Practical tips for welcoming newcomers

Individuals with experience living and working cross-culturally share advice on effectively building relationships

Photo: Getty Images

Story after story in the Bible demonstrates that hospitality is central to the character of God and that God expects us to follow his example. But connecting with people from other cultures who move into our neighborhoods can take us out of our comfort zone and be intimidating and challenging. The CL asked a panel of individuals with experience living and working cross-culturally for their advice on effectively building relationships.

Joanna Chapa: serves with Multiply in Peru.

Eat together. There’s an intimate invitation to a relationship that happens when we share food with others, especially if it’s representative of their culture and family. Jesus ate with a variety of people and so I like to think that sharing the table with people that are different from me means I’m representing Jesus’ way of effectively connecting with others that have a different background and story.

Listen.  We find great value in life when we feel valued by someone listening to our life stories. And so, I have learned that one solid way to form relationships with anyone, and especially someone from a different culture, is by asking them to share their life story with me and I share mine with them. When we value people’s stories, relationships take on a deeper sense of being seen, heard and loved.

Invite. When I have been a stranger or newcomer, I felt like I belonged and welcomed when people invited me to their family meals, gatherings, celebrations, funerals and even day-to-day activities. There is power in invitations.

Darren Duerksen: associate professor at Fresno Pacific University and the Intercultural and Religious Studies program director.

Show an interest in them, their families, school and even religion. Ask about what they did on the weekend and follow-up references to a gathering or activity. As the relationship grows, show an interest in going with them to events or gatherings where you’d be welcome. Once I’ve been able to experience with them something unique to their family, culture, etc., I find that the relationship goes to a new level.

I’ve also learned to put myself in places, groups, organizations, etc., where I’ll rub shoulders with and get to know people of various cultures. In these places we can get to know each other as we work on common goals or interests. The relationship then grows more naturally.

At first, I like to emphasize all the things we have in common. This is a good starting place. But as the other person becomes more trusting of me, we can start to explore and acknowledge how much we don’t have in common. These are now no longer things that separate us, but that we can discuss openly and learn about each other.

For example, a good Muslim friend and I have a lot in common and work in some similar areas, but we also have big cultural and religious differences. We now can talk about these differences.  I can ask about his views of Jesus, for example, and hear him and disagree with him and share my own views without it becoming an issue that divides us.

Doug Hiebert: provides leadership to the Multiply sub-Saharan Africa team leader and works with Mennonite Brethren Congolese living in the U.S.

When it comes to forming cross-cultural relationships, I find it important to embrace three things:

Childlikeness.  I’ve found it so important to embrace the fact that, in a foreign place with a foreign culture, it is ok to not have the answers. A posture of humility that asks lots of questions is important. Particularly when there is power or economic disparity, asking questions is empowering to the other and appropriately humbling for the foreigner.

Being. Having time for people, to simply be together, is key. We come from a culture of doing, yet we’re called human beings and we’re called to be with one another.

Open ended questions. This relates to the first two points. For the sake of expediency and, perhaps, a felt need to know things, we Westerners tend to ask close-ended questions. We often answer the question we are asking, asking “You have 50 people in your church?” as opposed to “How many people are in your church?”

Mary K. Humber: ESL Instructor at New America College, Aurora, Colorado since 2016.

As an ESL teacher, I work with students everyday who wish they could connect with English speakers. They just don’t know how to do it and most feel their language is inadequate to initiate such conversations. Most have never spent time with an English-speaking person or family—ever. They just haven’t been invited into relationship! And they think that Americans are simply “too busy” to want to spend time with a foreigner.

I believe forming relationships with individuals from different cultures is as simple as asking them out for coffee (your treat!) or inviting them to walk or picnic in the park. My suggestions for effective ways to connect with someone from another culture are:

