At our church, we host asylum-seeking families from around the world. Most are passing through and stay for just a day. We offer them food, clothing, and a place for their children to play. Some stay longer while they figure out their next steps and make connections elsewhere in the country. A few have settled in our community and form the backbone of both our ministry, by working to provide hospitality to others like themselves, and the heart of our church, by leading by example how to give and receive love through times of uncertainty and struggle.
The other day, I took a long car ride with a family from Honduras who have been living here in the United States for about two years. I expected them to put on some music and to spend the hours with my own thoughts, but the music was never set up. They wanted to talk instead. They asked me all kinds of questions that I guess they always wondered about, but in the normal day-to-day rush, they never get a chance to ask.
They asked: How come the streets are so quiet here? Where are all the people? How come children so rarely go outside to play? How come children don’t spend every afternoon with friends? How come children are sometimes so sad here? How come people work so much? How come when we go to a park people don’t invite us over to talk to them? How come actually they sometimes get angry if we are in “their” space?
I felt a little bit like the representative of an alien planet where they had landed, trying to explain why here in the United States we behave the way we do. It’s different here, I said. Our culture envisions families and individuals as separate. That makes us, for instance, very productive, but also makes us lonely and more likely to be divided and in conflict. We talked for a long time as the scenery passed by.
I try to be careful in telling immigrant stories. It’s easy to generalize and paint a picture of a group of people with no defining features, no faces. Immigrants are neither all criminals nor are they all perfect. Just like those of us who were born here, they have a complete diversity of stories and experiences. Each one is a human being with all of our human needs, hopes, strengths and flaws.
But if there is one thing that does distinguish them almost universally from us–if I had to draw a dividing line between immigrants and people who were born here–the one I would draw is between collectivist and individualist cultures. Our cultural norms towards separateness and individual achievement are almost universally foreign to the immigrants we meet and host at our church. In their home countries, the norm is that everything is shared. When a neighbor needs help, first of all, you know about it and second of all, you give what you can. Collectivist cultures value attentiveness, helpfulness, and generosity to others.
There is strong evidence that people in collectivist cultures are less affected by trauma and show fewer and less lingering maladaptive responses to trauma. I’m sure that, even though the Hondurans I talked to on the car ride hadn’t seen it, there are children in Honduras who are sad and who struggle. But the overall statement is well documented: people, and especially children, who grow up in areas of high social cohesion are more resilient to trauma. In places where communities are close knit, children show more positive outcomes when faced with individual and communal trauma. They are less likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other responses to trauma.
As I am writing this, I am sitting, watching my kids watching their screen on a sunny Saturday afternoon and I wonder, how can I get them out to meet their neighbors? How can we create social cohesion in a place where individualism is so highly valued? How can we give our kids some of the experience of relying on others, reaching out to others, sharing with others? How can we teach our children the value of community? As parents, educators, and counselors, how can we create these environments that foster resilience? Because if there is one thing we can be sure of, they will need it. We all will.
For my family, our church is part of the answer to creating community. For yours or your clients, it might be something different. But most important, I think, is that we keep asking the question and keep working towards creating a culture of connection and care even in, and especially in, this country that is so steeped in individualism.