I Used to Laugh at Ghosts

by Katherine Seat

“Aren’t you scared while your husband is away?”

“I’ll lock the door at night, and the windows have bars on them.”

“Locked doors can’t keep out ghosts.”

I don’t think I actually rolled my eyes or laughed out loud, but that was my attitude. In my early years in Cambodia, we lived next to a house full of Christian women training for ministry. When my husband was away, they worried about me. They didn’t seem to believe that I was genuinely unafraid, and I could not understand why they were afraid.

I didn’t know if I believed in ghosts or not. But what I did know was that because of Jesus, I had nothing to fear. I told them that the God of the Bible is stronger than any possible evil spirits, ghosts, or demons. He is the creator of all things, and Jesus has already conquered death. I felt satisfied that I’d given them the right reasons for why they didn’t need to fear.

I’m not the only Australian who gives off vibes of disbelief when Cambodians talk about the spirit world. My Cambodian husband Soeun also faced this attitude. When he was in Australia, he tried to explain some of his childhood to an Australian seminary student. Soeun’s friend was asking him about life in Cambodia. They were talking about all sorts of everyday things like rice, fish, and evil spirits. The conversation was progressing normally until he got to the evil spirits. It was surprising for Soeun when his friend’s tone of voice became incredulous.

“So people see a head floating around?”

His friend thought seeing spirits sounded like a crazy idea.

 

The Chasm
A huge chasm lies between Cambodian and Australian culture. The unseen world is part of life for Cambodians. In Australia, ghosts are more at home in a movie or book. As an Aussie married to a Cambodian, I find myself staring across this huge chasm. Even though I’ve lived in Asia for over ten years, I’m realising I haven’t been taking enough notice of this difference.

It’s unbelievable that people actually believe in evil spirits—that was Soeun’s friend’s response. This view might be typical of Westerners. But zooming out, we see that Westerners are actually the odd ones. Many, maybe most, cultures around the globe have an awareness of the spirit world. And if I understand correctly, throughout history most people also considered the unseen as a regular part of their life, including in Biblical times.

Our Western culture only stopped doing so recently, around 300 years ago during the Enlightenment. Since then we have used science to explain everything. Using science is all I’ve ever known, so I felt surprised to realise I’m in the minority from a worldwide and historical point of view.

 

My Current Life in the Chasm
My family and I only moved to a village a few years ago. We are near an area of historical and spiritual significance, and visible reminders of history are everywhere. We are daily surrounded by the local animism that’s mixed with Hinduism and Buddhism.

My husband keeps noticing that people here live under fear more than anywhere else he has lived in Cambodia. For example, they might not go to a peer’s funeral. Some avoid using their own name in phone calls near temples at night, and we know of one family who moved house within 24 hours in response to a dream.

One day two pythons slithered into our yard. I was surprised that the neighbours didn’t want to kill and eat them. Instead they advised us against capturing the snakes as it would anger the Neak Da (territorial spirits). Pythons are believed to be Neak Da’s pets. To keep ourselves safe, we should have honoured the snakes by spraying perfume on them and letting them go free.

Our neighbours were surprised to see that Soeun isn’t afraid of Neak Da. They know we are Christians, but they did not know that would have any bearing on how we interact with the unseen world. Perhaps their knowledge of Christianity came from foreigners who wouldn’t appear to believe in Neak Da anyway.

As far as we know, there were no other Christians in our immediate area before we moved here. So we were very excited when a few neighbours decided to believe in Jesus. In the days and weeks that followed, some strange things happened. People had dreams. Evil spirits were seen flying around our house. People heard strange noises at night. It looked like the new believers had disturbed the spirit world. It was as though the spirits weren’t happy. They had had the place to themselves, and now some people had ruined it by following Jesus.

We, along with our prayer supporters in Australia, had been praying for our neighbours. I couldn’t wait to write a newsletter and tell them the good news! But when I went to write the newsletter, another strange thing happened. I found myself staring across that chasm again. Talking about flying heads had seemed so matter-of-fact when I was talking to my husband. But when I imagined Australians reading about it, it seemed crazy. I toned the news right down so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable seeing the chasm.

 

Living Under Fear
Something else has happened since we moved to the village: my mental health has become worse. Not only do the locals here live under more fear than in other places, I do too. It could be a coincidence, of course, and some might say it’s related to the spirit world. I do know that from a scientific understanding, my brain is tricking me into feeling fear when the rational part of my brain knows there is nothing to fear.

A counsellor explained to me that those fears are actually my brain reliving feelings that I’ve had in the past. The “smoke detector” part of my brain is supposed to alert me when there is danger. But mine is sending danger signals even when I am safe. It’s a post-trauma response from events that transpired a decade ago. Somehow it has come to the forefront of our lives since we moved here four years ago.

Psychology has helped me learn about how my brain works, and this awareness has been so helpful. And hearing and reading God’s word is a constant part of my life. But for me in this season, those things have only reached the rational part of my brain. I know the correct answers, but I still feel stranded in yesterday, always in danger.

The right answers haven’t brought me relief from the recurring dread. The only thing that makes me feel safe is God’s people —praying friends and pastors who seem to represent the presence of God.

It makes me think back to the right reasons I gave my concerned neighbours. Did it really help them as I had thought it would?

 

Learning to Listen to the People We Serve
When my family moved into a fearful neighbourhood, I began to experience my own fear. It has debilitated me in some ways, and it definitely makes life harder. But it also helps me to understand the people around me.

I now have some experience of what it is like to live with fear. When I see the people around me changing their behaviour according to the unseen, my thoughts and feelings are totally different from when I saw it in my earlier years. The intensity of their emotions can’t simply be dismissed or argued away.

Locals live with the fear of the spirit world. If I want to have deep connections with them, I need to be aware of what it is like for them to live with evils spirits as a real part of their everyday life. When we minister to people in situations like these, we must have an awareness of their needs and worldview.

For many of us from the West, our church traditions are heavy on studying the Bible with a focus on rational thinking. Sometimes a truth might be applied to correct our thinking, when in fact it’s not a “thinking” issue. While correct thinking is vital, we sometimes miss the role that emotions play in our life with God.

All of this makes me wonder if an emphasis on cognition hinders our ministry to those from the Global South? My husband’s Australian friend just totally dismissed the whole idea as being crazy. If he had wanted to show respect and build rapport with Soeun, he would have needed to take the ideas seriously.

I made the same mistake. I thought I was taking it seriously. I didn’t completely dismiss my neighbours’ fear of ghosts; I explained why we don’t need to fear them. But just because I know different worldviews exist doesn’t mean my “right” answer will fix people’s problems. Curiosity and compassion are a better first response. We should listen before we speak. This is easier said than done, of course. Dismissing an idea because it sounds crazy, or thinking that you have the answer to something you barely understand will be counterproductive to sharing God’s good news.

