Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Proverbs 4) transports me to a presentation I attended several years ago, by one of the world’s leading experts in community health, Dr. Adrien Ngudienkama. Dr. Ngudienkama is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Africa’s deadliest war throughout the nineties displaced him, along with over 3 million other Congolese. I was particularly interested in the way he connected various passions and areas of expertise – health, faith, and immigrant communities. What I remember most about his lecture is the way he laid out the reverse mentoring process that occurs in immigrant communities. Displaced families who find themselves in strange lands with strange customs and strange systems of health and education no longer can count on the elders of the community to pass on valuable wisdom regarding ways to engage the world. In these communities, such as the Congolese refugee communities that sprang up in cities like Washington, DC, the elders wind up being mentored by the young. New language acquisition is easiest for the young, so they teach the elders how to speak. The young go to doctor’s appointments with the elders, to translate and help them navigate the system. The young teach the elders how to prepare the new foods. What Dr. Ngudienkama was interested in was the effects this role reversal had on the culture. What does it do to a people when the elders no longer are revered for their wisdom, when they are no longer needed as guides, but need guidance themselves?
The book of Proverbs, a mentoring manual for passing on the wisdom of elders to the next generation, was not written to an immigrant culture. These words of advice are given in the context of a stable, traditional society, where the roles are understood, where the rites of passage are clearly marked, where the language is shared. It is a society where apprentices learn from masters of a trade, where sages pass down an established knowledge base from generation to generation. So, the basic gist of Proverbs, which could be sub-titled “Teach Your Children Well,” is set out in the beginning of today’s Passage: Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction. Pay attention, and gain understanding. I give you sound learning, so do not forsake my teaching. It’s an age-old social contract, where the energetic young listen, the revered elders instruct, and the world keeps turning. Until the axis shifts and the world spins in a new direction.
Dr. Adrien Ngudienkama left us with an interesting question at the end of his presentation. What if our society is changing so rapidly, in so many ways, that we are all, in essence, living as immigrants in a new world? What if we are all strangers in a strange land? Technological advances give us the clearest example of how our world is changing. A friend recently came to the U.S. from Cuba, to visit family and friends. The last time he came was nine years ago, and he said this recent visit was like entering an entirely different culture, the way technology had changed the way people interact. Do the young look to their elders for guidance on applying new technologies? But technology is not the only agent of change. Understandings of sexuality that were once marginalized have not only challenged the mainstream, but have found their way into the center of society. Do the young look to the elders for guidance on sexuality? Hip hop, which started out as an edgy, counter-culture voice, now defines and directs the culture, in both music and fashion. Do the young look to their elders to learn the language and form and rhythm of hip hop, or on how to wear a hoodie? In our rapidly changing economy, do the young look to the elders for guidance on how to succeed in the marketplace? It does feel, in so many ways, that we are living in an immigrant society. And until the world re-establishes itself and regains a measure of stability (if it ever does), the book of Proverbs might have a different sub-title: “Teach Your Parents Well,” and the introduction might read something like this: Listen, my elders, to your children’s instruction. Pay attention, and gain understanding. They give you sound learning, so do not forsake their teaching. If you hear something like this, take CSN’s advice: just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Google+, FB, Twitter, etc.