Archive for October, 2015

22nd October
written by Michelle

I am 33 today and despite my daughter’s concern that I am getting “older” I feel a deeply grateful. Maybe there is a certain wisdom and perspective that comes each year. I’d like to think I am little wiser, a little less controlling and a bit more joyful than I was at 23. And I hope I can say the same 10 years down the line. 

Birthdays can be gentle invitations to gratitude, but also painful reminders of what you have lost or what you would have hoped to have. I remember a dear friend telling me how hard it felt to celebrate another year by herself. She was 32 and what she really had hoped for was a birthday surrounded by a husband, a life-long partner. 

I have another sweet friend whose own mom died to cancer before she finished elementary school. She once told me, I would give anything to be able to celebrate my birthday with the one who gave birth to me.

 I am not sure what’s tougher, birthdays without loved ones who have died or birthdays without someone you had hoped to love.

 When you’re a woman who struggles with infertility a birthday is yes, another year of life, but also a painful reminder of a life that you so deeply want to hold, but cant. One friend described each passing year of hoping to be pregnant as “a heaviness that keeps growing in your heart, while nothing grows in your womb.”

 Can I just say, if birthdays have felt hard for you, I am so, so sorry. Our culture in general doesn’t do a good job of acknowledging how days typically reserved for celebrations can sometimes also be days filled with sadness. They often go hand-in hand, the celebration and the mourning.

 I remember my own birthday at 27. Sitting over hamburgers and beer at my favorite little beachside restaurant, two of my best friends asked me, what I was most looking forward to in the year ahead— a simple and appropriate questions for a birthday dinner. But instead of words, tears came. I couldn’t answer the question, because I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the growing discontentment in my heart. I was chasing a meaningful career and filling my schedule with really good things, but my heart was being pulled elsewhere. It’s funny how your life can be so full, but your heart can feel empty. That was the last birthday I celebrated in California.

This evening after getting home from a fun and loud family dinner at my sister-in-law’s house, complete with tortillas, fresh squeezed limonada, cake and three rounds of “Feliz Cumpleanos,” I carried an over-tired Elena upstairs. It was already way past her bedtime, but I am firm believer that celebrations sometimes trump bedtimes. I tried to brush her teeth and she adamantly demanded to do it “all buh mah-self.” We read, The Giving Tree, one time and I kissed her forehead and told her how much I loved the flowers from her and Daddy. As I stood up, picking up her dirty clothes on the floor, I heard her little voice singing “happy buh-th-day to you” and my heart melted just a bit. I closed the door leaving just an inch of space between the white frame because she likes it when the hall light shines in.

 I walked downstairs, carrying the dirty towels from the bathroom and Elena’s clothes, my heart full from the special and yet very ordinary ways that made this birthday wonderful. I started a load of laundry and remembered what a gift it is, nothing short of a modern miracle really, that a machine will wash our clothes while we sleep. I curled up next to my husband on the couch and we commiserated how full we were. I moaned as I stood up and complained how hard it felt to move. “That’s what happens when you’re 33” he joked. He can only say that because for 9 months he will tease me that I am older than him. I got out my coffee thermos for the morning and filled up my pink water bottle and snuck back upstairs to read through Facebook birthday messages and write a bit before bed.

I think my favorite kinds of birthdays are ordinary days sprinkled with thoughtful gifts and affirming words and this birthday started and ended with both. I spent my first 27 birthdays in California and I wouldn’t be surprised if I spend my next 27 here in Guatemala.


13th October
written by Michelle


I realize I am making an erroneous leap, assuming that all cross-cultural workers are working with people in poverty. I know that is not the case. There are cross-cultural conversations happening all the time across board rooms and school rooms that involve people from two different cultures, but similar level of socioeconomic status (SES). However, there are a large proportion of cross-cultural workers who are partnering with people in poverty. And it is for them that I address this question.

How do you define poverty?

Because I am going to suggest that how we define poverty deeply affects how we seek to alleviate it.

Most people from the US automatically define poverty in terms of a lack of material things. Be it water, health insurance, a home or a job. Most North Americans, especially those who have not spent much time with people who live in poverty, think the lack of these material things is what constitutes poverty. And it’s true in part. There are real hardships when you don’t have access to basic material things. However, when the World Bank* asked 60,000 people living around the world in poverty to describe “what is poverty?” 90% of the time they described an emotional or physiological feeling, not a lack of material things. What people mentioned was lacking dignity and not having enough opportunities. They said poverty was feeling like your voice didn’t matter, or worse, that they didn’t matter. People mentioned having the desire to be seen and to be listened to. They talked about feeling shame and embarrassment.

