Inter-cultural community- the reality!

Inter-cultural community- the reality!

Sr. Christine Burke, IBVM


Christine Burke is an IBVM (Loreto) sister who entered religious life in the exciting years of Vatican II. Her ministry has been mainly in adult faith education and tertiary theological education, followed by some time in leadership of the province of Australia, Vietnam and Timor Leste.The last four years she has lived in Manila, in community with young sisters from China, Korea and USA, who are studying theology. She is also involved in some teaching and facilitation work for novices and other congregations.

Sr. Christine presented this conference to the Council of Delegates of UISG in Manila, Philippines(5-11 November 2017).

Original in English


This reflection on intercultural community is based on a growing conviction: learning to live this way is necessary for ministry into the future. Migration - crossing borders - is the key issue of our time. Sociologically, a staggering 1/113 people is estimated to be displaced by violence or climate related crises. This movement of peoples affects every nation- as place of origin, as holding centre or as destination. To understand its impact, we need to have some experience of the dislocation and richness it involves.Theologically, as Fr Peter Phan so eloquently argues, the church is by nature migratory and must be a sign of God’s love in this reality. Experiencing the demands of inter-cultural community is one way we can be prophetic, and a means to becoming effective ministers in this world of dislocation.

Culture is all about what is familiar and what is accepted. We know that culture is like an iceberg- we easily notice some things, but under the surface, away from our awareness, lurk much deeper differences of perception. Some differences are obvious- like languages, foods, and dress. Others are hidden but deeply influential: assumptions about marriage, about status, about health, about independence, about rituals.. the list could go on.”

My experience of inter-cultural community is current and rather belated-I came to the Philippines four years ago. I, an Australian, live in a house of Studies with six Korean sisters, two Chinese and, just a few months ago, joined by one from the United States, seven of them are studying theology at three different institutions, and one has begun a small after-school centre. I am also closely associated with our novitiate, a twenty-five minute walk away, where there are seven IBVM women- four Vietnamese, two Bangladeshi, one Filipina-Canadian together with two directors- one from Australia, assisted by one from India. The Korean and Chinese sisters have arrived with almost no spoken English and have done intensive courses before beginning their theological study. The novices are required to reach a reasonable standard of spoken English before joining the Novitiate. Neither of these two communities of intercultural living was specifically planned- they have grown from perceived needs and possibilities, and are characterised by goodwill and creative adaptation rather than any process involving vision, goals and strategic steps!!

Since this talk is on the reality I decided to be guided in this first part of the talk by comments from these two communities of considerably younger women, on what has been hardest, what has been good, what they have learned and what they think would help! In the second part I would like to draw on some wisdom from the global business world, which has funded research at Harvard and other places in response to experiences of sending competent high-level management to work in other cultures- often with quite disastrous results. Their findings can be helpful to leaders of religious congregations in raising awareness of the complexities, and suggesting formation that is needed so that each community does not have to repeat mistakes. This research ties into a second project I am involved in, with a team of sisters, one each from Spain, India, North America and Kenya on a project considering the reasons, strengths, drawbacks and challenges of establishing a policy of Inter-province novitiates across our Institute – cross cultural issues figure prominently in those conversations.

Background to this talk: The lived reality

There are many scales which plot differences between cultures, but I am reasonably sure that if one compared respect for tradition, deference to age and status, diligence, fear of making mistakes Koreans and Australians would be on two different ends of each spectrum! In all this, personalities, not just cultures, come into play, but patterns emerge. One senior Korean sister and I have been the anchors of our shared community. We share a 400 year history since our founder Mary Ward began her struggle to have the Church recognise women as apostolic agents; we share an Ignatian spirituality and Constitutions, and of course our deep grounding in a fascination with and passion for the life and mission of Jesus. However, we are from separate congregations: Congregation of Jesus and Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto) – a history too long to go into here. We both came from leadership roles in our respective provinces, but we have very different experiences of day to day religious life.

