As I write this blog post, I’m on vacation in the coastal town of Essaouira, Morocco, famous for its sardines, crescent beach, and UNESCO-protected fortified wall. Haunting calls to prayer wail out five times a day, and though it’s a beach town, I’ve seen more burkas than bikinis. This is not the first place you’d pick to get away. But late last year, my wife and I looked at each other over dinner and wondered where we would go this winter. She said, “Let’s go somewhere we’ve never been before!” By the time she came home from Christmas choir practice, the tickets to Casablanca were in her inbox.
So, this week, Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map was a good book to reflect on in this new and unusual (to us) environment. Similar in intent to David Livermore and his work in cultural intelligence, she exposes the way one’s cultural lens shapes and impacts the way we view the world. She states, “In any given culture, members are conditioned to understand the world in a particular way, to see certain communication patterns as effective or undesirable, to find certain arguments persuasive or lacking merit, to consider certain ways of making decisions or measuring time ‘natural’ or ‘strange.’”
Day One in Marrakech: We checked into our riad and dove in, wandering the serpentine streets and alleyways of the medina. The riad manager offered to provide us a guide to walk with us, which we declined, nicely (but, in our hearts, arrogantly). We’ve been around the world and know how to navigate unfamiliar contexts, we told ourselves. But after an hour, we were completely lost, and it was painfully obvious to locals who saw us standing on the corner with map in hand. A young man appeared and offered to show us to the main square, so naively, we followed him. He took us down several alleys (short-cuts, he called them), and soon we were alone and then trapped and surrounded by five young men who demanded money “for helping guide us to the square”. I didn’t have small change, and ended up parting with a 100 dirham note, worth about $10. We walked away quickly, and were still lost, though we eventually found our way back. On Day Two, we took our riad manager’s advice, and went out with our guide, Mohammed, who became a friend.
Reflecting on this incident, I see how our Western values – autonomy, self-sufficiency, inquisitiveness – conflict with the Arabic culture’s emphasis on hospitality and networks of relationships. The riad manager had an obligation to protect and care for us as the host, but we refused his offer of a guide, which made us vulnerable. Our sense that we can do this ourselves contravened the cultural norms and we stuck out like a sore thumb, waiting to be exploited.
Several days later, outside our hotel in Essaouira, I noticed a small sign, “Eglise”, with an arrow pointing down the small street. Morocco has only 20,000—40,000 believers in the entire country of 33 million. It’s astonishing when you remember that North Africa was once the centre of the Christian world, birthing Origen and Augustine, and recalling our first book by Thomas Oden: How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. I had to see this church (see photo).
The gate was open, so I crossed the threshold, the dim light illuminating a few wooden pews and musty icons. Père Jean-Claude greeted me, a wizened but lively 82-year old French priest. While it was midweek, he was repainting the sacristy to be ready for Sunday mass. He had been here, a missionary priest, for 39 years. Same small church, with few conversions, if any, since it’s officially illegal. Pointing at the tabernacle with flickering red flame indicating the presence of the Living Body of Christ, he gave a gallic shrug and explained, “I’m here just to be with Him.” He left me to pray in the semi-darkness.
As I exited the church, I was drawn to a table with the latest diocesan bulletin (reproduced here). The news of Pope Francis’ first and upcoming visit to Morocco headlined the piece. “We are very few in number, but for the universal Church our [Christian] presence among our Muslim brothers and sisters makes sense… We have joy that the visit of Pope Francis to Morocco coincides with the 800th anniversary of the meeting between Saint Francis and the Sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in 1219. Now, today, another Francis will come to meet another King (i.e., King Mohammed VI) in his home.”
I’m inspired by the Pope’s decision to come to this country. Morocco is probably in the bottom ten percent of worldwide nations for the Church, but he’s doing it to enhance interreligious dialogue and friendship, particularly between Christians and Muslims. He’s not coming unilaterally to impose his way, but by invitation of the king who, as his host, will offer him warmth and hospitality. By respecting local culture, he is welcomed and bears witness to a different way.
While my capitalist culture strives to achieve results and seeks competitive advantage, and where even faith becomes infected with rationalization, we see a different kind of culture mapping occurring, one that is informed by a living faith at the margins. The Moroccan church has learned to be patient, they have learned that small is not bad, they have learned to befriend their neighbour who is unlike them. “I’m here just to be with Him”, says the priest. As the West abandons its Christian essence to secularism, just like North Africa once did to Islam, how will faithful Christians respond? I would argue we need to learn from these small lessons on the margins. I repeat our cohort mantra again: as per Hunter, we must be a “faithful presence”.
 Erin Meyer. The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014), 252.
 Home converted into an inn, with usually just a few rooms for guests.
 Wikipedia, “Christianity in Morocco”, Accessed on January 26, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_Morocco
 Sœur Pascale Bonef, ed., Ensemble: Bulletin du diocèse de Rabat, No. 148 (November 2018), 3. Translated by author.