Our staff and organization has spent a lot of time reading and discussing,  When Helping Hurts.  If you’re looking for just one resource to challenge the way you or your non-profit board or church thinks about poverty I can’t recommend it enough. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert weave their unique experiences of local and international work in cross-cultural settings and their background in economic development together. The Chalmers Center has done extensive reasearch and training in helping cross-cultural workers better understand how to alleviate poverty.

One of the things that I have loved is how they expand the definition to include 4 different types of poverty:

  1. Poverty of Being - a broken relationships with Self. I call it Emotional Poverty and it can be from having a low self-esteem, not valuing yourself or on the other end thinking too highly of yourself, having what the authors call a “savior complex.”
  2. Poverty of Community- a broken relations with Others. I think of it as Relational Poverty. What relationships are broken in your life, either in your neighborhood or across the globe? Abuse and exploitation of others fits into this relational poverty both from a micro standpoint, like in a family system and a more macro standpoint, like from a systemic or societal cause.
  3. Poverty of Stewardship- a broken relationship with nature or creation. I think of this has Environmental Poverty. It is not just poorly caring of our earth and environment, although that is part of it. But it is also the poverty of not being able to work or to have a sense of purpose.
  4. Poverty of Spiritual Intimacy- a broken relationship with God. I think of this has Spiritual Poverty. It comes from the idea that all people are spiritual beings and when we live disconnected, un-purposeful lives or place our self-worth in what we have we become broken from God and our spiritual selves.

Now they obviously see poverty and the world through a Christian lens, but even if you don’t identify as a Christian, I think you can still use these descriptions to help understand the different types of poverty in your life or community.

So you see, when we talk about the materially poor in our world we are not just talking about people who don’t have access to food and basic water and sanitation. That would be too one-demensional. We are talking about people, complex, three-dementias, whole people.

When we talk about poverty we are talking about people who yes, often lack materially things, but also lack the purpose and meaning that comes from having  job and an economic system that provides security and safety. These are people who often lack trust in relationships or have lost people close to them and with that comes certain kind of poverty. There are people who suffer environmental poverty because corrupt governments have contained their rivers and land and they have no option for clean drinking water.

I am not saying all poverty is created equal. Or that the relational poverty you feel when you and your neighbor can’t agree is the same kind of poverty a woman in Ethiopia feels when she has to choose between buying medicine for her baby or food to feed her family. By gosh, no.

But what I am saying is that before we try to help the materially poor, we have to fist identify and acknowledge what is our own poverty?

More on that tomorrow.

For previous questions in the 31 Questions for Cross-Cultural Workers Series click here.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about poverty and development, but don’t have time to read a book, you can watch this 15-min video from the Chalmers Webpage which has some great resources.

*World Bank fact came from the afore-mentioned video 

12th October
written by Michelle



The first time I heard about person first language was when I was doing my training to be a special education teacher. We talked about the value of seeing the person before the disability. Instead of saying “an autistic student” we learned to say “a student with autism.” When leading IEP meetings or talking to other teachers we intentionally changed our language. “I have three special education students in my class” was reframed to “I have three students with special needs in my class.”

Some may say, it’s just a matter of semantics. But I believe our semantics directly affect the way we view other people and ourselves. There is something significant and powerful when we choose to see a person first. The words that we use, subtle as they may be, often affect how we feel and think about someone or something. Person first language for the most part has been focussed in the area of special education and disability awareness, but I believe it also is pertinent to people who work, serve or volunteer or simply live cross-culturally.

I have a friend, Jeff, who has been working in Santa Barbara for the last 10 years as an advocate for friends without homes.  Did you notice that? Jeff never says that he works with “the homeless” or has a “homeless ministry?” No, he chooses to honor and acknowledge the people he works with. He calls them friends first. He speaks in front of city councils, churches and non-profit boards to share and brainstorm about community-wide initiatives to help men, women and children without homes. It becomes much more personal when you’re talking about people, about friends and not “the homeless.” He knows that how we talk about someone directly affects how we view them.