As she and I shopped together, comparing the advantages of various fridges and ovens, you could see staff wondering how a habited sister and one in slacks were from the same house! Watching football matches on TV might be normal for Australians, however my running commentary prompts great amusement from younger sisters. It is clear such non-productive pastimes are not normal in Korean convents! Patience, tolerance, seeking to understand and a sense of humour are skills we need daily. We have managed not only to stay friends through three moves in four years (the local bishop cannot understand this, but then, he does not live in rented accommodation!) but to enjoy each other’s company and co-share leading the community. She is expert in organizing and practical matters, I take more of a lead widening our theological and political horizons. We both have areas of expertise sought out by our younger members. Our house is a centre of hospitality for sisters from both congregations attending EAPI or other shorter courses. We are lucky that both of us have years of community living behind us and have learnt to reflect on our assumptions and probably have less need to prove ourselves: we know “the difference between trifles and matters of importance”, a gift Mary Ward prayed for her followers. I strongly believe that older members can provide a helpful balance, though I also know it is a function of personality not just age! Seeing older sisters who do not need to be treated differently because they once held leadership roles helps undermine unhelpful notions of privilege and power.

Actually our situation is a good one for this gathering, as it exemplifies not only national cultural differences, but also differences in religious life cultures. Many changes, not just dress but more importantly the move from institutional living, the recognition that unity is not grounded in uniformity, the impact of the universal call to holiness on the privileged status of religious, all these and more flowed from Vatican II- but have often been feared as “western” rather than evaluated in the light of our gospel call. I have come to realise that Native English speakers, (or native German, Spanish or French speakers), have been resourced by so many books and articles over these fifty years. For Korean, Chinese, Myanmarese or even Filipinas, reading in another language is not attractive. Of course there is a body of religious literature in local languages, but predominantly it is written by priests, not women, and often is devotional not critical in nature. For many younger people, reading itself is not the way they gain insight- films and facebook are preferred! - so some religious congregations in Asian countries have had little opportunity to engage with theological reasons for change. Tradition has greater strength in cultures shaped by Confucian and also perhaps Buddhist heritage:status is important, and community has a stronger hold compared to rights of the individual. These can strengthen unity but also, if uncritiqued, can hinder the Gospel call to go beyond the known and the comfortable, as can individualism as distinct from respect for individuality.Feminism, not to mention feminist theology, has not necessarily been heard of or critiqued in the light of some local cultures, and local varieties of patriarchy are alive and well. On the other side, I have had to step back from automatic judgements, to reflect on the impact of convict origins on Australian lack of respect for titles, to question taken-for-granted Australian standards of living and to realise that what seemed called for by Vatican II and gospel priorities in my youth in a secular country might not necessarily be best at this time in other cultures.

Section 1: The results of my mini-questionnaire

What has been difficult? “communicating across different expectations and being misunderstood….”

The pain of misunderstanding/being misunderstood was in every reply I received. Communication is experienced as most difficult-but then that is true in mono-cultural communities also!! The helplessness of wanting to say something but not finding words is felt deeply, especially for people who are used to being competent in their professional field. Being misunderstood- and misunderstanding others -is irritating for some, for others it is a source of shame or hurt. It can make ordinary conversation a mine-field: it may stop me saying what I really want to share.” “Some good gestures in this culture may be taboos in another culture, so they maybe hurt each other without words if someone does not realise this.” When sharing a deeper reflection on the gospel and life, it matters that what you are trying to say has been heard in its complexity. In a community with a number from one nationality, conversations in their own language can make the others feel less valued or on the outer edge. If older community members come from the dominant Western culture, this can give them significant standing within the group, and make them the point of reference. This can be an issue in initial formation time especially. “Accommodating different food needs can be complex!”


