Being an Ambassador
I knew before I applied for a Fulbright ETA that Fulbright exists as a form of soft policy. A large part of the educational exchange that occurs within Fulbright results in an exchange in cultures which reflects positively on the USA and helps the US government (which explains why the State Department puts so much money into us Fulbrighters). I am as much a cultural ambassador as I am an English teacher. This is not just due to the fact that I teach about “American culture” in classes. For many, I am one of the few Americans that they regularly interact with and my behavior affects how they view the US as a whole.
Sometimes, this is overwhelming.
I have previously blogged about how I do not fulfill many Colombians’ expectations of how an American should behave and think. This can be difficult at times, because I feel that many people here have put me in a box. I am an American so I must think and do certain things. Of course, not everyone thinks this way, but it happens often enough to frustrate me. In the classroom, I have been able to lead a lot of discussions on culture, stereotypes and intercultural communication (Thank you soooo much Dr. AC for all the training and materials!). In general, students have been very receptive. I am now comfortable in the classroom and I feel that most students understand that I am just one American with one set of opinions, beliefs, values, customs, etc. They do not view me as THE American.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case outside the classroom. Outside the classroom, I have less authority and less control over how discussions go. Although I consider myself conversationally fluent in Spanish, I am sometimes at a loss for words when it comes debates, especially on topics where my vocabulary is lacking. Answering a question such as “Why is the USA so messed up and Americans so close-minded?” is difficult even in English.
I was told that Colombia has a rather positive view of Americans and the US, but I am not so sure that this is true. The media and our government policies have led to some rather negative impressions. People don’t outright hate me for my nationality, but they definitely question a lot of my country’s decisions, views and customs. Sadly, the USA has also done a fantastic job of selling the ideas of “liberty” and “freedom”, so many Colombians don’t realize that many of us Americans disagree with our government too and have very little say in changing it. I have had multiple heated debates about the fact that most Americans don’t think that we are the best nor do we view ourselves as the saviors of the world. We aren’t all Obama, Bush, Snooki, Phil Robertson or Homer Simpson.
The situation becomes stickier when the topic turns to religion. I lack the words in Spanish within a Colombian context to define my faith. If I say I am a Christian, it is assumed that I am a Catholic. If I say I am a Protestant, I am told things such as, “Of course you’re a Protestant. You’re an American.” Because obviously my culture determined my faith. I agree, my culture has strongly influenced my beliefs, values and worldview, but my religion is not just my culture. It is so much more than that. Besides, not all Americans are Protestant and I want to make sure that Colombians understand that. My Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Jewish, fill in the blank with the religion of your choice friends are just as American as I am.
Here, Christianity, especially Catholicism are strongly associated with power, oppression, and corruption. American Christianity is, by extension, seen in the same light, just add Westboro Baptist Church. I was once asked, after someone learned I was a Christian, “Can you be friends with an atheist?” This question was confusing and even offensive to me. Of course I can be friends with someone of a religion outside my own. Jesus told me to love everybody, not just the people I agree with. Besides, I can have a lot in common with someone who doesn’t define themselves as a Christian. I later learned that many atheists in Colombia feel ostracized and rejected because of their beliefs, probably more so than they would in the US and this is probably what inspired the question.
I have debated how to deal with this. There’s a part of me that wants to just tell people I’m a Canadian who loves Jesus but rejects religion. Then, I am reminded of this Scripture:
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Corinthians 5:20
I am always an ambassador for Christ, both here in Colombia and back in the US. Here, I happen to also be a cultural ambassador for the US which makes things a bit more complicated. As an ambassador for Christ, I am a member of The Church*. The Church has done a lot of things wrong, but in the end it is the body of Christ and I am part of it. Rejecting it is going to make me more easily accepted, but is probably not going to further my witness. It is my job to speak up – to explain that my religion does not mean I hate gays, believe I deserve wealth, think that I am better than other people, or identify as a Republican. Christ calls me to love others, to give to the poor, to defend the helpless, and most of all, to glorify Him. I think that according to these principles, as a part of The Church, I should be fighting for racial equality and against gender discrimination, should be working to eradicate poverty and would never stand in a Westboro Baptist protest (although you might someday see me protesting against them). As difficult as it is to explain this, I think that it is important that I don’t hide behind the idea that I am “nonreligious” and instead act as the ambassador that I am called to be.
So, I am a Christian. I am an American. I am going to embrace and proclaim that with grace and love.
*The Church in this context does not refer to any specific denomination. Instead, it refers to the collective group of followers of Jesus Christ.
On a somewhat related note: If you know of a Protestant church in Tunja, let me know! I’d love to get involved in one.