  • Initiate something inexpensive and public & offer to pay! (Suggest getting coffee, a walk in a park, going to a playground with kids, attending a local outdoor sporting event or bowling.)
  • Be prepared with open questions to ask them
  • Don’t jump into “conversion” conversations immediately. It shouldn’t have to be said, but it does: care more about the person than about an objective.
  • After you know each other better, then you can invite them to your home or to a longer outing.
  • As in any mentoring or discovery relationship, you can invite them to join you in anything you are doing—washing the car, gardening, hiking, watching kids’ ball games, going to the pool, etc.
Mary K Humber’s students, who come from 11 different countries, were excited to share their suggestions, says Humber. Their advice:  
  • Above all, please initiate! We won’t ask you; we’re too afraid. If we are hesitant, invite us to bring a friend and meet in a very public and safe place. We know America often isn’t safe, so if we’ve listened to others’ advice, we will be wary.
  • Take an interest in us. Get us talking about ourselves and our home culture. Ask us where we are from, how long we have been in the U.S., what our experience has been like so far, what we could teach you about our culture, what the biggest difference is so far between our culture and yours.
  • Be curious and ask questions. We may not have words for asking you questions.
  • Be ready to hear that we haven’t felt warmly received. Be open to seeing your own culture through our eyes. It may be eye-opening! Don’t be defensive! Do not invalidate our experience. Accept what we are telling you as true—and be someone who is different!
  • Set time limits and keep meetings to 30 minutes or an hour. It is exhausting to speak in a foreign language for any length of time. Thinking in one language and trying to find words in another is frustrating, draining and often time-consuming.
  • We are self-conscious about our ability to speak your language. Make us feel comfortable. Be patient as we form answers.
  • Speak slowly. Separate your words. Try not to blend your words too much. (“Do you wanna grab a bite” does not sound like “Do you want to go get something to eat with me?”) If possible, avoid metaphors. similes or strong slang—at least not initially. It’s confusing to us, and you probably don’t even realize you’re doing it!
Karen Janzen and her husband, David, mentored college students while David was faculty advisor for California Polytechnic State University’s Asian American Christian Fellowship and Chinese Christian Fellowship and traveled throughout Asia while he served as a visiting lecturer. The Janzens live in Hillsboro, Kansas, where David is president of Tabor College.  

Offer lots of smiles and reach out in greeting and conversation. Attempt to speak their language (especially when you’re in their country) and eat their food with appreciation and without criticism. Ask questions about their culture and traditions in order to learn, understand and appreciate them. When traveling in another country, be aware of the cultural differences and be quick to adjust and defer to the other culture.

It’s so important to remember that my culture is just that; it’s my culture. It’s not right, it’s not best, it’s just familiar and it’s mine. If I want to show love and care to someone from another culture, I need to remember that their culture is theirs. It’s not wrong, it’s not less, and by enjoying the differences I can better love the person.

If you want to develop a friendship with someone from another culture, invite them to your home. A young faculty family arrived from Bangladesh during COVID-19, so we invited them to our home for a meal outside on our front lawn. We asked about food preferences, especially meats, to avoid an awkward situation. They were so gracious throughout the meal, including agreeing to let us pray before we ate. We asked them about their faith and religious practices as well as their traditions and things that they missed from Bangladesh. The atmosphere was light and free and yet the conversation was meaningful and deep.

About a year later, they invited us to their home for a Bangladeshi meal. What a delight! We ate with our hands and savored every bite. Their baby girl was walking, and her parents were thrilled that we sat on the floor to play with her. Late in the evening they offered us homemade chai. Neither of us handle caffeine well after noon, but we wanted to join in their tradition. So, we drank the most amazing chai we’ve ever tasted. And we slept beautifully.

Craig Jost: director of the Tabor College Carson Center for Global Engagement who has served with Multiply in Brazil, Portugal and France.

As Christians, we know that love is the most important element in approaching anyone. But many of us have tried to love someone and found things had gone terribly wrong, our loving action was taken the wrong way or caused conflict. Although love is the first necessary condition to connect with people of other cultures effectively, we must make sure that our acts of love are transmitted in a way that they can be received.

There are some postures that help love to be received. The first is humility and the second is authentic interest. Humility breaks down barriers. It says that you don’t see your culture as intrinsically better than another person’s culture, but different. Typically, we Americans are often seen as proud, self-assured and self-centered by many other cultures. This is a serious obstacle to any attempt to connect with another culture. Humility, when expressed authentically, projects to others that they are valued for who and what they are regardless of cultural differences.

Authentic interest in the other person and their culture builds on the base of humility. When we are authentically humble we can ask questions, probe for deeper understandings and how others think and feel. People who feel valued, understood and not judged for the differences of their cultures are more open to the invitation to relate to their needs, and desires and hopefully develop a friendship.

It is hard to measure the richness, stories, life lessons, depths of unique personalities and perspicacity of my cross-cultural relationships. In my first mission posting, I thought God was sending me to Brazil to be God’s hands and feet to the Brazilians.It really was the opposite. God sent me to Brazil because I need to learn something about God from them. My worldview totally shifted.