what I think

what I want to say

what I think I am saying

what I say

what you want to hear

what you hear

what you think you understand

what you want to understand

and what you understand

there are at least 9 chances

that we will not understand each other


One area that complicates deeper communication is the background of sisters. Western culture continues its colonization of Asia, India and Africa via the web- witness the value placed on ‘whitening’ in every cosmetic product here in the Philippines! This is where communication goes deeper than language. Assumptions differ about health, food, cleanliness, status, body language, decision-making. In many Asian cultures, it is not done to question or disagree with an elder- that’s greatly to my advantage as the definite senior, but it does not lead to robust discussion!! On the other hand, what I understand to be “Yes”, probably at best means “maybe”, could mean ‘I don’t understand’, or “this is what you want to hear!”Some from countries with oppressive governments have learned to avoid sharing anything with authorities. Building trust and openness between superiors and such members requires time and care. In some communities, sisters come from countries where recent wars and violence have broken down traditional trust networks; others from villages where the horizon is very limited; and perhaps from situations where parenting has been seriously disrupted. The increased emphasis on psycho-spiritual development in formation years allows them to come to terms to some degree. But we need community leaders and formators skilled in listening and in helping integrate the pain of new growth, so I think this means we need sisters at all levels being formed in cross cultural awareness, with deliberate help to unpack the complexities of this life. It is part of our prophetic gift in the church and world.

What has been good? Each respondent commented on widening horizons- about other cultures, about themselves, about our world and ways of doing things. One said “little by little to open ourselves, to embrace different thoughts, experiences”. “My life has become rich, my experiences are rich, my sight is open”. Another said she had learned about the bigger sense of what it is to be human, realising the smaller section of culture within that whole. “It’s not right or wrong, it’s different!” “Despite of cultural shocks from the beginning, the more various the cultures people are exposed to, the more perceptive people learn to be.”

“Learning to share with a listening heart.” One thing that has helped us grow together in the House of studies community is a regular sharing on the Gospel and our lives. In two smaller groups, we meet, reflect and share for about one hour. All are serious students, so this is a significant commitment of time, and each one has commented on how important it is in building community, in deepening understanding of each other. In the novitiate they set aside important time to talk about backgrounds, family, and culture, as well as sharing in depth on issues raised in courses they attend.

“Enjoying different foods!!” High on the list of good things is sharing different foods! Taking turns to cook gives an opportunity for service to each other, makes for feeling ‘at home’, and requires thoughtfulness about others special needs. But food can also be difficult for those who are accustomed to a limited range. I think “food’ brings home closer and provides an opportunity to talk about family traditions. Coming from a very multi-cultural family and country, with little that is “traditional” except maybe, Christmas food, this need for “home food” has been a bit surprising to me - luckily, I like KimChi!I have learnt about celebrations that matter to others: Lunar New Year, lunar birthdays, and Autumn or new moon celebrations.

What have we learned? Two things emerged: a deeper awareness of themselves, as they step back from a sense that “our way is best”, and an awareness that listening is the key- much more than talking!“Listening is so important”.“Not to put my culture first”, “not to hold the “high ground” for my culture”. “Not to measure the worth of cultures one against another but to look for the deeper level. Respect for diverse cultures and thinking”. “To think more widely than what is happening in my own country.” “I have learned more about my culture…. The more I deepen my understanding of my culture the more I know who I am. The more I know who I am, the more I am free with others. Therefore, I am able to understand the culture’s effect on me or my personality.”

What has or would help? Knowing a bit more about culture itself early on, and having more opportunities to ask about how others see and do things. Being helped to reflect on how body language and facial expression can help or hinder. “Hearing each others’ stories and discovering our own!” “Knowing and learning deeply your own culture as much as you can, when we know our culture well what is good, what is treasure and what is bad, we are able to identify who we are and we will not get lost in other cultures.“Clear guidelines, drawn up by the group, to prevent a dominant culture even unwittingly controlling the others. Our common spiritual roots have helped enormously.

These results seem obvious. But to listen to what younger women are gaining in these encounters is important. What they are naming are the basic skills for creating and sustaining creative community living rather than passive rule following, and collaborative leadership rather than then belief that only one way is right. They have begun the journey towards finding the good in others and trusting that God can stretch them to new horizons. These are skills which will help them even in mono-cultural situations. I think there is hope in that in a short space of time they have moved considerably through the stages of adaptation: from thinking my way is right, to adjusting to others’ points of view, and finding a new identity for themselves in the broader dialogue and discovering that unity does not need uniformity!

Section 2: What we can learn from research

In this second part of my talk I can only refer briefly to recent research to assist cross- cultural awareness. Business has become aware and is retraining to meet the needs. Are we equally aware or do we just hope God will supply the necessary help? Some names that might help are Erin Meyer (Havard Business Review) Geert Hofstede (Holland) and Pellegrino Riccardi (Italian-English) Online and Youtubes! I have taken some images from the web, and others from a paper given at an ANZAATS conference. Throughout in this section I am using the work of others, but have lost the file with actual references!

There is so much in this area that summaries seem and are often superficial. Sociologists have unpicked the differences that lie under broad headings, and have placed diverse cultures on various possible points of a spectrum running between contrasting ways of responding to life. The main categories they use seem to be Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading, Leading, Deciding, Trusting, Disagreeing, Scheduling. The results show that someone from one culture that gives information clearly, might in fact find giving negative feedback harder than someone from a culture that seems less direct. In other words, differences are much more nuanced than the stereotypes we carry around. From individualistic to communal, from authoritarian to equal, from confronting to avoiding confrontations, from showing emotion to keeping it hidden - peoples and cultures have recognisable differences.

We are all probably aware of some differences between communally based cultures and individualistic cultures. Both have strengths and both have weaknesses. Creating a climate of respect for individual difference is not the same as fostering self-centredness and narcissism! The difficulty someone from a communally oriented culture has in speaking up, taking initiative or individually critiquing an article needs to be considered when they come into a more individualistic educational culture.In terms of moral decisions, if the deepest value is the relationship rather than the principle, telling a lie to protect your friend takes on a quite different meaning and will need skilful handling if a common way of operating is to be found. There are differences in power relationships and expectations, in the web of relationships within which transactions are arranged, and the role of binding contracts- all these are critical to keep talking out, or we judge from our own perspective and lose a common basis for community living. One leading expert recommends “be constantly curious!”

There are differences that surround status and importance. Titles matter so much in some cultures, along with recognition of rank and status and age. Yet for others from egalitarian cultures, it is hard not to interpret such practices as making oneself important. In more equal cultures, treating someone less formally is a sign of friendship, but formal cultures interpret it as rudeness. Long-term planning is second nature to some cultures and very flexible or undervalued (sometimes, I suspect, non-existent!) in others.

There are differences in showing emotion, differences in masculine and feminine roles, differences in handling uncertainty. This slide from an ANZAATS conference in 2011 is just one small example which many of us reading the differences can imagine how they can affect community life.

Many examples can be found on various websites, but the basic message is that stereotypes are blunt and almost always cover prejudice and judgements from a perspective that believes one’s own culture is superior.

In supportive communities, understanding can grow. In a world most in need of open arms and wide horizons, perhaps this is one of the most prophetic stands religious can take in our world. No longer is it the Institutions we run. It is who we are as we allow God to work through our struggles helping to make us women of freedom, justice and integrity, reaching out with a mind and heart open to learn, daring to believe the Gospel works through and challenges every culture. Intercultural community living is not learned once and for all: it will require a lifetime of work. Communities formed in monocultural eras will need help to understand and welcome a generation formed through intercultural experiences. A changed self-understanding and appreciation of cultures will shape how we minister. Fr Tony Pernia linked this living in uncertainty and openness to difference with the deepest message of our faith: the mystery of a God who chose to cross the boundary and enter into human culture. Grounded in our spirituality, needed by our world, constitutive of our church… intercultural living is a call facing us today.

  • Can we be vulnerable enough to learn from those younger than and different from us?
  • Can we be humble enough to let go of preconceived ideas and assumptions?
  • Can we risk unity based not on uniformity but on appreciation of difference?

This short guide captures a lot that could help us in this journey:

Respectful Communication Guidelines

R - Take RESPONSIBILITYfor what you say and feel without blaming others

E - EMPATHETIClistening

S – Be SENSITIVE to differences in communication styles

P - PONDER what you hear and feel before you speak.

E – EXAMINE your own assumptions and perceptions


T – TOLERATE ambiguity because we are NOT here to debate who is right or wrong.

(Eric H.F. Law: The Bush was Blazing but not Consumed p. 87)

And in the same way this short poem by an Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, speaks volumes:

From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.

The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.

But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plough

And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.


Reprinted by permission of International Union Superiors General - UISG Bulletin N 165, 2018 - Rome