My own struggle with fear has led me to re-evaluate my response to the neighbour women who were so concerned about my safety. I now regret that I gave them the right answer of why they shouldn’t fear, without stopping to realise that they were afraid. Now I know that even if I have the right answer to counter my own fear, it’s possible to still feel afraid. I know what it’s like to have people try to help me without acknowledging my fear. When that happens, their help feels more like harm.

My prayer is that the next time I’m faced with concerned neighbours, I will seek to connect with them emotionally rather than thinking I can quickly correct their thinking with an out of context Bible verse.

I pray I will stop to listen and seek to understand the other person’s perspective first.

I pray I remember that God was here long before me.

I will pause and ask, “What is God already doing in this person’s life, and can I join in?” rather than “How can I fix this?”

I pray these things for the sake of his Holy Name. Amen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.

I’m Not the Same Person Anymore

by Krista Horn

I’ve known for a long time that living overseas has changed me. Of course it has.  But the extent to which it has shaped me – how I think about the world, how I interpret Scripture, how I relate to others – is most obvious when I return to my passport country.

We returned to America six months ago for a Home Assignment, and I have routinely discovered ways in which living overseas has changed me. There are relatively small, insignificant changes like the fact that I now prefer to drink water from the tap instead of a filter simply because the ability to drink clean water straight from the tap feels like a magical experience. But there are also big, significant changes like how we choose to spend our money and how we interpret media.

My expression of my faith has also been impacted by living overseas. For example, while I appreciate the ease with which I can worship in America – the familiar songs, a recognizable worship style, blending into a crowd – I’ve found myself longing for the chance to work at worshipping again. It takes mental energy to sing in a foreign language and translate words in my head, and it requires extra physical stamina to stand for such a long time in a Kenyan worship service. I have to work at worshipping with my Kenyan brothers and sisters, and a unique blessing comes with that. Sometimes my worship experience in America feels incomplete without expending extra energy to participate in it.

My prayer life has been impacted too. As someone who lives outside my passport country, I’ve gained an increased awareness of the rest of the world, and I pray for people and places that weren’t on my radar before I moved overseas. I also know how encouraging it is to be someone living in a foreign country who is the recipient of prayers of people on the other side of the globe. Those prayers are meaningful and helpful, and I’ve chosen to be a person who also prays for others around the world.

I can pray for others around the world because I now think of others around the world much more often than I used to. I can’t have a conversation in America about Covid or church or the school system without also thinking of how these topics are affecting people in other places. When people discuss the healthcare system, I can’t help but think of the Kenyan healthcare system we work with, as well as those in surrounding countries where our medical residents hail from (and plan to return to when they graduate).

When someone mentions travel, I not only think about travel within the United States, but also about travel in Europe and the Middle East, which directly impacts what route we can take back to Africa. When climate change and the environment are brought up, I recall the plague of locusts in our region and the droughts that have persisted in our host country. I can’t help but think of people outside the American context. My life overseas has expanded my previous worldview and shrunk my sense of self, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.

I’ve also been humbled to realize that any amount of time spent overseas has the power to change a person, not just living overseas full-time. Recently I met someone who served overseas for six months and was forever changed by it. I am nearing six years of living overseas, and I have been forever changed by it. And I know people who spent six days overseas and were forever changed by it. I was reminded of this when a woman at church approached us and said she wanted to financially support our ministry because she had been on some short-term missions trips that changed her. She has been involved with missions ever since, including supporting long-term folks like us.

No matter how long you’ve spent overseas, it has the power to change you. It can make you rethink your preconceived notions. It can make you practice your faith in new ways. It can make you care about people and places you knew little about before. It can expand your worldview and shrink your sense of self.

And quite frankly, those sound like good changes to me.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Krista Horn married the man who once took her on a date to go tree climbing, which just about sealed the deal then and there. After her husband slogged through seven years of medical school and residency (with Krista doing quite a bit of slogging herself between work, grad school, and becoming a mom), they left for the mission field with three boys 3 and under. They have lived and worked at a mission hospital in Kenya since 2016. While her husband is busy on the wards, Krista stays busy with all the details of motherhood on the mission field. When she’s not homeschooling or cooking from scratch or helping her boys search for chameleons, she loves to curl up with a book and eat chocolate from her secret stash. Krista blogs at www.storiesinmission.blogspot.com.

I Never Signed Up For This

by Ann Bowman

For every missionary who takes up their cross and follows Christ to the ends of the earth, there are parents and family members whose lives are affected by the calling. This group never chooses to offer themselves, to share in the sacrifice, and yet they must. Will the pain result in bitterness or healing? This was a decision I was forced to make when my family heard the call.

When my oldest daughter left for a third world country with a six-month-old baby on her hip, I began a journey of sorrow that I didn’t choose. I thought I supported missions — until it was my own child leaving for full-time overseas work. It was then that missions became more than just the information booth in the church lobby, the glossy support letters in my mailbox, or the fascinating guest speaker at church. It became personal, and the hardships and dangers that missionaries experience now touched my life and my emotions daily.

I was always proud of my children’s interest in missions. During their teen years, they eagerly joined in summer service trips to exotic places, always with a bit of danger involved. I envisioned that they would continue their involvement as adults, possibly serving on the missions task force at church or leading short-term mission trips. I never expected any of them to take my grandchildren and plunge into full-time work in a poverty-stricken area of the world. I want to say I handled the challenge with grace and faith — but I didn’t.

Throughout the weeks leading up to departure, I thought I was adjusting and holding it together. My daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren moved into our house after divesting of most of their worldly goods and leaving their apartment. They bought one-way tickets and sold all that was left of their belongings — everything that didn’t fit into the three bags allowed per traveler. It stung that much of what they sold off had been gifts from my husband and myself.

The day of departure came, and the airport trip was brutal. I pasted a smile on my face and locked my tears up tight. I wanted my grandchildren to remember a joyful Nonna; I wanted my daughter and son-in-law to feel the support I was trying to fake. I waved until the little family I loved turned the corner in the security line and I could no longer see them.

My daughter had asked a friend to walk me to my car in the airport parking garage and make sure I was emotionally ready before starting the four-hour drive home. My false bravado lasted only a few miles down the highway, at which point I pulled over and wept. When I was finally alone in God’s presence, I was honest with Him. I was angry and hurt. This was not how I had planned my life.

The Psalmist proclaims, “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5 HCSB). I have learned much in the past seven years about sowing in tears. I have leaned into God, bringing Him my grief and the deep shame I felt. Grief arose when my dreams of life with grandchildren and family living near me were shattered. I felt shame when I could not readily rejoice that my children were sacrificing so much for the gospel and doing what God called them to do — the holy mindset I was supposed to have.

In turning to the Lord in honesty, I was met with tenderness and compassion, not condemnation. He understands the mother’s heart He created in me that must balance the desire to protect with the command to release my children to do all that God calls them to do. My season of dying to my dreams was like being crushed in an olive press. It was painful, and some days felt like hand-to-hand combat with my emotions.

Being an artist, I poured myself into prayer-painting. The enemy was not silent during my time of wrestling with God. When I heard cruel whispers giving me dread and sorrow, I chose to create and lift every concern to God. I painted rural scenes from their beautiful adopted country. My heart shifted as I began to pray for the people my daughter’s family encountered and for increasing boldness as they shared the good news. Bitterness loosened its grip as I chose not to listen to fear and self-pity.

Hebrews promises us that, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV). In these years of separation, I live out the words of Hebrews. I did not reach a permanent peace-filled plateau. Because my daughter lives in a country with political upheaval, I often cycle through times when sudden dread will seize me after reading world news headlines and all contact with my daughter gets cut off. I choke out my prayers by sheer obedience. Peace returns when I once again focus on God’s purposes.

One of the greatest sources of discouragement for global workers is often from their own families back home, yet many of these relatives are committed church members. I don’t want to be part of that statistic. I never want to be the one to dissuade my children from obeying where the Holy Spirit is leading them.

Over the years, my daughter has sometimes called home discouraged. She shares wounds and disappointments. I pray for her and encourage her with scripture. She told me once that of all the team members in their area, her parents were the only parents who didn’t offer tickets home and encourage them to give up. I count that as God’s victory; I have been changed from grief-filled to poured out and finally to finding purpose as I support my missionary family’s work.

I have traveled to their country several times. I now see the wisdom of God and how well-suited my daughter and son-in-law are for their work. I’m amazed by the spiritual fruit from their ministry. They witness miracles rarely seen in the States. When I see my grandchildren share their faith with neighborhood children in their adopted tongue, I am humbled. How could I ever have wished them anywhere else? My grandchildren’s deep faith is worth far more to me than having them live nearby.

So, I visit with my grandchildren mostly by video chat. I do not participate in their lives the way most of the world enjoys their family. That is not my lot in this world and not mine to question. Nonna’s gifts are not cute clothes or countless stuffed animals, but instead, Kindle books, crocs for the rainy season, and jars of peanut butter. I choose to let go of anger and my own empty dreams to receive so much more: a deeper prayer life and a much closer relationship to my daughter’s family, although we live far apart.