This is not just about word choice, but also about power. 

Most, and I say most because I know it by no means includes everyone, but most people who are working cross-culturally are people who have some degree of power and privilege. And with that often comes a “savior complex” that is complicated by pity, good intentions and misunderstanding. I know because I fall into this group. I live it and wrestle with it every day.

And can I tell you what has been one of the best places for me to start? It’s been by paying attention to how I talk about the people I work with and live near.

Ask yourself, how do you talk about the people you work with? Or serve? Or teach? Or write policies for? How do you talk about the people or projects you are raising money for? 

What if instead of saying “poor people” or “poor families,” we said, “people who have limited economic resources” or “families without the means to buy basic necessities?”

What if instead of saying, “my church serves dinner to the homeless every Thanksgiving,” we said, “my church serves dinner to friends without homes every Thanksgiving.” 

What if we instead of saying, “I volunteer to help immigrants with their taxes,” we said, “I volunteer to help people who are new to this country fill out their tax forms.”

What if instead of saying “I work at an after school program for underprivileged  kids,” we said, “I work at an after school program for kids who have limited resources.”  

In the organization where I work we talk a lot about using person first language. Not a poor boy or poor community, but a little boy living in poverty or a community with limited economic resources. This is not to say that real poverty doesn’t exist, the poverty is often very real. But so is the person. And choosing to acknowledge a person gives them dignity, respect and love. Things that all people want, especially people who are living in poverty.

Somehow I have the feeling God does the same us. He sees us first as people, as his children. He doesn’t define us by whatever emotional, spiritual, or physical poverty we carry around in our lives. He defines us first as people. And we should do the same with others.

Let’s start using person first language.

Click back here to see Question #2 tomorrow and the rest of the 31 Questions Worth Asking for Cross-Cultural Workers.

1st October
written by Michelle

IMG_8974.JPGFor the month of October I am joining thousands of others writers and bloggers and committing to write for 31 days. I haven’t written consistently for years. I compose drafts in my head and never write them. I start posts, only to save them for later, where they accumulate in my draft box like a stack of old photos. I am well aware that some seasons of the writing life are for soaking up, gathering ideas and paying attention. But sometimes there is wisdom in just starting, in putting words on the page, fingers to the keys and practicing the discipline of showing up every day and just doing it.

If you’re new here you may not yet know how much I like questions. I like questions that challenge me, like when Andy Stanley asked, “What does Love Require of me?.” I ask a lot questions about raising a bicultural and bilingual daughter like, “Will she feel more Guatemalan? or American?” I’ve written about what I learned in my 20’s and that being able to ask good questions and listen to how someone responds are of equally importance.

For the next31 days I am going to write 31 questions that I think all cross-cultures workers should ask themselves and those they work with. If you’re reading this and thinking, what on earth is a “cross-cultural worker?” I would say it is anyone who specifically devotes part of their life working with a group of people or culture different from the one they most closely identify with. That encompass expats, missionaries, non-profit leaders who live internationally, and locally. But I would also like to extend the definition to include educators, pastors, nurses, administrators, business owners and really anyone who has consistent interaction with people from a culture different from their own. Be it at the gym, in the classroom, around the board room, or in the living room. For me, the majority of my cross-cultural learning has taken place in Guatemala. And as a result, the majority of my writing will stem from my experience as a cross-cultural worker here, but I will also draw on experiences and questions from being a teacher, a wife and mom.

My hope is that the questions I will ask and discuss will apply across generational, socioeconomic and ethnic lines. My hope is that teachers, working with students from a minority (or majority) culture can also relate. And that youth pastors working with teenagers who are almost an entirely different culture altogether will also be able to relate. I hope that parents trying to connect to their kids, will be able to relate. I even think many of the questions also apply to marriages, because even when both spouses come from the same “culture” we all know that people have very unique family cultures.

Questions have the potential to help us get to know someone else better by first helping us know ourselves.

So, join me for the next 31 days to find out what are the 31 questions worth asking.

You can check back to this page and I will list the questions by day. Or you can sign-up on my blog under the “email option” in the righthand column so you get an email delivered to your inbox with each new post.

Look forward to writing and discussing this with all of you.

Here’s to 31 days,



Check back here for links to each day:

Day 1: Do you use person first language? 

Dat 2: How do you define poverty?

Day 3: