Confrontation between Middle East and Western cultures in a Tennessee public school.
by Greg Ketteman
To find out more about Free Will Baptist Bible College, visit www.fwbbc.edu.
When Cultures Clash
“I sue you! I am wealthy man! Remember this face! I sue you!” The Iranian father stormed into the school lobby pointing his finger at me. He was angry that I suspended his daughter from riding the bus to school because she had been involved in a fight on the bus the previous day. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, but I had an unexplainable sense that this situation would have a good outcome.
At first the father refused my invitation to enter the nearest office, but a woman who followed him into the building said something to him in Persian, and he abruptly entered the office with me. The woman introduced herself as Nihad; she had come to translate.
I attempted to reason with the man and explain my decision. Still angry, he continued questioning my decision to suspend his daughter. He refused to make eye contact, turning his face away from mine.
When Cultures Communicate
Suddenly, he said, “I am Christian. I love everybody.”
I was surprised that the conversation took this turn, but I replied, “I am a Christian too, and I must love everybody.”
Nihad translated what I said, and he began to shake his head. “No. You not love everybody.”
I answered, “You say you’re a Christian and love everybody. Why can’t I love everybody?” Nihad translated, but he continued shaking his head.
In my description of the incident and explanation of the consequences, I mentioned that the incident was videotaped and that we could watch the tape. I invited the father and Nihad to view the video, and they both stood to follow me. The father still refused to make eye contact.
We walked through the lobby to the guidance counselor’s office where the video player was set up. By this time the guidance counselor, speech teacher, and social worker had made their way to the guidance office. We all stood around the screen and viewed the tape of the fight.
When Cultures Cooperate
After viewing the video, the father looked at me and spoke in Persian. Nihad translated and explained that he was sorry for being so angry with me. I extended my hand to him, but he would not shake. I continued trying to shake his hand while reassuring him there were no hard feelings. As Nihad translated my words, the father bent over, touched his hand to my shoe, and then lifted his hand to his lips.
“What is he doing?” I asked Nihad. She explained that this was a gesture of humility. The father was showing his humility and respect for me.
Not to be outdone, I immediately bent over and attempted to touch his shoe. He quickly stepped back and would not allow me to do this. I again tried to touch his shoe, and he moved away, only this time, he grabbed me in a bear hug. I hugged him back.
Through the translator, the father thanked me and I responded by thanking him for meeting with me about the incident. As our encounter came to an end, Nihad suggested that we conclude the meeting with prayer. The six of us joined hands in a circle in the small office, and Nihad thanked God for His love for all of us and asked His blessings in Jesus’ name.
The father, now smiling, stepped back and gestured for me to walk through the door before him. As we walked down the hallway, I asked the translator to invite the father to come as my guest at any time. She did so and then translated his grateful response. As the two of them left the school, she handed me a business card.
When Christ Changes Cultures
My friend and colleague, the school guidance counselor, turned to me and exclaimed, “I’ve never seen anything like that! What happened here? The only explanation for it is that God’s Spirit was in that meeting!” I agreed with him. The unusual resolution of the meeting could only be explained supernaturally.
Nihad’s business card identified her as a member of the “Near East Network.” She was converted to Christianity after coming to the United States. Her burden to reach Middle Eastern unbelievers led her to work as a Christian translator through the sponsorship of a local church in Nashville.
I sent the father a personal letter the next week and thanked him again for meeting with me. I wrote that I was praying that the God of peace would bless and keep him and his family, and then invited him to visit with me again whenever he could.
When Cultures Come Together
On the last day of the first semester, just before Christmas holidays, the father drove into the school parking lot. I saw him lift a long, rolled-up object from his car and make his way toward the school. Moments later, the secretary came to let me know I had a visitor.
The father did not wait for me to come out of my office to greet him, but was standing at my office doorway with the rolled-up object in his hands. He said, “This for you,” as he stepped into my office.
I took the object from his hands and unrolled a beautiful, circular Persian rug. Moved to tears, I objected and explained that this was unnecessary and too lavish a gift. However, with no translator present, I don’t think he was getting my message. Besides, I didn’t want to offend him since he was making such a gesture of friendship. He smiled as we shook
hands and then left. I stared in amazement at the rug and
recognized God’s hand at work.
After those encounters, I sat with the father at several basketball games and, yes, discussed another disciplinary incident involving his daughter. (His swift, decisive action on that occasion signaled his trust and support for the school.) He is an entrepreneur who started two successful businesses in the less than ten years he has lived in the United States.
I pray that God continues to work in this man’s life and in the lives of his wife and children. I am thankful that God allowed me to meet this Iranian-American father. I am thankful that He continues to remind me of His purpose for my life and reassures me that His Spirit is still at work in the world.
ABOUT THE WRITER: The incident cited in this article occurred while Dr. Greg Ketteman was a middle school principal in the Metropolitan Nashville School system. He has since become Provost at Free Will Baptist Bible College.