Jim Elliot, slain missionary to Ecuador, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” As I love and support my family from afar, I think about his words. The loss felt so great in the beginning, but I can truly say that what I’ve gained is of greater worth. And those gains are eternal — in the lives of my children and grandchildren and the people they serve. One day we will all be partying together in heaven, forever, no more separation and no more tears. That hope lives in me and gives me strength for the journey.

~~~~~~~~

Ann Bowman (not her real name) is a mentor to young women serving overseas. Having two grown daughters in missions, she has walked with them through the joys of living abroad and the trials. Ann is an artist, writer, teacher, and Nonna to four grandchildren who live in Southeast Asia. She and her husband reside in Texas and spend as much time with their family on video chat as they can.

Mostly Belonging: Hope for the MK

by Michèle Phoenix

When I was little, I’d snuggle up to my mom in the evenings and listen to her reading Are You My Mother?, attracted to the plight of the children’s book’s melancholy protagonist in a way I couldn’t fully comprehend. In the story, the baby bird falls out of her nest and wanders from cat to tractor to cow and car, repeating her increasingly urgent question: “Are you my mother?

Without realizing it, I identified with her pain. The sensation of lostness was all too familiar to me, even at that age.

When I saw a copy of the book in a store a few weeks ago, my instant reaction was an urge to reach through the glossy cover and comfort the hapless hero. I saw a bit of me in her—a lifetime spent wondering if new places and people groups would be my “mother,” my place of belonging and sameness.

In many respects, MKs are not much different from this feathered fellow. We hover between clusters of those who know their place and fit their social contexts, hoping that someone will want us or include us despite our difference. We try to act like it doesn’t really matter. Or we try to be tough and endure it. But we still live our lives in a more or less conscious pursuit of belonging.

“I will never belong” is a sentiment I’ve heard expressed with varying degrees of rancor and drama in my thirty years of MK ministry. Of all the traits Third Culture Kids and Missionaries’ Kids share, I think this one is among the most powerful.

It is born of multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-experiential and multi-identificational backgrounds that both expand our worlds and limit our full adaptation to any of them.

One of my first conscious thoughts about my TCK identity came at a young age, when I realized while on furlough that I’d never be fully American, and that the French would never consider me fully French, either. There seemed to be no place on earth where I could feel that I fully belonged. Is it any wonder that MK communities like schools and mission conferences become such a haven of sameness to MKs?

Unfortunately, having experienced that level of identification can also set us up for a lifetime of discontent, because—and I don’t want to sound pessimistic—it is a sense of wholeness we may never know again.

Multi-cultural dwellers face three distinct options in their quest for belonging.

The first is to conform.
The second is to intentionally unconform.
The third is to straddle the cultural divide.

Let’s start with conforming. In some ways it’s the easiest option, and MKs are fairly good at it, at least on a surface level. We’re observers by nature. Whether it be trying out a new fast-food restaurant or voting in elections for the first time, I still live by the old motto: watch first, act second. I’ll relinquish my place in line as often as I need to until I’ve figured out how “normal” people do it and can proceed as they do.

That’s really just cultural savvy—or practical conformity. The kind that spares us public embarrassment and the kind of social faux-pas we desperately try to avoid. A complete conformity is a more dangerous version of the classic MK ability to adapt. In this case, we’ll either consciously or subconsciously discard those parts of ourselves that link us to other cultures and modes of life in order to be fully American, fully European, or fully Asian.

The danger in full conformity is in what we have to relinquish to achieve it.

You’ll see this in the MK from Rwanda who moves to Canada and wears nothing but Rwandan garb as an outward sign of her allegiance to her heart-home. You’ll see it in the Turkish MK who refuses to return to his passport culture and stops using English—thereby losing contact with the North American branch of his family and identity. Or the TCK in her passport country who never refers to the foreign places that framed her worldview and shaped her personality.

In order for me to have fully adapted to my French culture or to my Canadian passport culture, for instance, I would have had to alter my appearance, my political views, my gender-role opinions, my culinary tastes, and some of my social behaviors to achieve what that culture expected of me.

Once I was finished erasing the old and embracing the new, there would have been very little left of the richness of a multi-cultural upbringing: the broadened understanding and artistic/social/political palette that is so unique and so prized in TCKs.

Conformity would have cost me every bit of the beautiful complexity that can come from being an MK, but it would also have earned me a sense of belonging and sameness. For that sense, MKs can be willing to sacrifice an awful lot.

The second response to unbelonging is unconforming. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to me and it goes something like this: “There’s no way I’m ever going to fit in. People on both continents tell me I’m weird. Weird in Brazil. Weird in Korea. Well, let me show you weird.” And the MK sets out to be as odd as he or she can possibly be.

It’s a self-defense mechanism that has serious back-firing potential, but I can see its appeal. Whereas being the victim of our difference feels painful and unpredictable, being the architect of the difference gives us a sense of control.

So we exaggerate our weirdness in order to call it a choice, not an affliction.

Sometimes it’s strange clothes, sometimes it’s eccentric behavior, sometimes it’s threatening attitudes, weird tastes or social misconduct. On some, it’s endearing. On others, it’s off-putting. But to MKs whose identities have been shattered and rearranged without their volition, it’s a sense of finally being in control of how the world perceives them.

So when someone’s expression says, “You’re weird,” they can pat themselves on the backs and consider it mission accomplished, because they’ve made “difference” a choice, not an painful condition.

But…they’ve also made that elusive “belonging” even more impossible to achieve.

The final response to unbelonging is straddling. It’s probably the healthiest of the three belonging options, though it is certainly not the easiest.

It requires that we celebrate “mostly-belonging.” It keeps us intentionally connected to the cultures and subcultures that have shaped us while investing and implanting in the one in which we live.

Straddling allows us to retain all those facets that lend depth and breadth to our identities while mostly adapting to the new places life takes us. In order to successfully straddle cultures, we’ll have to understand and value each of them, retaining those other-culture quirks that are acceptable in the place where we currently are and disengaging those that might be jarring or misunderstood by the locals around us—at least initially.

Straddling requires that we add new facets to our panoply, not as a rejection of what we’ve known before, but an expansion of our cultural arsenal. It is also a means of honoring the culture in which we’ve been planted. For instance, moving to Germany and not alienating our neighbors may require that we regularly sweep sidewalks that don’t need sweeping. Living in other places may require more modest dress for women. And yet others may require a “bribe” column in our budgeting. These are adjustments we can make without releasing the influences that made us who we are.

Mostly-belonging isn’t a repudiation of the multi-cultural aspects of our identities—it’s a thoughtful, intentional choice to embed in the culture we now live in, and an equally intentional choice to stay connected with the other cultures we carry within us.

An initial carefulness and adherence to social norms will usually yield a more successful integration than, say, waving a Greek flag and refusing to eat anything but olives and feta! As relationships deepen and our friends know us better, we’ll be able to broaden our expressions of multi-culturalism without alienating others.

Straddling or mostly-belonging requires that we relinquish the baby bird’s dream of full, uncompromising sameness. As MKs, we’re actually healthier when we accept that we won’t ever be completely one or the other of our natures, when we acknowledge and celebrate those ways in which we can fit in, and when we set out to live enthusiastically in that space between belongings. That’s what makes us unique, broad-minded, tolerant, chameleon-like and prized bridge-builders in whatever society we embrace. That’s what allows us to thrive as TCKs.

With that attitude—with that self-awareness, intentionality and openness—true connection becomes possible, and a new, richer and healthier form of belonging can be ours.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group, and she has recently launched the podcast Pondering Purple. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

Radical Forgiveness

by Rahma

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of an unforgettable family tragedy. My mom’s first cousin Jeff was driving with his five children when a pickup truck suddenly crossed the grassy median and hit them head-on at 60 miles per hour. All five of the children were killed instantly, and Jeff suffered serious injuries. I was in my senior year of high school at the time, and I remember seeing my mom cry when she got the phone call.

Carolyn, the mother of the family, had been in town running some errands, and her family had been on their way to meet her. I cannot imagine the unspeakable grief of a mother losing all five of her children in one instant.

But even while her husband was still in the hospital, Carolyn visited another hospital room: the room of the driver who had hit her family’s car. His name was Mr. Helm.

Carolyn took my Great-Uncle Jason (the grandfather of the children who died) to visit Mr. Helm. Together they told him that they forgave him and were praying for him. They did not press charges. They did not seek revenge. They chose to forgive. When cousin Jeff recovered, he, too, offered forgiveness to Mr. Helm.

My mom flew across the country from Virginia to Washington State to attend the funeral of my second cousins. Five crosses now mark the graves of Carmen, 12; Jana, 10; Carinna, 8; Jerryl, 4; and Craig, 2. For years, the picture of their five beautiful faces hung on my mother’s refrigerator. The picture served as a reminder to my family of incredible suffering and radical forgiveness.

This week also marks the three-week anniversary of an ongoing hostage crisis in Haiti. Seventeen mission workers are being held captive, including five children. The ages of those children are 8 months, 3 years, 6 years, 13 years, and 15 years.

Great-Uncle Jason, the grandfather of the five children who died in that car crash so many years ago, is now waiting and praying for news of another grandchild. His 27-year-old grandson traveled to Haiti to serve and was taken hostage the next day. But Great-Uncle Jason is again responding with unbelievable faith and forgiveness. Watching him offer forgiveness to the hostages brings tears to my eyes.

What kind of radical faith can bring people to say such things? To offer forgiveness to those who are holding hostage and threatening the lives of their loved ones? What kind of faith brings a mother to forgive the man whose truck killed all five of her children? How can my Great-Uncle Jason, who has already buried five grandchildren, hold onto hope as he awaits news of yet another grandchild?

And yet, this is the faith that we are all invited into. My family are Mennonites, but it is not only Mennonites who are called to forgive their enemies. If we call ourselves Christians, then we are part of a faith that calls us to forgive. We follow a savior who called us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us (Matthew 5). Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we also forgive those who sin against us.”

Our savior left us countless examples of forgiveness. Perhaps the most powerful example of all came as he was hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But do we forgive like this? Do we actually forgive those who sin against us? Would we choose forgiveness if we were in my Great-Uncle Jason’s shoes? Or if we were Jeff and Carolyn, the parents who lost five children in one moment? Or if we were the parents or grandparents of one of the other hostages in Haiti?

This week as I reflected on these tragedies both past and present, the Lord brought it closer to home for me. Sunday, October 31st was the ten-year anniversary of a devastating fire in the first slum community that I lived in. When the flames were finally put out, all that was left was a smoldering neighborhood and 200 families who were suddenly homeless.

Do I forgive the perpetrators of this devastating fire from ten years ago?

Forgiving is not the same thing as condoning sin or enabling abusers. However, our Lord has instructed us to forgive. Forgiveness helps free us from our anger, bitterness, and prisons of hate. But it is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that forgiveness can be possible.

Now as I live in another slum community in one of the largest cities on earth, I am grateful for my Christian Mennonite heritage which taught me to love Jesus, care about the poor, and seek to love my enemies. I know I cannot do this perfectly, but that is why we need grace. Each and every day we must cling to the grace offered by our Lord Jesus and know we are forgiven.

And it is because we are forgiven that we can then offer forgiveness to others.

Lord, help us on our journeys to forgiveness. Give us Your heart to forgive those who have wronged us. Help us to be agents of love and reconciliation to those around us, that the world may see and stand in awe of You.

 

*This article has been modified to remove references to the sending agency of the workers held hostage in Haiti. On November 9, 2021, the author, along with A Life Overseas, learned of a history of sexual abuse coverup in that agency. We grieve when any person is abused and are deeply sorry for any pain caused by the references in the initial article.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.

Life as a Christian Business Kid

by Clarissa Choo

I grew up as a business kid living first in Singapore and South Korea and later in a closed country and the Czech Republic. I’m an adult TCK now, but first and foremost I am a child of God.

Although Singapore is my passport country, my parents were not “typical” Singaporean parents. They never expected my sister and me to achieve perfect grades. Instead, they desired that we come to know Christ as our Savior and dedicate our lives to Him.

Their initial plan to avoid the stressful education system in Singapore was to immigrate to Canada. My dad had spent a significant number of years in Canada studying higher education and interacting with the culture there. But God’s plans were different from my parents’ plans.

God re-directed our path to South Korea through my dad’s work. I was five years old at the time. The Canadian embassy eventually approved our visas, but Dad had already accepted his job contract, and we had already moved to South Korea. We stayed in South Korea, where Christ saved me when I was seven years old.

Later in my teen years I searched for Christian TCK communities and found that the majority were intended for missionary kids. At the time it seemed that Christian BKs like me were quite rare. So if you’re a missionary or a missionary kid, you might not know what the life of a Christian BK looks like.

I’ll let you in on a little “secret”: although the paths of a missionary kid and a Christian business kid may seem different, they share similarities. Because as saved children of the King, we have one common goal – reaching the unsaved with the gospel no matter which country we live in.

As a former BK, I am perceived by some people as “pampered” or a “brat,” and I’m sure some MKs view my path as a fancier and less difficult route than theirs. In terms of finances, it may seem that way because many companies paid the bulk of living expenses for expatriates.

But people’s assumptions aren’t always accurate. While my family was outside of Singapore, my dad was diagnosed with a rare, chronic auto-immune disease called CIDP. His monthly treatments for life were so expensive that there were times when we were concerned about how the bills would be cleared. But God met our needs every time. 

And here’s another “secret” of mine: I used to envy missionary kids. Many MKs I knew could stay in their host country longer than I could. They could speak two languages fluently while I lacked sufficient time to be multilingual due to another move on the horizon. Having two “homes” appeared better than having many, as I’d have to say goodbye again. And again and again … and again.

Later as an adult I went through complex PTSD, partly due to stifling my emotions without processing them properly during transitions as a young child. I’m sure many of you can relate to that.

I can talk about so many blessings though — the main ones being experiences. Some of the experiences came from attending private schools filled with international students and from immersing myself in the local culture. Other experiences came from distributing gospel tracts and witnessing individuals place their trust in Jesus. In fact, my most precious memories involve local churches and mission work.

Just like we weren’t “typical” Singaporeans, we weren’t “typical” expatriates either. What I mean by that is that when we were overseas, we weren’t heavily involved in expat communities (although we did participate a couple of times). Instead, our main communities stemmed from local churches.

One Sunday at our church in South Korea, the pastor preached about missions. While he prayed the ending prayer, my dad took my tiny hand and brought me to the stage (my mom and sister were in other ministry rooms). I watched as he knelt and dedicated his heart to support mission work. Although my family didn’t carry the title of missionary, as saved children of God we were still missionaries. Throughout my life, I’ve seen my parents support mission work in various ways, whether through finances, prayers, simple actions of servitude, or sharing the gospel.

When we were in the closed country, I felt as though I was living a “double” life due to the government’s restrictions on Christians sharing the gospel message. During the weekdays I was a uniformed student, and over the weekends I attended an illegal house church with my Sunday clothes on. My parents could have brought us to a legal church as that was seen as the “safe” option, but legal churches were prohibited from openly sharing the gospel. Thus, we attended a house church – a decision we never regretted.

My parents even opened our house on Wednesday nights for the church’s mid-week Bible studies. We stayed in a private compound, which contained many expatriates like us. One action led to another as workers from the compound came to our house on Wednesdays to hear the Word of God. Back then, I didn’t realize how dangerous that was, but we didn’t regret that decision either.

That’s because salvation is priceless, and we shouldn’t keep the gospel to ourselves. Everywhere is a mission field.

In the Czech Republic, my family spent a lot of time serving a small church. I played the piano, watched after the kids, passed snacks around, and cleaned. My family served in their own ways too. We gave gospel tracts to individuals who crossed our paths and brought one of them to the church.

God has used local churches across the globe to shape my TCK life and perspectives over time. Each time God brought us to a new country, I would wonder about the church He was leading us to and about the unsaved who would cross our paths.

Furthermore, my TCK experiences with missions in various countries instilled in me a desire to support and be involved in both overseas and local missions. And no matter the path or country God places me in, I believe He wants to use that desire to further His kingdom.