As we pray for a God-shaped love for this person, we must also put aside, as much as we can, our cultural biases and prejudice. In a world that demands one’s “rights” be met, the cross of Christ teaches us that we must take on the same attitude as our Lord, and lay down our “rights.” It is hard to let go of our right to be “heard” or “understood”, to have the last word, to be respected or our particular way of doing things. But with the humility of the cross, authentic interest and an overarching love for the person God has placed before us, friendship can happen or at least understanding can be achieved.

I have experienced both sides of this as an ex-pat. I have been scowled at, cursed and treated with disdain. But in the vast majority of cases, these bad reactions were due to my ignorance of the cultural norms I had unwittingly violated. I simply didn’t know. I was fortunate that in most of the places I have lived as a foreigner, God gave me a “cultural interpreter” who could help me through the minefield of cross-cultural communications. This was the best of welcomes. It enabled me to learn and begin to create relationships, diffuse negativity and be a better communicator

Nasser al’Qahtani: Multiply regional team leader for North Africa and the Middle East. He and his wife, Daisy, are based in Kansas.

As someone who arrived in the U.S. as a teenager and struggled to understand/connect with local people in the Midwest, here’s my advice:

Be genuine.  People can tell when someone is reaching out or befriending them with an agenda. Even when there are physical and other needs present in a situation, it’s important to treat others as people and not projects. Meet them and love them where they are and how they are.  Sincere love can cover a multitude of cultural missteps.

Be humble.  Relocating, even temporarily, to a new country and culture is overwhelming. In addition to possibly navigating a new language, newcomers often have to relearn all the basic life skills. The simple things like enrolling their kids in school, finding a family doctor, furnishing a home or even just how to shop for groceries are daunting tasks without locals to help.  All of this can feel humiliating, so show empathy by posturing yourself as their servant in this process.

Be curious. Every person has a story, so take the time to get to know the person you’re building a relationship with. Ask thoughtful questions that reveal who they are and how they see the world. If they come from a different religious background, genuinely seek to understand their spiritual worldview and how that impacts their daily life. Placing yourself as a learner and your newcomer friend as your teacher is a practical way to honor them and build trust in the relationship.

Charity Stahl: worked with international students, refugees and immigrants in Omaha, Nebraska, where she currently lives. She has also lived in Turkey and Jordan. Her home church is Bethel Church, the USMB congregation in Yale South Dakota.

One great way to deepen a relationship and show that you really care about your refugee or immigrant friend is to celebrate with them. A favorite memory for my sister, Jennifer, and I was throwing a birthday party for a Moroccan international student. We invited other students from her class to our home, grilled food and ate outdoors. After everyone had left, she sat with us in the living room and cried tears of happiness. No one had ever celebrated her birthday before.

Another time, we asked the women at church to help us throw a baby shower for a first-time mom who had recently come from India. Even though they did not know her well, we had a good turnout and a very meaningful time together with women of many ages. Sometimes the way we celebrate life events in the U.S. is different from other cultures. However, our new friends will always feel loved when we celebrate with them. We can also share our traditions in this way.

One piece of advice is to consider how time is viewed differently. Perhaps you have new neighbors who are recently arrived refugees. You attempt to meet them by taking some fresh fruit to their door. They will likely invite you in. Your schedule for the day is packed and so you say that you’ll come again another time. They say something like, “Come anytime! We are waiting for you.” They really mean what they are saying. You can stop by anytime and you don’t need to have planned it in advance. (I advise afternoon or evening times.) We Westerners are so schedule-oriented that this concept is very difficult for us.

I encourage you to try spontaneity in your relationships with cross-cultural friends. You don’t always need to plan everything in advance. Maybe you are headed out the door for an evening walk. Knock on your neighbor’s door and ask them to come along. You will probably find yourself having a lovely cup of coffee or tea together after the walk.

One thing I have really enjoyed about living in the Middle East, is how welcoming and spontaneous the people are. Patience is a key quality we need when befriending people cross-culturally. Time is fluid in many other cultures. Your friends may arrive an hour late to your invitation. This will be extremely frustrating unless you prepare your mind that your guests may not have the same view of time as you do. In fact, they may be late because a relative stopped by and they cannot refrain from extending hospitality, even if they have another plan. You will consider them late and inconsiderate, but they are actually showing the value of relationships in being late for a good reason. Ask God to give you more patience.

I highly recommend the book Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier. It is a basic and quick read. When I worked with host families of international students, I always recommended this book. It should be required reading for anyone wishing to reach out cross-culturally. It includes insights about many different cultures.


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