This spring we held our first (maybe) annual Youth Dialogues… or was it Youth Forum? (cue the beginning of many miscommunications with this event). It was definitely not what we expected, and also probably not what the Sahrawi expected, as evidenced by the fact that we basically had two different conferences going on at the same time. While our goals for and understanding of the event turned out to be different, the experience was a good one and we have a lot to reflect on going forward.
For the last 11 years, a partnership between our team and the Sahrawi has been hosting a Dialogues for Peace event – a rare get-together of Muslim and Christian scholars to discuss what our holy books say about the prophets or various other topics. It had been my dream for years to attend one, and you can read about my first experience there here. This spring, several people wanted to begin a second annual event, focused on the young adults. From what I heard of the American side, this was going to be an opportunity for young people to share personal experiences and how God has been with us through our struggles. I was excited for this opportunity to take the usual Dialogue topics to a personal level – to move from the theological discussions to heart-level sharing.
Somehow though, as it always does in the desert, miscommunication snuck in. The American talks and workshops were centered around finding God’s peace in the midst of personal struggle, and the Sahrawi talks and workshops were about their national struggle and various ways their people have risen above huge political, economic and environmental challenges. While I was at first disappointed by how neither of us fully understood the goals of the other, reflecting has allowed me to see how much individual vs. communal cultural values played into this. We were both talking about finding peace in the midst of struggle. Yet, because America is an individual-focused culture, our stories were about our personal lives. The Sahrawi are a community-focused culture, so it made total sense that their stories would be centered on their national narrative. While people from both sides expressed disappointment about the other side “not understanding the topic,” I think this experience affords an important opportunity to reflect on the difference between cultural emphases.
Regardless of the disjointed feel of the whole conference, we learned a lot of fascinating things and discussed a lot of important topics. My favorite times were going to our host families’ houses for lunch. The event occurred in a different camp – Bujdour – so we had lunches at one family’s house and slept over at another’s. I especially enjoyed the lunch times because I got to practice my Hassaniya with the mother and her daughters.
Our friends from Smara stayed with us for lunch and sleepovers, which turned out to be a huge blessing to our friendships. Normally, when we are at their houses or they are at ours, there are other responsibilities and distractions keeping us from being able to focus on the conversation and explore any topic that God leads us to. Here in Bujdour, none of us were at home, so we were able to focus on our relationships. God brought up a lot of really cool conversations in that condensed time with friends, and those conversations were probably my favorite part of the week!
I’m not sure what we’ll do for this event going forward, but I think both of our cultures continue to learn about the other and how we can communicate what is most important to us in a way that the other culture will appreciate. It’s tempting to be disappointed when expectations are not fulfilled, but I think God had other lessons to teach us with this conference and He continues to grow our understanding of our Sahrawi friends.