The following cases highlight the ways honor and shame dynamics are experienced among the people of Huancayo. Themes like conflict resolution, family relationships, and self-perception are addressed below, showing how honor and shame mentality affects cross-cultural mission interactions. These stories are actual examples that the missionaries experienced in Huancayo. Names and personal details were altered, but the accounts come from real interactions.
Jason and his team of missionaries from the US have been church planting in the city of Huancayo, Peru, elevated 10,600 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Huancayo is known nationwide as the city that has more fiestas than days of the year. The fiestas are filled with traditional dancing, colorful costumes parading in the streets, and a heavy dose of alcohol consumption. Many of these fiestas date back to before the Spanish conquest, celebrating the apus (gods) of the land, as the people of the region are a largely agrarian society. The influence of the Catholic church reformed many of these fiestas, giving them Christian names and repurposing them to honor various santos (saints). These celebrations often last many days and involve heavy drinking and pagapus (offerings) to the saints or the apus for whom the festival is held.
Huancayo is a familial society. The families pass on traditions, stories, and stay connected through these celebrations. There is a strong sense of connection with family, both alive and deceased, during these celebrations that keeps people faithful to them. Family members often travel from other cities just for these festivals. The family shares in all the costs, passing around the responsibility of the mayordomo (host) to a member each year. The costs of these festivals are tremendous. While the festivals celebrate the family, they often create significant burdens. Loyalty to the family and the tradition cause many to feel obligated to take out loans to cover costs. There is an expectation to drink excessively, passing the same glass in a circle for hours. One must take off work for the days of the festivals, which affects many day laborers. All are expected to give an offering to the particular saint or apu that is being celebrated.
Juan and Carlos were some of the first converts to the new church in Huancayo. The brothers had identified as Catholics but were not devout, except in regard to the fiestas. They have three other siblings whose families all share the same house. They are a tight family, faithful to the yearly celebrations. Every October, the family hosts the festival of San Francisco de Asis, which includes the dance of La Tunatada and traditionally celebrates the ganado (livestock). As new Christians, the brothers and their families struggled to know what to do with the family festival. They knew that they would be practicing something that honored other gods and not Christ. They also knew that it led to “passing the glass” or heavy drinking that had almost destroyed their families.
The drinking ritual is to sit in a circle and pass the same glass around, refilling the glass with cerveza (beer) after each person has finished. The passing of the glass goes on for hours and even days until the fiesta is over. A great sense of bonding happens when passing the glass. Stories are shared and family traditions are recited. It creates a sense of belonging. When one does not participate, those within the circle often make fun of or criticize that person. Those not passing the glass often experience rejection or feel as if they are offending the family. If they fail to keep the traditions, there is a sense of distancing themselves from the family. Along with distancing from family comes insecurity and fear. Not passing the glass means so much more than simply not drinking.
Jason and his mission team knew the festivals were coming. Their teaching emphasized commitment to Christ, citing teachings from Jesus that would have his followers leave family if it meant following him. The brothers understood the call of Christ. They understood that the new life they had in Christ called them to leave their abuse of alcohol that led to domestic abuse. As the time approached, family members began coming into town. Preparations for the festival were being made. A family meeting was held to divide up the responsibilities, followed by a time of “passing the glass.” The brothers felt the pull. They talked to the missionaries about the feelings, saying, “We cannot offend our family, it’s our custom, family is everything, and we must participate to not disappoint the family or they may reject us.”
The brothers gave into the family pressure. The festival arrived, and the feelings of shame for not participating were greater than the shame that would come from their drunkenness. The feelings of kinship outweighed their desire for faithfulness to Christ. Their fear of rejection and loss of identity propelled them into the celebration, keeping with the tradition. The brothers normally hosted the Wednesday night Bible study. One evening, the church gathered in their home without them. One member had driven past the fiesta on the way to the study and saw the brothers dancing and drinking. The shame of leaving behind the family traditions was greater than the shame of the church gathered in their own home without their presence.
Jason and the missionary team faced this same situation with many of those learning to follow Jesus. The commitment to save face with family and ties of kinship are so strong, many cannot fully commit to Jesus. It is a constant struggle for the new believers, continuing to plague their families as many accumulate debt, abuse spouses, and recover from drunkenness days later. It is almost predictable when certain festivals are held that church attendance will suffer.
The mission team struggled to understand why these brothers, and others, continued to participate in the family traditions when the costs were so great. The missionaries could not understand the brothers’ failure to see how their family was encouraging destruction in their relationships with their wives and children. They could not seem to help the brothers understand that those family ties were not based on the love and abundant life that God promises but were about self-serving pleasure that produced negative consequences. Many of the extended family members whom the brothers were so desperate to please lived far away and only came around when it was time to drink, often expecting the brothers to foot the bill for the cases of beer. To the missionaries, the brothers’ connection to those extended family members seemed shallow, but the brothers considered keeping the connection an imperative.