~~~~~~~~~~

Clarissa Choo is an ATCK and a former business kid. Although she has lived in four countries, Heaven is her only home. She’s the administrator of the newly launched website ministry, TCKs for Christ. The platform seeks to serve, encourage, and challenge Christian TCKs to use their gifts and live victoriously with a firm identity in Jesus Christ. You can connect with Clarissa at ClarissaChoo.com or her Instagram, @ClarissaChoowriter.

Dear Re-entry

by Katherine

Dear Reverse Culture Shock,

I have not enjoyed spending time with you. You are a sneaky thief. Beyond that, your identity is ambiguous. You have made moving back to my passport country horrible.

I’m never sure whether I should call you Reverse Culture Shock or Re-entry. And if Re-entry, how do I spell it? People can’t agree if it’s Re-entry or Reentry.

Even though I have had many dealings with you, I still don’t know what to call you. That says something about your nature. You’re elusive, invisible. 

I wish you were more like your brother Culture Shock. Although also unpleasant, I appreciate that he is obnoxious. Like you, he steals, but in a more obvious way.

Or why can’t you be like your namesake Spacecraft Re-entry? He is loud. Everyone knows he is the most dangerous part of a space journey. Getting back into Earth’s atmosphere is a vulnerable time, and it can be disastrous if is not done carefully.

You are not obvious or loud; you hide away like an afterthought, silently stealing from me.

You stole my house, my job, my friends — lots of tangible things like that but also my skills and identity. You turned me into an incompetent invisible immigrant. On the outside, I look like a normal Australian, but I don’t know how to do anything. At least in Asia, my white skin announces that I will need help talking or eating.

You stole my ability to do things people expect me to be capable of doing. I look like everyone else, so drivers assume I will know how to cross the road. People in the supermarket expect me to be able to buy a box of breakfast cereal.

