Crossing Cultures

Our family visiting Linda’s brother-in-law, sister, & mom

-John Hugh

Over the past two weeks, we took a cross-country road trip to visit Linda’s family in California.  We timed this trip to coincide with the start of the school year.  With our family transitioning as missionaries, and not yet being in Paris due to COVID-19 visa restrictions, we are starting this semester with homeschool and taking advantage of flexible schedules.  We knew this trip would be a good diversion & great memories for our kids as we adjust to our new reality.

The trip has not disappointed.  We made pit-stops at the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe.  They are all spectacular.  We’ve seen a part of the country we’ve never visited, the Southwest, even if only driving through.

Furthermore, the trip has given greater shape and acclimation to cross-cultural ministry, which we are committing ourselves in Paris.  How so?  First and foremost with Linda’s mom, who is Vietnamese, and secondly being in California with its confluence of Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and many nationalities from all over the world.

I love cross-cultural ministry.  It’s a primary reason I went to Harvard Divinity School, the place where Linda and I met, at that point on separate career paths unlikely to converge.  It’s another reason why I engaged and championed global ministries in Honduras, India, the UAE, and Italy.  And even farther back into my post-college years, it’s a big reason why I spend years as a student in France and Australia.

Over the years, I regret not spending significant time with Linda’s mom.  Even with my past experiences overseas, the cultural chasm of her mom’s life in Vietnam, her mom’s language skills, & her mom’s religion (Buddhism) seemed too stark and too difficult for me to bridge.  Yet, during a week of intentionally visiting and listening to her, I found I had been wrong.

I learned much about Vietnam:  its diverse landscape from mountains to beaches.  I heard her talk of her youth, meeting Linda’s father, her sorrow of becoming a widow too early when her husband, Linda’s father, passed away at age 60, and how the country of Vietnam has evolved into the burgeoning economy and tourist hub it is today.  I hope to visit soon.  I discovered more of Southeast Asia:  Singapore, Cambodia, and Indonesia.  I learned about China and its history with the Vietnamese.  I think she enjoyed telling me these things.  I enjoyed listening.

How would this connect with cross-cultural ministry?  Often in situations with people of different or diverse backgrounds, we can feel the chasm is too wide.  I know I have.  Even as a bridge-builder, I can feel at a loss on how to start to build a bridge.   The task can seem insurmountable with people holding a different worldview because of their faith or religious beliefs.

Regardless of the hurdles, I’ve always had a heart for evangelism.  For me, the starting point is a relationship.  Relationships begin with shared interests:  as family, as neighbors, as a community, and as a country.  All too often, we can segment ourselves with those we feel only have our shared interests:  our way of living, our way of speaking, and choices we feel are right.  Those who fit into our order of how we see the world.  I have fallen into this trap.  Our world seems rife with division.  It is birthed and cultivated as we dig our heels in and see others as un-relatable, unable to help our cause or career, obstacles to our worldview, or even threats to our sense of well-being.

One of my favorite verses is John 10:16, when Jesus says:  “There are other sheep not of this fold, I must go to them. They will hear my voice and be one flock with One Shepherd.”  Jesus went to such others – tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, Greeks, those who were not of his tribe, race, or ethnicity.  There early Church did too – from Antioch to Thessalonica, to Phillippi, Athens, Rome, and India.  They regularly faced diversity of thought, lifestyle, and worldview, and this did not stop their love for others.

In California, it showed me again and anew the opportunity for cross-cultural ministry.  Linda’s mom had neighbors of South Asian and Hispanic descent who regularly checked on her.   While in remarkable health, she still needs them.  We also met with people from France and Croatia.

It led me to think of our upcoming ministry in Paris and the international church where we will initially serve.  While visiting Paris earlier this year, our lunch after Sunday services was at a Chinese restaurant next door.  I sat at a table with a couple from Venezuela, a student from South Africa, and a young man from Brazil.  They are all part of a bigger vision than nationality, ethnicity, language, football teams, or tribal origins – they are part of a global church under one name.

