversions, missionaries, etc. in taxis, hotel lobbies, restaurants, and other public places. Taxis are especially vulnerable. I have been told that the government of one country employs secret police as cab drivers. The driver who claims he does not speak English may indeed understand every word.
6. Don’t flash your money around. You could be robbed and certainly will be misunderstood. It is your responsibility to learn how best to protect your cash, credit cards, and legal documents.
7. Don’t belittle their religion or cherished beliefs. Study and learn about their religion. We do not have to agree with their beliefs in order to respect the people.
8. Don’t send the wrong message with your body language. It has helped to read some of the good books available on this subject before setting out on our journey. That way we avoid giving offense by the way we sit, stand, gesture, or look at others. It may be extremely important, for example, to learn which hand to use for what purposes.
9. Don’t take pictures without asking. The thoughtless use of a camera can be insulting in many cultures.
10. Don’t become paranoid. With all these negatives you might be so uptight that you spoil your trip. Learn all you can before you go. Take every precaution necessary, pray without ceasing, and then enjoy your visit. You will likely find that most ordinary citizens are helpful and glad you took the time to visit their homeland.
Increased security and other modifications international travelers now face need not be a hindrance to kingdom work. In fact they can enhance your journey with increased sensitivity. Serving in difficult places heightens your awareness of how powerfully God and his people are working around the world. For my wife and me these changes, and the tragedies that prompted them, have increased our determination to never give up until the gospel has reached the ends of the earth.
Nabil Cornelius is the pen name of an American working in a restricted-access country.