Experiencing Christ Across Cultures
When I first tell people I have lived in three continents throughout my life, the response I often hear is how interesting and exciting such a lifestyle must be. To me, however, there’s nothing inherently thrilling about moving around so much, because traveling has always been a routine part of my life. But that’s not to say I haven’t had some noteworthy experiences along the way. I have lived in eight different locations throughout my 19 years. In stating my background I do not intend to appear more cultured and adventurous than the next person, but rather to qualify how integral the theme of movement has been in shaping my ideas regarding life, and most relevantly, Jesus Christ.
I will just outright say that I am a Christian and always have been. I was born in London to two devout servants of Jesus Christ. By the time I had been alive for a year, I was already baptized. I was given my first Bible— which I still use today—and taught themes behind certain books and verses within the pages, all before I was even old enough to read properly or fully understand what being a Christian entailed. England instilled in me many of the fundamental principles of the Christian faith: that Jesus died for our sins and that we all have a chance at salvation. I remember being enthralled once I became old enough to grasp the concept of the eternal realm and the boundless universe of which I am only a small part. It was truly wondrous to think that throughout this infinite expanse, there actually exists a Supreme Being who dictates the workings of the universe. It is this same feeling of awe, this childlike sentiment, that still grips me whenever I return to my place of birth.
My family and I moved to Ghana not long after I learned to read. I quickly became familiar with how starkly the cultures of England and Ghana differ from one another, almost as much as the perceptions of Jesus and the way people practice their faith do. The homogeneity and fervidness of Christianity is very much characteristic of the West African society in which I grew up. To most people in Ghana, faith is a regular and necessary part of life—akin to getting up for work every morning. But as such a young believer, I could not see beyond the routine aspect of faith. I groaned every week when my mother woke me up for Sunday school. During the three-hour church services, I would often catch myself twiddling my thumbs and staring at the floor, only to leap up to my feet and attempt to fervently sing the gospels alongside everybody else a moment later. I took on the image of possessing more faith than I did, but I avoided this problem for the longest time and hid behind the fact that others around me seemed so genuine and devout in their practices.
This was a difficult time in my relationship with God. One moment that truly tested my faith came a few years later when my aunt passed away. This was early on in my youth, but I still remember the entire ordeal very vividly and the agony remains even now. “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” This was one of the many passages from the Bible that I often turned to when I found my spiritual convictions wavering. However, I did not find comfort in it, since the tribulations within my family had left me asking myself the big questions for the first time. I was left wondering if God even existed. And I didn’t find answers immediately. All I knew was that Auntie Lenrie had passed—even after my parents had been praying for her wellness and constantly reassuring me that everything would be okay. I was completely unprepared for the death of a loved one, and I found myself terribly upset with God. How could He let such a thing happen? These accusations fed my anger, but what really troubled me was that I wasn’t even sure whom I was blaming. Was I blaming God for allowing my aunt to be taken away from me? Was I angry that I had allowed myself to be deceived my entire life by certain notions of faith that I had never wholeheartedly accepted? What evidence did I really have that suggested there was someone who had ordained all of this to happen? Were my parents at fault for sugarcoating an inevitable fate with false promises? By this point in my life I had moved around quite a bit, so I turned to my experiences in different cultural settings to synthesize an idea of faith that defined my personal journey. But instead of reaching a profound understanding, I came to a disconcerting conclusion: my devoutness to the Lord and the intensity of my faith were directly tied to my environment. I realized that throughout my time in Ghana, the setting in which I lived was very conducive to nurturing a Christian lifestyle. It deeply troubled me how easy it had been to hide behind this veil of faith that others had put over me, and how despite considering myself a strong believer, I had never truly owned my faith. This realization marked the beginning of two big, simultaneous phases in my life: a redirection of my focus as a Christian towards forging a more genuine connection with God, and the next time I had to pack my bags and move again.
My family and I immigrated to the U.S. not long after my aunt’s death, and this cultural change opened my eyes to a host of new insights. The move came at a time when I had already seen a lot of the world, and I thought I understood what moving to a different hemisphere entailed. But when I finally settled in New Haven, Connecticut, I found that not everybody shared the values which I had previously thought to be inherent to every person. I vividly remember one particular conversation with a girl from my seventh grade. When I brought up my faith life as offhandedly as I might recount what I had for breakfast that morning, I received only puzzled looks as she mentioned that she was an atheist. Many similar encounters followed, and they only ceased to occur when I realized that American culture does not deem the discussion of faith a light topic of conversation.
I initially struggled with the notion of religious plurality in America, but I believe I actually have developed more of my beliefs on faith here than in either London or Accra. “Religion” was a word I learned only after immigrating here. This word implies that there exists parallel traditions called religions which, despite sharing some similar themes, are fundamentally different. This confusion did not prevent me from reading my Bible and going to church every Sunday, but I did find it hard to adjust to certain portrayals of the Bible and the Christian religion that I was not used to seeing. This ranged from hearing people exclaim “Oh my God!” at the slightest thing, to sitting in on high school classes that analyzed the Bible from a solely historical perspective— completely ignoring any messages of faith—in the same way we would deal with texts from Ancient China or Classical Greece. However, this exposure to different representations of my faith led me to become better at seeking Jesus. And the fact that I had nothing external to latch onto—like the homogeneous Christian communities from my life overseas—made this learning process much more personal than what I had experienced in both Ghana and England. Living in America gave me a broader and more objective perspective on life, one that I needed if I was ever to solve my internal conflict concerning the existence and nature of God.
A month before I was to move to New York to begin my first year at Columbia, my grandfather passed away quietly in his sleep in Accra. Unlike the last death in my family, I was now able look at this one through the eyes of a young man who had already been tested by the Lord in many ways. I was coming closer to finding an answer to the question I had been trying to answer since my aunt’s death many years earlier: what is the nature of Jesus and how does He work? However, this time around, there was no finger pointing and no doubting my faith. Despite being left with an inevitable feeling of sadness after my loss, this change of perspective allowed me to feel strangely unbroken in my mourning. I was now able not only to realize, but also to accept fully and be content with the fact that it is impossible for us to understand God’s plan.
And that’s all that I needed to know. In no way could I have predicted what the Lord had in store for me. Having lived in three different continents and eight different locations, I owe it to Him that my life was able to unfold in a way that allowed me to become a stronger believer. It is only looking back now that I see how neatly my story has played out, and exactly how each phase was determinant to the current state of my faith life. My place of birth in London was the location to which I attached an original sentiment of belief. It was only when I moved to Ghana a few years later that I started to develop a closer relationship with God. Immigrating to the United States forced me to form a concrete and more comprehensive perception of who Jesus is. And along the way, there have been key moments that helped me grow as a believer in Christ. Baby steps is the name of the game.
Building a relationship with Jesus is as much Him acting in me, as it is me making the effort to seek Him out. One particular Biblical passage that characterizes a working relationship with the Lord reads, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” This is what I initially struggled with earlier in my youth, but I suppose I always knew deep down: finding Jesus is not all about learning scripture and memorizing hymns. I learned to seek and find faith in the good times, as well as when I’m in an environment not so strongly conducive to worship. I learned that Jesus does not only persist when things are going right, but also when anguish befalls, as close family members pass, and things seem to be falling apart. It almost goes without saying, but I can think of no better way to take delight in the good times or to cope in the trying times than to confide in our Lord. One verse of Scripture that always encourages me is: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” From the time I could read, I have been able to explain the significance of that passage, but the culmination of my experiences has allowed me to grasp what it truly means. This wonderful verse embodies the entire breadth of my journey through faith as a traveler of the world, an ambitious Columbia student, an aspiring writer, and a believer in the eternal goodness of Jesus Christ.
1 1 Corinthians 16:13, ESV.
2 Romans 15:13.
3 Psalm 23:1.
Johanan Sowah (SEAS’17) is an enthusiastic and motivated young individual who loves to talk to people and travel to new places anytime the opportunity arises. A lifelong believer in Christ and a staunch supporter of Arsenal Football Club, he can often be found doing anything outdoorsy. Outside of schoolwork and writing, he enjoys being an NCAA Division One Track runner and engaging with Chopin and Bach on his Baby Grand.
Columbia University, culture, death, education, race, religion