The missionaries spoke with the brothers of the consequences of their actions that come with the festival. They emphasized that the excessive drinking, overspending, and the potential for domestic violence would cause feelings of guilt and regret. Their actions would not bring about the life Christ desired for them. The actions would bring chaos and not peace. Yet, with all the warnings of their actions during these fiestas, the brothers passed on their commitment to Christ and passed the glass instead.
- What dynamics of honor/shame are present in this case? What was the perspective of the young Christians? What was the perspective of the missionaries that they struggled to reconcile with the traditional practice?
- Why might the missionaries’ teaching not have been effective?
- How could the gospel be presented in terms of honor/shame in order to more effectively reach the young Christians?
Shame on me
Pedro is a taxi driver. The number of hours he drives determines the amount of income he makes each day. Taxi drivers are among the lowest paid workers in Huancayo. Most fares are only 5 Soles ($1.25), and with car maintenance and fuel, drivers only make between 60–80 Soles ($20–25) a day, requiring at least 10–12-hour shifts. Living on the edge of poverty with little income to cover emergencies, many wait until something is broken before they bother checking on it. This was Pedro’s experience.
One night, Pedro called John, the local US missionary. His car had broken down on the side of the road. His taxi had been making funny noises for some time, but Pedro never checked it out. He asked John to come and tow his car across town to a mechanic. The car would not shift gears because the clutch had burned out.
John was pleased to assist Pedro, but the entire way Pedro apologized for inconveniencing John. He kept repeating that he felt like a failure because his car had broken down. He continued to apologize, further shaming himself to save face. “I need to be a better man,” he said. “I can’t believe what a failure I am for this happening,” he said. “I don’t deserve your friendship, John; I am worthless,” he lamented.
John was astounded at Pedro’s thinking. John thought, “His car broke down; it happens to the best of us. Why is Pedro being so hard on himself, belittling himself and ashamed to ask for help?” John wondered. In John’s mind this was a simple mistake and didn’t have anything to do with their friendship.
John towed Pedro to his destination. John’s clothes were a little dirty from tying the tow rope. Pedro noticed and insisted on washing John’s clothes for him, continuing to apologize. Finally, a little annoyed, John said, “Pedro, forget about it. This is what friends do when there is a need. Tranquilo (calm down), it’s just a car and it broke down. This doesn’t mean you are a bad person.” Pedro listened and thanked John. John drove Pedro home, and as they were saying goodbye, Pedro looked at John with tears in his eyes and apologized once more.
- With what honor/shame dynamics was Pedro wrestling?
- Why did John become frustrated with Pedro’s responses and incessant apologizing?
- In terms of honor and shame, what would you say to Pedro to help him understand the gospel, relieving the shame he felt?
This Little Light of Mine
Janet, a US missionary, invited Flor, a new believer, over to her home for dinner one night. Janet served spaghetti, and the two talked for many hours. It was a great night of food and conversation. During the conversation, Flor had some questions about a few theological topics, mainly regarding her concerns with talking about Satan and his power in church gatherings.
Flor had previously had some bad experiences with some charismatic churches and their practices of casting out demons and trembling uncontrollably. These experiences frightened her, turning her away from religion in general. However, after a friendship had begun between Flor and Janet’s missionary teammate, Tamara, she had agreed to study the Bible. Tamara studied weekly with Flor and her family, including her two young girls.
The dinner conversation continued, and Flor became very serious. With a concerned face, she said to Janet that she needed her help. Janet braced herself for a heavy conversation. Flor said, “I have a concern with Tamara.” Expecting the worst, Janet listened intently. Flor continued, “Every time we have a Bible study, Tamara always sings ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ I am concerned because that song talks about the Devil’s power (‘Don’t let Satan blow it out’), and I think that Tamara is giving more power to the Devil than he is due.”
Flor went on to describe her discomfort with the song, stating she wished that Tamara would not sing it anymore. However, she thought this was one of Tamara’s favorite songs, and she did not want to offend her. Flor was afraid that if she asked Tamara not to sing that song anymore, she would not continue to come to her house and study the Bible with her. Still, she really did not want that song sung anymore in her house.
Janet, a bit stunned at the seriousness of the conversation, responded that Flor could talk to Tamara without fearing rejection. Janet told Flor that it was safe to be direct with Tamara and that she could share how she felt. Janet told Flor that she could share her concerns without offending Tamara. Besides, Janet knew Tamara only sang that song because she thought that Flor’s girls would enjoy it. The two women continued eating. Janet felt at ease now knowing the situation and leaving with a bit more understanding of how the culture in Huancayo handles confrontation. Flor could not bring herself to share her feelings with Tamara, no matter how uncomfortable she felt with the song. Indirectly, Flor was able to solve her problem.
- What honor/shame dynamics do you find in this story?
- How did culture influence differences in conflict resolution?
- Taking these dynamics into account, what should the missionaries teach the church about handling conflict?
Jeremy Davis lives in Chattanooga, TN. He has worked as a church-planter in both Mumena, Zambia and in Huancayo, Peru. He holds a Master’s in Global Service from Abilene Christian University and is currently working on an EdD in Positive Organizational Leadership. He is married to Whitney (Mann) Davis and has 3 daughters. He currently works as a Bible History teacher for the Hamilton County Schools.