Nora O’Sullivan-Jonsson is an Irish missionary serving with SEND in Bulgaria, along with her husband, Gisli Jonsson, who is from Iceland. Since 2009, the couple has served as Christian counselors in Sofia. The two bring valuable experience gained while working in Nepal, Northern Ireland, and London. In Bulgaria, they walk alongside women who are coming out of sex-trafficking situations, plus people struggling with past and present abuse, depression, anger, and relationship issues. Nora also is engaged in two outreaches: one to children and families in a Roma community and another to the young people at an orphanage outside Sofia. The couple’s work often brings them into close contact with people who face devastatingly difficult situations, and they rely on multicultural teams of co-laborers to effectively minister.
Q. Nora, in Bulgaria, you’ve served on four different multicultural “teams:” your SEND team, a Roma team reaching out to a Roma camp, and a Bulgarian team doing orphanage ministry — plus you’re Irish and your husband is Icelandic, so your marriage is multicultural! As someone with so much experience, can you share with us, what are some of the benefits of serving with people from other cultural backgrounds?
The biggest benefit for me in working with others from different cultural backgrounds, with different molding experiences and knowledge of God, is that I have become aware of how my view of God is limited! I, in some ways, had interpreted the scripture through my Western eyes. I could always agree in theory that of course my knowledge was limited, but as you work alongside and develop deeper relationships, you really know it, because the Lord has worked differently with other cultures and in their history, so it is a bit mind-blowing to experience that the Lord is aware, calling out to and working in all cultures in very different ways!
Working together definitely deepens humility. It has been brilliant, but not without pain, learning that I have not got the full answer, and neither has any individual on the team! The Lord — in what he is doing, and in what he is calling us to do — is known in some part by each of us but also beyond all of us.
I’ve seen that we offer a more comprehensive gospel when we put in practice the working as a body, each having a different role and part to play. We can reach a greater, more-diverse group of people. Only together can we do a more complete job! I have found it is very edifying that the Lord wants each of us to use the gifts that he has given each one of us individually! A bit like David — he was not of use to the Lord or the people in trying to use Saul’s armour, but he had to stand and use what he had learnt with the Lord about how to fight and do life.
Working together deepens my awareness of how great the group of missionaries are, but also how easy it is to get tripped up in comparing giftings, support, basically how easy it is to put a whole group out of action — despite such a significant calling — by not sorting out our attitude and our need of help to deal with our insecurities.
Q. When we say diversity, ethnicity often pops into our minds, but what other kinds of diversity do you think can benefit ministry teams?
I think it HUGELY benefits a team to have diversity in personalities, which is very evident on a multicultural team. In Psalm 139, it speaks about how the Lord knows us. When we serve with brothers and sisters on a multicultural, diverse team, we are given all sorts of interactions that expose who we truly are. This lets us know what the Lord has always known about us — which is a bit humbling, but a great way to have to depend on a Saviour who knows how to save!
When team members have different ways in which they came to know the Lord, this allows more people to hear the gospel in a way they can understand.
Practically speaking, having a group of people with diverse abilities, communication styles, education, and talents allows different needs to be met in the group and among the people we are serving. Also, different cultures have different ways of showing love and different eating customs, which has been very enjoyable and fun!
Q. How has serving on multicultural teams stretched you, personally?
Being married to Gisli, I very quickly became aware of how different our understanding of the same words are and of how deeply I could offend him, and him me, by inadvertently saying something that was not automatically understandable to the other person. Arrrhh!!! So it is beneficial to learn to clarify, and it grows my character and depth by having to go outside my own box of understanding.
In working in the different teams, I became very aware of how much I think I am right in what I do and how I understand the Lord! Especially on the mission field, I thought as a missionary, my job was to get others to do things like I do them. I found that, in practice, team members from other cultures were taking on my methods — but not deeply.
I have grown a lot wiser! Now in implementing a practice with a team, I go for a lot more open discussion on what people are really thinking of a particular method I want to use or they want to use. We’ve realized that a project will be more fruitful if we, as a multicultural team, own what we present to whatever group we are trying to reach or train. Plus, when national team members share what they think will work or not work in their culture, our approach can be adjusted.
Q. Can you share a few tips for how teammates can work together to build healthy, diverse teams?
- Own that you have a very valuable part to play, and so has everyone else on the team.
- Don’t expect not to be triggered and or to avoid coming face to face with your own pettiness and the pettiness of others. Learn to go to the Lord for healing and dialogue to get his perspective, and to work on offering forgiveness and asking for forgiveness.
- Go in with the viewpoint that to achieve “unity” means different things to different people.
- Remember that it is a challenge to work with people, not to mention a diverse team, so be prepared for a challenge and the rich satisfaction of growing, overcoming previous prejudices, and being at a new level of awareness and understanding.
- Try to clarify what is expected of you and what you expect of others.
- Try to keep a short account on misunderstandings.
- Don’t say “yes” to everything and anything, but also don’t let it be the sole responsibility of others to take care of you.
Q. How do your various ministries support the idea that when engaged in Harvest work, we are Better Together?
From day one, as Gisli and I were trying to serve the culture, we met folks who needed help but were best helped by other members of the team! This also happened to our team members — they found that they met people who needed me and Gisli in our counseling ministry.
I could not do any of my work with the Roma or the orphanage without our teams. With regards to the Roma, Stoyanka as Roma herself is the leader and is the one who is trusted and has access to their community. Dimo operates as the translator and models to the guys how to relate respectfully to the girls. Then I train the children in different skills, bringing in my experience as a science teacher and as a counselor.
In Harvest work, if we want a rich harvest, we are necessarily and hugely Better Together!
More Better Together stories
- Four strengths of multicultural ministry teams: Many people associate ethnicity with religion — to be X is to believe Y. Multicultural teams contradict this notion by their very existence.
- ‘Vital instruments’ in new faith: Four Latin American interns passionately share their faith in Thailand, and two young women decide to follow Jesus!
- Missionary, know thyself: Multicultural teams work together more smoothly when each member understands their own culture. These questions can help.
- The best kind of breakdown: More time at the mechanic means more opportunities to share the love of Christ.
- Unity prayer for multicultural teams: Five ways to pray for the kind of oneness that attracts the unreached to Jesus.
- A heart for Japan’s hopeless: Our first global worker from Taiwan looks back and understands why God called her to work with SEND.
- Check out the resources on SEND’s Better Together page.
Banner image: Paul García Fotografía