You stole my ability to do things I expect myself to be capable of doing. I’ve lived here before, so I assume I know how to do all those simple things. Like feed myself and take part in conversations. Like buy and wear shoes after wearing flip-flops for many years.

You stole my ability to be settled in like people seem to expect. “Have you settled in yet?” It sounds like a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But it sometimes sounds like, “You should feel settled now that you have been back for almost a year.”

You stole my ability to sleep as much as I need. Every little thing takes so much more effort, so I’m extra tired. But the bed is too soft, there is no hugging pillow, and it’s so cold I need to use a blanket. I even need to relearn how to sleep.

You stole my ability to have fun and relax. In a new environment, my hobbies and habits that kept me sane can’t happen. So not only do you create extra stress and work for me, but you also take away my ways to cope with stress. 

You stole my ability to understand that I’m in pain. Until I met you, I felt like I was at home, but you took that and replaced it with sadness too big see. Homelessness is the air I’m breathing, but I can’t see that air.

It feels like confusion and helplessness. 

It feels like a problem I need to fix as soon as possible. 

It feels like if I only relearn how to live in Australia, I will be able to function as a normal person.

You make those feelings so overwhelming that I can’t see what is really going on. And if I can’t understand I’m in pain, how can I start processing it? You can’t heal from something unless you know it’s there. In fact, sometimes the simple act of naming emotions is healing, but you stole even that. 

It’s going to end up pushed aside, out of sight, out of mind. Like a bacteria in the permafrost, it will end up frozen and inactive. The unnamed and unacknowledged pain could stay dormant until the next heat wave. When the permafrost melts, the bacteria can start causing destruction again. Not only did you create loss, but you also stole the ability to cope with it. 

I can’t blame you entirely – pain in general is hard to deal with. We prefer to find the silver linings and write gratitude lists. Even people in visible pain are sometimes met with, “At least it’s not as bad as it could be.” 

Perhaps it is hard to see another’s pain, especially if we haven’t processed our own. Or perhaps because it is uncomfortable to see someone in pain ,we try to sweep it away. It’s more convenient to say some “comforting words” than listen to another person scream and cry for five hours. 

So Reentry, my inability to process pain is not all your fault. But if you weren’t so invisible, there would be more chance of acknowledgment. That might not sound like much, but it actually goes a long way. In fact, you can’t get anywhere without it. 

But you stole my ability to do almost everything, including explaining to people that I don’t know how to do anything.  If only I could wear “Learners” plates everywhere so people would know. 

This letter is too short to tell you all the reasons I’m not fond of you. But I hope it gives you a glimpse of some of what you have done to me. 

This letter has no power to stop you from silently stealing from me and your other victims. But what I hope this letter can do is to bring you out of hiding. If you were visible, your victims would have more chance to give their pain space to breathe.

Painfully yours,
Katherine

~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. She wrote this letter as a response to two years of re-entry and reverse culture shock in 2011 and 2012.

Celebrating Broken Things

by Marti Williams

Meet Jeremy. He’s a ceramic bank given to me in 1971. He has traveled the world with me on many missionary placements and had a special place on my dresser for 50 years, whether it was in Zimbabwe, the United Arab Emirates, or Australia.  

Four years ago we were living in our most recent home of 17 years – Australia – when our visa was denied. Just like that we had to leave it all. We stopped being “overseas workers” and became “stateside personnel.” Jeremy, like always, came with us. But this time the final move was too much. When I unpacked him and saw that he was shattered – possibly beyond repair – I was devastated.

I couldn’t face his brokenness, so I left him there – packed away in a shoebox – for three years. Maybe my husband would fix him for me. But then life got busy.  I had a new role in the mission – complete with extensive travel. We bought and set up a house. We settled (lightly) into a new neighborhood and church community. I had many responsibilities to fill my time and distract me from finding the opportunity to fix him.  

When life came to a standstill in COVID, I found myself with time and space – lots of it. I had no more excuses. I realized I needed to take responsibility for the job of fixing Jeremy myself, instead of hoping my husband would do it for me.    

Sitting at the newspaper-covered table looking at the scattered pieces of Jeremy, I saw myself in a variety of cracked and broken pieces – all the losses brought about by our return. They are sharp and jagged shards of loss. Loss of family, of leaving behind my daughter, son-in-law and two precious grandsons. Loss of a fruitful ministry. Loss of a sense of accomplishment. Loss of a ministry I felt God had specifically prepared me for. Loss of identity as an “overseas worker.” The frustration of having to call this passport country “home” when it has never really been home to me. The final “nail in the coffin” was the loss of my high school girlfriend to cancer two months after returning. We were supposed to retire together. 

And then the questions came. Why, God? We were so close to Retirement.  Couldn’t we have just stayed there a couple more years and finished well Couldn’t we have enjoyed a sense of completion and closure in that placement? In one denied visa it was gone. All those Losses lay before me, and now they were compounded by a new loss: loss of confidence that God had prepared me for this new role and responsibility in the mission. At this stage in life, do I really need to take on such a daunting role? I feel a bit like Sarah. 

The act of reassembling Jeremy became a pilgrimage of healing. One piece at a time, I could see how God was putting me back together too. 

But looking at Jeremy, the trauma is evident. The scars and cracks show. There are gaps and pieces knocked out which are either lost or too small to glue back. Those “too small” pieces are collected in a bag and stored inside him, as they are still part of his story.  It just seems wrong to throw them away.

The reality is, I have cracks and gaps as well — and pieces I keep inside me that are too small to glue back. They are still part of my story, and occasionally they get jostled by life. Because they are sharp, they cause more pain. But they are still part of me, and God gives me the time and space to process them as well – and bring more healing. 

God still surprises me. The back of Jeremy’s head was a place where the pieces were just too small, and I could not fill in the hole.  Initially I was disappointed. But then I noticed it is the outline of Australia – the place where part of my heart remains with my kids and grandkids and the place of our more recent ministry and memories. I leave the “hole” as it is because it shows the special nature of God’s love for surprises which bless and comfort.

The Japanese have developed the art of Kintsugi – repairing cracked and broken pottery or ceramics with molten gold or silver.  The philosophy is that if an object has been damaged, there is even more beauty to be appreciated and a history which needs to be celebrated, not hidden or discarded.

To celebrate the beauty of both Brokenness and Healing, I painted the cracks on Jeremy with gold paint – to make them more visible, especially when light shines inside him. May it be so with me; may God be more visible in me because of the very cracks and gaps of my brokenness. 

