One rainy morning, Jerrell and I found ourselves in our home with a group of neighbors who had gathered to wait out the storm. Everyone in the circle was Cofán except for the two of us. We were the guests, listening with curiosity to the lively conversation in Cofán buzzing all around us.
The room quieted when one neighbor began to recount a dream he had recently. He wilted with sadness as he processed the details with the group gathered around him and explained that his wife had had similar dreams that had awakened her in the night and kept her awake crying.
Seeing my neighbor's distress, I tried to console him and his wife, "Perhaps this dream is from God, letting you know your beloved son is doing well."
Coming from a culture that doesn't pay much attention to dreams or give their significance much weight, I thought I was doing well to embrace the dream as some kind of message. After all, this couple's son had appeared healthy and plump in the dream. His face was full, his body strong, a smile spread across his face.
Despite the blank stares that were the only response to my comment, I thought I had communicated well. I had affirmed the Cofán understanding that dreams communicate messages, and I had even suggested the idea that dreams may come from God.
One day recently, our neighbors were once again gathered in our home. This time, Jerrell shared a dream he had that concerned him. He confessed the worry that this dream had produced about the health of a loved one back in the United States.
Those gathered around listened intently to the details of the dream, then broke out into a spirited conversation in Cofán. Back and forth they spoke, and we followed like spectators at a tennis match. As usual, we understood little of what they said.
Finally, the conversation reached a lull and then there was silence as the oldest man straightened himself up to speak. "You do not need to worry about the person who appeared weak in your dream; the one you should pray for is the person who appeared strong."
Now it was our turn to assume the blank stares. Thankfully, our friends picked up on our confusion and the man explained that in his experience, dreams like Jerrell's often mean the opposite of what they portray. When someone appears sick or weak, it is reassurance that the person is doing very well, but when someone appears well, it is cause for great concern.
Immediately, my mind returned to the dream of the plump boy. No wonder the Cofán had stared at me blankly when I suggested that the dream was good news. I couldn't help but wonder if those gathered around me now were also thinking of that day when we had so completely misunderstood the anguish they were trying to communicate with us. I wanted to know, so I just had to ask. We looked at each other and smiled in relief that at least on this small but significant point, we were finally seeing eye-to-eye.
We are reminded again of the advice of seasoned mission workers to take it slow. Fostering intentional intercultural relationships takes time, humility and authenticity.
***This piece was originally published by Mennonite Women USA in their winter 2019 edition of Timbrel.