The Power of Culture

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In my wanderings over these last days, I met Francisco, a professor at a university here in Guinea-Bissau. In the middle of his speeches, he always likes to emphasize that he had a very good career and a very promising future in the U.S., but that he, unfortunately, had to leave that behind to return to Guinea-Bissau.

Curious to know why? Yeah, me too.

As we talked, I tried to learn why he spoke so sadly about how he wasn’t supposed to be here.

Francisco earned a degree in biochemistry in Portugal, completed a master’s degree in the U.S. and was now trying to finish his doctorate with an American school. An academically capable man and extremely intelligent, he and his colleagues discovered seven medicinal properties in a plant native to Bissau while conducting research.

However, one day he received a call from his uncle, saying it was time for him to return and take his place as head of the rituals for his ethnicity—Mandinga. He was unhappy with that request and refused, stating his very promising career in the U.S. But his uncle insisted, saying that Francisco’s place was in Guinea-Bissau, performing rituals for his family.

He didn’t pay much attention to his uncle’s request and continued to apply for a doctorate in the States. But he didn’t expect what happened next. He didn’t pass the entrance exams even though he was confident that he would. Not satisfied, he tried again in Portugal. He passed; however, the funding already secured for these studies did not come, and he was turned down. In addition, he lost his job, had to leave his rental house, and was left without resources. Everything started to go wrong in his life.

A few days later, he received another call from his uncle, who said he knew everything going on in Francisco’s life and that the next thing that would happen if he didn’t return and take his place at the head of the rituals was the death of a family member. In animistic belief, spirits exact a high price from those who dare to break spiritual bonds.

Out of fear, he returned to lead the many rituals practiced by that ethnic group—animal sacrifice at funerals, circumcision of children, rituals for a family member to gain a high position in politics and so forth.

I was impressed by his story because it came from a very cultured man with years of experience outside of the context of animism. But animism is firmly rooted within the people. Within that world, the devil frightens and imprisons people to such an extent that there seems to be no way out of to practice rituals in order to be left in peace.

We know there is a way out—Jesus—and Francisco needs to know Him. The Bible says that “the people that were in darkness saw great Light; and to them that were held in the region and shadow of death, Light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16). Our job as missionaries is to show that Light to as many people as possible.

I pray to write again and tell you that Francisco and many others were able to see that Light. Pray. Pray a lot for the missionaries because the road is long, and the challenges are enormous. We are strengthened by knowing that at the end of that road is a God who loves us.

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