“My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9 NET)

~~~~~~~~~~~

Marti Williams is a TEAM missionary kid from South Africa. Now she and her husband have served with TEAM for 37 years. She has ministered in various roles of Leadership Development, Church Planting, Bible College Lecturer and Women’s Pastor. She and her husband have served on 3 different continents ministering in Zimbabwe, the UAE and Australia. They are now Stateside on Special Assignment where Marti is serving as the Director of Equity and Diversity for TEAM. Their 3 married daughters currently live in Cambridge, UK, Atlanta, GA and Adelaide, Australia, where their 2 grandsons are being raised as Australians with American roots.

 

Broken Blenders

by Katherine

See the blade twist to a stop
See the smoke rise after the pop
And I’ve broken another blender

Blenders keep breaking; I can’t bear to get another one. Is it that I keep buying low-quality blenders? Or is it the power surges and dusty, tropical environment? I can’t remember how many blenders I’ve been through in my years living in SE Asia. I don’t have one at the moment; I can’t bring myself to buy another one. I know it’s going to break.

Friends keep leaving; I can’t bear to get to know new people. Every new friend is an embryo of a goodbye. The expat community has such a high turnover. As an Australian living in Asia, I’m in a community with people from many countries. We all live here together as foreigners. Some stay for a few months, some for a few years, and some for a few decades. At any given time, I know of someone who is gearing up to move back to their passport country.

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe enough to be a regular confidant
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away
 

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe enough to tell them where we keep the passports
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe our children will grow up together
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away

We are a mosaic of everyone we’ve ever met, so they say. A mosaic is composed of pieces of different colours and shapes arranged together to form beauty. Well, I say the content of our house is a hodgepodge of many of the people we have farewelled. Our things are a jumbled, messy mixture of exited expats’ former items.

When an expat leaves, they need to get, say, 6 years of belongings down to a 20-kg bag. They sell, they gift, and they throw away.

I have a shelf from a friend who left 15 years ago,
a saucepan from a friend who left 8 years ago,
toys from friends who left 5 years ago,
many books from a friend who left 3 years ago,
a bed from a friend who left 2 years ago,
and a jar of sprinkles from a friend who left a year ago,
just to name a few.

Each piece of the mosaic is part time machine and part airplane. The jar of sprinkles connects us to those years we spent with the former owner. Memories of decorating Christmas cookies at her place pop up when I see the tall glass jar full of coloured balls.

It also connects us to that same friend in the present day. A reminder she is not here, but on the other side of the world. Her children probably don’t remember the sugary mess we made at their place. And they won’t be hosting cookie decorating here again.

I need to grow the mosaic. Although I can’t bear the thought of getting to know more people, I also cannot live without expat friends. I have local friends and friends in my passport country, but there are some things only fellow expats will get.

Locals know nothing other than crazy traffic, so they don’t see it as crazy. Passport country friends don’t know what it is like to fear every trip around town in your first year of a new country — but then to also fear the traffic in your passport country every visit.

So I will continue to welcome new friends. It’s better to have friends and say goodbye than to never have friends. And next time I am saying goodbye, maybe I will take the plunge and ask if my departing friends are looking to re-home their blender.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.

7 Ways to Enjoy Your Host Country

by Abigail Follows

We launched to India as newlyweds. After an 18-hour bus ride into the Himalayan mountains, we strapped ourselves into two giant backpacking backpacks and walked into a village. Several years, two kids, and many life lessons later, we found ourselves wondering how to help our kids love the country where they were born.

Our kids had been through more than their share of stress and trauma. Could we stay in India anyway? One thing was clear: we needed to make some changes. Whether you’re a new missionary or looking for ways to help your family re-bond with your host country, here are seven things we’ve found that help.

 

1. Be a Tourist.
I know, I know. You probably spend a lot of time trying not to look like a tourist. You want people to see that you live here. That you’re permanent. I get it. We lived in India for seven years, and we didn’t see the Taj Mahal until year six! 

But the thing is, celebrating the unique things in your host country is unlikely to ruin your witness. On the contrary, it stimulates the economy and gives you things to talk about. So go see that interesting monument. Take that camel safari. Buy the keychain made in China that says “Thailand” on it. Make memories in your host country, and your love for the place will grow.

 

2. Plan Regular Breaks.
This is especially important if your ministry assignment is in an intense or underdeveloped area. And it can be an easy thing to neglect. When we lived in India, it was 14 hours away by bus to Anywhere Else, so we pretty much stayed home.

However, once we realized our kids needed more, we had to get creative. We found local places to take breaks—a hot spring, a hotel with a pool, a restaurant that served pizza without garam masala on it. As it turned out, my husband and I needed more, too.

Taking breaks calms the brain and nervous system and gives you a bird’s-eye view on problems. It’s like a giant reset button, giving you the mental fortitude to tackle your tasks with fresh energy.

 

3. Spend A Little Money.
This might sound materialistic at first glance. But here’s where I’m coming from: when my husband and I first launched to India, we were afraid to buy knives and a cooking pot, lest we look rich. Another friend of mine was advised by coworkers not to buy any furniture for the same reason.

It’s important to consider the economic situation of your friends and neighbors, and of the host country as a whole. But if a small luxury would save you time and frustration, and if it won’t specifically hinder your witness, go for it! Once Joshua and I finally got set up in a home, we were complimented by all the neighborhood dadijis (grandmas) for providing for ourselves. We had graduated from wandering trekkers to normal people.

 

4. Forgive.
I try hard to be neutral and chill when it comes to cultural misunderstandings. But certain things break through and offend me to my core. In India, our neighbors had the habit of blaming mothers for everything that went wrong with children—from mosquito bites to major injuries—whether or not the mother was within a 20-mile radius of her kid at the time.

This violated my hidden cultural assumptions: Mothers instinctually know how to parent; good mothers don’t get told what to do, because they already know; good mothers don’t want their children to be injured, so communities should always reassure rather than blame. The message I got when I was blamed for everything was this: “You are a terrible mother. Also, we don’t like you.”

It was hard to forgive and let go of my offendedness, because it just made so much sense! But once I did forgive, I came to understand the Indian mindset: Mothers do not instinctually know how to parent, and we should pressure and give advice, lest they mess things up. If we don’t say anything, it’s because we don’t care. In other words, my Parvata friends were actively caring about me and trying to help me do my job well. 

Forgiving gives you permission to keep seeing the good in people. Apply grace liberally!

 

5. Temporarily suspend some boundaries.
Before launching to India, we read a wonderful article called, “Bonding and the Missionary Task,” by Brewster and Brewster. That article was second only to the Bible in our initial mission strategy. As the Brewsters suggested, we packed very light—hence the two backpacks. We used only public transportation. And we lived with a local family.

We lived with less privacy than we wanted. A lot less. And you know what? That transparency and dependence on the local community endeared us to each other! Even now, we consider each other family.

However…

 

6. Make sure you put important boundaries back!
We should have gotten our own house, bought a kitchen table, and driven our own car just a smidge earlier than we did. About four years earlier.

Temporarily living with lowered boundaries can help you bond with people. Obliterating your boundaries permanently will lead to burnout. You will have a lot of trouble being “lights of the world” if the unique “flavor” of your family is watered down because you’re trying to be like everybody else. Take it from a family who knows!

 

7. Find a Friend.
This is tip numero uno, my very best advice. I had many friends and adoptive family members. But it was finding two ladies to be my real, genuine friends that cemented my love for India forever.

Darshika and Naina came from completely different backgrounds. One was relatively poor; the other ran a popular guest house. One was highly educated and driven; the other couldn’t read. One chose to follow Jesus; the other didn’t make that choice. But we connected. We got each other.

My husband, Joshua, has a handful of really good friends in our current location in North Africa. I can see how much it makes him love this place. Because the most important thing about a place, the thing that really helps you understand and love a place… is the people.

This is especially true for children. My kids want nothing more in life than to have real friends. So, whatever you need to do to find them, make sure each member of your family has one or two true, genuine friends. And do what you can to nurture those relationships.

 

Bonus Tip!
In the end, circumstances beyond our control caused us to leave India earlier than we’d planned. But our efforts were not in vain. Even now, we and our kids have many happy memories from those colorful, spicy, intense seven years. And I can say with honesty that I still love, admire, and appreciate the people we lived and worked among.

And implementing these tips in our second host country has helped us thrive and adjust to normalcy more quickly.

My final piece of advice is this: Adjust your focus every day. Look for the good in your host country and its people, and apply grace to the rest. When Jesus gets ahold of people, that’s what He’s going to do anyway. And hopefully, by that same grace, we imperfect missionaries will get to play a part in His plan to bless the world.

