On our trip to Uganda earlier this month, Alisha and I passed through Dubai for the first time. For those of you who don’t know Dubai very well, it is the capital city of one of the 7 emirates that make up the country of the United Arab Emirates. In recent times, it has become one of the world’s foremost economic powerhouses and centers for international trade due in large part to its central location near the entrance to the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Sea (the northern portion of the Indian Ocean). Over the last few decades, Dubai has been surrounded by (but largely uninvolved in) many of the world’s most difficult political and military challenges that have been spread across much of the Middle East.
Seeing this place was an eye-opener. At one level, the extreme wealth of the city is unmistakable. We had an overnight layover on the way over, so to help us stay awake and get a jumpstart on our internal clocks adjusting to Uganda time, we decided to take a short tour of the city even though it was 9:30pm.
Driving around in the mini-tour bus, the sheer size and opulence of the building designs was impressive – the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, being the crown jewel of the place. The clash of cultures was also stark – some women were fully covered with only their eyes showing, while many others walked around in fancy (albeit still modest) designer clothes.
|The Burj Khalifa - tallest building in the world|
at 2723 feet, or 163 stories. It's 3 times the height
of the Eiffel Tower, and 2 times the height of the
Empire State Building!
Some men were in robes, but most were in jeans and t-shirts, and those near the beach were in shorts and flip flops. Fancy cars were everywhere, and with a very low crime rate, many people and even children were out and about near the beach, even past 10pm. Somehow we stayed awake for the 2-hour tour even after the 10-hour time change accomplished by our 14-hour flight from Seattle.
|The Jumeriah mosque, Dubai. It is one of the few mosques that|
allows non-Muslim visitors.
But actually, it was the 5 hour layover on our journey home where we stayed in the airport that left the biggest impression on me. The Dubai Airport is considered one of the major hubs of the world. It is enormous, and built with very tall ceilings and open spaces that make it feel like a significant place. After seeing the city, the sense that the airport was ‘overbuilt’ made perfect sense.
But in some ways, it felt a bit like a parallel universe. Though it is a hub, and at 1am the shops and restaurants that seemed to extend for miles in the terminal were as bustling as if it were mid-afternoon, there were relatively few westerners sprinkled amongst the masses. And yet, all the shops and stores were the same western names and brands you’d see in America or the UK (probably closer to the UK since their influences in the region are more pronounced).
|The Burj Al Arab hotel - famous for it's sail-shape - is one of|
the most expensive luxury hotels in the world. It's built on
'reclaimed' land (i.e. a man-made island in the Persian Gulf).
One thing in particular stood out to me. Arriving from Uganda, we had decided that we would shower in the airport during the layover to wash off the sweat and dust from the drive to the Entebbe airport back in Uganda (we had noticed there were showers there on our inbound flight the previous week). Arriving in the shower rooms, we couldn’t believe how packed the place was, and everyone there were Muslims dressed in traditional robes.
We somehow were able to get a shower in amongst all the people waiting, but seeing people at the point of this most basic human function, along with all the hustle and bustle of the shoppers looking at cell phones or chocolates or other souvenirs – all amounted to the strong impression that despite the outward differences of cultural and spiritual practices that often strike me as being of another world, at our core we are all people, and in that way, we’re similar.
For the past 14 weeks – this Monday is the last week – I have been taking a class called ‘Perspectives on the World Christian Movement’. Maybe some of you have taken this course, but for me it’s felt like it’s filled in a lot of the historical information about missions that I’ve picked up on here and there. I’ve really enjoyed it, and though it’s been a lot of reading, it’s been very worth the effort. It’s also reinforced what I’ve learned experientially over the past 9 years at EMI. One of the biggest impressions I’ve had is that in mission, while the goal is to introduce the biblical story of Jesus to people and have them develop and grow in their own journey of following Him, we western missionaries have often got it wrong in thinking we need to ‘extract’ people from their culture to achieve this.
In reading through the various bible passages and analysis of those stories in my class, the idea of ‘snaring’ people one at a time and bringing them out of their home family and culture was not something practiced by the early followers of Jesus. Nor did Jesus himself practice this, apart from selecting his disciples perhaps. When it came to the masses, however, Jesus travelled around to where they were, and though he did speak to both groups and individuals alike, he wasn’t amassing a group of followers that would leave home and trail behind him to follow. He left them changed of course, on the inside, but in general they remained where they were, in their home culture and family groups, with their cultures intact.
As I think about the ministry of EMI and what our overall goals are – that is, our vision statement of seeing ‘people restored by God and the world restored through design’ – it’s important that we understand that we aren’t ‘restoring’ things towards one particular culture or another. The world is a very diverse place. People, practices, foods, customs, values, perspectives – there are so many differences it’s impossible to name them all.
But we believe those differences around the world are a reflection of who God is, and our western version of God and how we’re to relate to him should never be thought to apply universally. Jesus met people were they were. The apostle Paul met people where they were (“To the Jew I become like a Jew, to win the Jews…” 1Cor 9:19). Nowhere does it talk about extracting people out of their culture to become like some other, unified ‘Christian’ culture. Such a culture didn’t even exist. People just became followers of Jesus, but they did so within their own culture and they remained in that culture afterwards.
It’s important for us at EMI to understand this and work towards the same goal. We aren’t trying to extract anyone – either professionally or spiritually. But rather, we’re trying to meet them where they are – either as aspiring professional architects or engineers, or as students, or construction workers, or administrators, or any of the other people we interact with in the cultures where we work. And when we have the opportunity to introduce people to Jesus, we have to be careful to avoid presenting some westernized version of him.
On the surface, places like Dubai can make the world seem like more and more of a melting pot of cultures – and in cities that is certainly becoming more true. But out of the cities and under the surface, the differences in cultures are as wide as they’ve ever been. And these differences are by God’s design, and are a reflection of himself and his character. One of our goals at EMI is to become an ‘all peoples to all peoples’ organization, and it’s exactly for that reason – that is, we value all people and cultures and backgrounds because they all represent who God is.
Alisha and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to see glimpses of this in different places around the world, and to have the opportunity to work for an organization like EMI that is putting into practice the good mission practices I’ve been learning about in the Perspectives course, and also trying to help other groups in the world mission movement grow towards some of these ‘enlightened’ mission practices.