A Third Culture Kid’s Story of Faith

by Marilyn on April 10, 2017

There is no single story when it comes to the third culture kid; the missionary kid. While we can learn and grow from research and the common themes that have emerged to form a perspective, each child has their own story. Like fingerprints, these stories are unique, formed by family of origin, personality, and life experience. There is no single story around faith either. Instead, the mystery of faith weaves through a life – sometimes accepted, sometimes rejected, but always present. 

When I set out to write my memoir, Passages Through Pakistan, I thought it would be about belonging. After all, wasn’t that what I had worked through for a number of years? Wasn’t that part of my identity? But the more I wrote, the more I realized that the common thread woven through the narrative was not belonging. It was faith. So today I have included two excerpts from the book. My prayer is that if you are a parent or a third culture kid,  you will know beyond doubt that your (and your child’s) faith journey is infinitely important to God; that he can turn ashes into beauty and mourning into oil of joy.*

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All adults can point to a time when they go from the naïveté and simplicity of childhood and cross over into the complicated world of the adult. Some of these coming of-age moments are dramatic, some are profound. All are life-changing.

It is easy to dismiss these moments. They may seem undramatic, insignificant. But to the individual, the drama they represent is a one-way passage out of childhood. Once we pass through we can never go back.

For many years, I would only tell happy stories about my childhood, stories of midnight feasts and camp outs, of traveling to beautiful places and life-long friends. Years went by before I could admit that some of my childhood memories were deeply painful. If I acknowledged just how difficult they were, I would be betraying my parents and my childhood. More than that, if I mentioned the painful parts, I would have to deal with the pain, and some of it went deep.

The real reason I didn’t want to tell these stories was more complicated than I wanted to admit. My parents’ faith had led them to Pakistan and sustained them through the years they were there. If I was a healthy child, then teenager, then adult, no one could criticize their life choice. Here was their best defense against those critical of the missionary life. If I admitted the pain, if I was truthful about the hard stories, their defense was stripped.

But was I really worried about them? Or was I more worried about what would happen to my own faith?

If I acknowledged the painful pieces of childhood, could my faith withstand it? Or would I be left with a “where were you God?” echoing hollow in my heart?

A friend of many years, a counselor with a specialty in helping children in trauma, helped me understand the distorted theology that was controlling my memories. When I finally began to admit that all was not perfect, I felt a profound sense of freedom and relief. As I became more honest about my life, I realized the depths of God’s care for me and his limitless grace in my journey. [Passages Through Pakistan – pp 114-115]

This I knew, and I knew it well: when you’re six and you wake up at five in the morning, away from home and unconditional love in a dormitory of seven other little girls, just as young and equally homesick and insecure, there is no one to comfort you. When you are twelve, and your backside aches for a week because of the beating of a house parent, there is no person to comfort you. When you question why dads and babies die in the middle of the night, there is no person to answer you. When you are sixteen, and you feel misunderstood by all those around you, unable to articulate your heart, there is no person to comfort you. When you are eighteen, and your heart is breaking at the thought of leaving all you know and all you love, there is no person to comfort you.

My faith was more than theology – it was a living, breathing entity. It wrapped me with a profound sense of comfort and love, and I knew beyond any previous doubts that God was real. I knew in the marrow of my bones, and the depths of my soul, that there was something greater than boarding school loss, stronger than the grief of goodbyes, deeper than the pain of misunderstanding. I knew that redemption was not just a theological idea, but that somehow it was more real than anything on this earth.

Faith was the story written on my life, and my life was witness to a greater reality. [Passages Through Pakistan – pp 166]

Passages Through Pakistan from Marilyn Gardner on Vimeo.

*Reference to Isaiah 61:2-3

Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith is available here:

The Kindle version will be coming in July of 2017.

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Cynthia Cunningham Shigo

    Although I am decades older than you, Marilyn, and I grew up in West Africa, not Pakistan, it is amazing to me that every word written here could have been written by me. Our experiences, though vastly different, have created similar stories of our identities, of who our life experience has created us to be. My spirit bears witness with your spirit, that what you have written is true. You are speaking for so many of us who still struggle to get past the pain of so much unresolved loss into the comfort of a real relationship with a Father who loves us, as the treasure of Christ.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I love this Cynthia! Thank you for getting it so well. And yes, that’s the beauty of this – it doesn’t end in loss; it ends in relationship.

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