What I Learned: A Culture of Relationship

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Malana Ganz, writing about relationships in Panama and realizing how cultural her understanding of her faith had been.


About two years ago my husband Steve and I were visiting Panama for the second time.  We had come to teach, at the invitation of friends from Oregon, where we live. While there, Steve had a dream of Jesus standing over the map of Panama, arms outstretched, saying,  “I want you to teach in Panama.”

Not being a man to whom dreams come, his reaction was to ask for counsel. When I responded positively, our hosts did, our pastor did…well, then we asked our six adult children for their input. Although they were not as quick to agree, we reminded them that we had supported all of their life decisions. What could they do? Other than requesting that we remain in good communication for the sake of our grandchildren, they gave their blessing.

What a whirlwind of activity it took to close two businesses, get on social security, and move out of a 2400 square foot house and 2400 square foot shop. My organizational skills, for which I am legendary in the family, were severely challenged. But we did it! Eight months after the dream, we were here.

As part of our service here, we ended up being in their first training school at this location as students.

When we started school we had been here a year. My Spanish was improving, my husband was still struggling with simple phrases but making some headway. He told everyone that it goes in one ear and out the other. They suggested that he hold the exit ear shut! But he explained that then the words come out his nose.  Pretty funny conversation in sign language!

Our understanding of the people was also improving. We thought we had a good handle on the differences between our American Christian culture and jungle tribal culture. When Steve teaches, the interpreter has few cultural corrections to make, mostly about keeping examples pertinent to their experiences. We were making friends and enjoying our classes.

However, our cultural differences really hit home to me one day in class, when our teacher was discussing the scripture, “The devil comes to steal, kill, and destroy.” His point was, that if we do the opposite of what the devil is trying to accomplish, we will thwart his plans and he will have no control over us. The class was asked to identify the opposite of “steal, kill, and destroy.”

My thoughts instantly went to “to support yourself (let those who stole steal no more, but work with their own hands), bear life (no abortion), and to build (a wise woman builds her house, a foolish one tears it down with her own hands). Where would your thoughts go to? Self-sufficiency, social responsibility, personal responsibility, that is the American mantra. I’ve learned it well.

I sat in silence to listen as my Wounaan friends and classmates answered the question. We try to let them speak first, because their parents taught them to listen before speaking. If we jump in too quickly, they won’t participate in the discussion. The first response was from an 18-year old girl:

“When I was little my father left some money on the table. I was tempted to steal it and go buy candy. Then I remembered that he always told me, ‘If you want something, ask me for it.’ I decided not to steal the money, but to ask my father for enough to buy candy. He gave it to me gladly. The opposite of steal, is to ask.”

Then someone started throwing out antonyms for “kill” – “resurrect, grow.”

And the opposite of “destroy” that they decided on?  “Include.”

What I have always seen as words of responsibility and guilt, my Wounaan friends saw as words of relationship. If you ask, you will receive and not need to steal. If you encounter death, bring resurrection life. If you have a temptation to destroy a relationship, include the person in your life and rebuild the friendship.

I was completely floored and humbled as I understood the limitations of how I view scripture.  I was unaware that I had been locked into a narrow cultural interpretation. As I meditated on this class, I remembered that Jesus comes from a rural relational culture more similar to Wounaan than American. I felt like I was hearing His heart.

Worldview is usually our silent partner, until it is challenged. I am so glad that my worldview was exposed, so that the light of truth can shine more deeply into my heart.


malana ganzMalana Ganz and her husband have 6 married children and 14 grandchildren. They ran a piano restoration business for 38 years and pastored a small church for 10 years. They work with youth in Panama and happily refer to themselves as Geezers for God.