We have much to learn, especially serving and planting an international church in Paris.  It inspires me for how I can grow personally, how our family can grow, and how any church can be. One doesn’t have to be in California or in Paris to find these moments.  Differences of people and opinion reside in our cities, schools, and neighborhoods.  Yet disagreement does not, nor should ever, mean hate.  And that other person, wherever they are from, doesn’t always mean an opposing side or another opportunity to prove you’re right.

People who don’t talk, look, or believe like you can mean another opportunity to listen, understand, befriend, help, and even minister to someone.  I’ve found this to be true.  I don’t always succeed in it.  I’m learning, with God’s help, to attempt this position more and more.  And I do believe all our states and all of our world needs more of it.



I am a bi-racial, bi-cultural third culture kid.  I grew up all over the world with a second generation Italian immigrant father and a very Vietnamese mother.  I understood I was different very early in life.   My skin color was different from my father and my mother, even my own siblings.  I couldn’t communicate well with my mother, and I missed cues from my Italian grandparents.   In college, living in US for the first time (I grew up as an American citizen living in Indonesia and the Netherlands), I navigated hot button issues of identity, ethnicity, immigration, and diversity – all with a heart to understand.

So many of us are trying to fit in.   We may be seeking safety and security in sameness, likeness, familiarity, commonality, and traditions.  Early on, I recognized my difference would never be a token symbol or place of victimization.   My difference is my strength.   With a worldview that is inherently multi-faceted, I can insert myself into others’ points of view and ever expand my heart & my capacity to see new horizons.

My greatest cross cultural challenge has been in marriage.   My foray into a deep unknown was waking up every day not only to a Protestant Caucasian male, but a Mississippian, a pastor, and someone who grew up with substantially different political views from me.   All categories that don’t translate well with my background nor upbringing.

My heart is for all marriages.  Nothing challenges you like marriage (marriage posts here, here, here, and here).   Whether you are a conservative or a liberal, a Christian or an agnostic, marriage is hard.  It gets harder when families try to mesh, when your children look for cues and traditions – without an easy backdrop of uniform sameness, likeness, familiarity.

My 16 years in Mississippi only confirmed what I learned in Indonesia, the Netherlands, Vietnam, California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and more.  Our deepest heart issues are universal.  We can cloak them with language differences, moral wedge issues, skin color, class issues, & national pride, but at the core, we all struggle with fear.

I don’t deny others’ reality to find common ground.   It’s been a long, hard lesson for my husband to see this at work in our marriage.  My difference doesn’t negate room at the table.  Difference doesn’t mean I have to operate out of prejudice.   My challenge of walking into rooms in Mississippi without seeing a single person of color does not automatically lead to judging.  I can’t build a bridge when I don’t understand someone’s background, childhood, & ways of connecting to nature and their culture.

I have learned and loved so much of my time in Mississippi.  The hardest moments have not been relating to new people nor understanding the deep cultural differences of the deep South. The hardest thing has been in my marriage.   My husband’s reticence to identify with difference led to deep struggles in marriage.  Fear, after all, drives most, if not all, of our anxieties and prejudices.

Will there be enough for me?

Will I be recognized, seen, or even remembered?

Will I have a safe place to land?

Will I be able to guarantee security for my children & loved ones?

Ironically, all these questions were answered for me in becoming a follower of Jesus.  Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Cross cultural ministry  – and marriage – means taking risks.  You can’t justify selfishness when you no longer have sameness to measure yourself against.  You have to be curious about the other side.  You have to find compassion to listen.  You have to be willing to be vulnerable.  Not exactly the most popular position in the echo chambers of the internet.

So much healing took place during this visit to California, more that I will share in future devotions.  We saw the grandeur and vastness of this country in a memorable road trip!  The best part: my husband jumped into wildly diverse situations with a big smile and an heart to lean in.   He doesn’t have to negate who he is to build a bridge.   That is the biggest lesson of all.   As a couple, we have firm foundations in Jesus, but room at the table for bridges beyond the bubbles we create for ourselves.



Yes, we are still planning to move to Paris this Fall 2020.  Thank you to our partners so far!  We are humbled by those who are supporting us.   We are committed to this mission, regardless of a pandemic or other deterrents.  If you are interested in partnering, join us in our journey today.


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