 ~~~~~~~~~

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. She has been a cross-cultural missionary for 11 years. Abigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two children, and cat, Protagonist. She recently released Hidden Song of the Himalayas, a memoir about her family’s seven years as missionaries in India. Find out more at www.abigailfollows.com.

 

All the Things I Still Don’t Know

by Janine

Tonight my daughter came home with homework of fill-in-the-blank words, where they give you a picture and maybe a “letter” (or in our case, a syllable) or two as a hint. These assignments are new as she’s starting to advance in learning her hiragana [the simplest of the phonetic lettering scripts of Japanese].

Some words I just type into the dictionary, and together we learn a new word. The problem arises when you have no idea what they’re trying to portray in the picture. Two out of six were words I have no reference for… one of them I’m not sure we have a word for in English. So I’m waiting for a message from a friend who will help me help my kid with her homework.

Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about the ongoing upheaval of our sense of competency that begins the moment you land in a new world you’ll now call home.

Before you left, it was all about competency and calling. Or at least, so you thought.

You go through applications and interviews, you study, you take courses, you prepare, you pack, you have meetings and presentations, you answer questions… people think you’re ready to go! “They are fit for the calling,” you hear them say.

And you need to do these things. You have to be wise and not embark foolishly and haphazardly.

But here’s the paradox: you land, and you can just go ahead and throw all that out the window.

I know. It doesn’t make sense. But it really does make sense.

No longer are you the person who knows “all the things.”

You’re a learner now, and it’s best to honestly suit yourself with that attitude along with your new visa stamp.

Gone are the cultural clues, the comfort of how you do things, social structures and systems that you’re familiar with. Gone are the days of intuitively understanding life and the way everything works. Gone are the days of giving on-point presentations; you’ll be combatting first grade homework!

It’s time to learn a language. That’s not like a one- or two-month course and then you’ve checked that off your list. For many languages it’s thousands of hours of study and practice. And you’ll probably butcher it for a good long time and speak with the worst accent. You’ll make silly, embarrassing mistakes. You’ll talk like a child and have to work hard to refine and grow yourself.

You’ll need help, and lots of it. You’ll need humility, and lots of it.

You’ll need a good sense of humor to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously.

You’ll make blunders culturally. Some you’ll laugh about (later), and some you might cringe over here ever after.

You’ll learn to interpret all the things you didn’t even know were there before, because they aren’t written.

You’ll learn new expressions, new things you didn’t know you could do (by the grace of God!), new vibrancy and variety of the beautiful creation of God.

Hopefully, you’ll slowly learn to strip your Biblical beliefs of their cultural colors and give the substance to another to see God bring it to colorful life in their cultural expression and the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.

You’ll be serving– or even deeper than that– learning how to serve. Learning how to share.

It’s our seventh year together on the field. I see just how far we’ve come in all of these areas, praise God. These are the things you might read about in our newsletters or our blog.

But what we live, in our daily missionary lives, is the distance we have yet to go. It’s all the things I still don’t know, but that there is grace for and that God works in.

A Japanese Christian man who works with many missionaries told us that it takes a good 10 years for a missionary to start getting good at culture and language here. So we still have even more to go to be properly seasoned.

And yet, in the meantime, we know God is working and using us, and moving in the process. We see it in our lives and in the people around us and in God’s leading and timing. It’s a journey, definitely not as we anticipated, and yet, all the things we learned and unlearned and then re-learned– they make a lot more sense these days.

This entire journey is a walk of faith and trust in God that He’s got the map right even if the one we’re holding is upside down.  He’ll enlighten us like a loving parent, if we’ll allow Him to.  He’ll even transform us through this journey and work through us in ways we might never have seen coming.  In the end, it’s Christ who supplies our competency as ministers of the Gospel.

~~~~~~~~~

Janine, her husband Vicente, and their three daughters live and serve in the Tokyo metro area.  They established an evangelistic media ministry to share the Gospel.  Janine served for 3 years in Mexico before moving to Tokyo to work in church-planting, where she eventually met her Honduran husband who happened to visit on a short-term trip. Janine enjoys audiobooks, quilting, cooking and obviously, writing. You can find out whether they survive elementary school by following her personal blog.

Strangers and Aliens: Covid in the Slums

by Rahma

We had been waiting for months for news about when we might be able to receive a Covid vaccine. The elderly, health workers, government offices, and teachers were the first groups to be vaccinated. My husband and I are teachers, but the free school that we run in our slum community is not a “real” school, so we could not qualify to receive vaccines. 

For eleven months, we opened House of Hope during the pandemic– praying that the benefits to the community were greater than the risks presented by meeting in person. Sickness in slums is a constant affair; there are always children and adults sick with diarrhea, coughs, colds, fevers, sore throats. Normally when someone is sick with some or all of those symptoms, possible diagnoses include: the common flu, dengue fever, typhoid, or TB. Now we added “Covid-19” to the possible list.  

On Wednesday of our last week of classes for the year, my husband received a phone call from the government leader in his mom’s neighborhood. We had registered with this leader two weeks prior, hoping that one day we would be eligible to be vaccinated. “You can go today,” the man said. “To the police center.  You have ten minutes. There are only six vaccines left.”

Talk about last minute warning. We changed our clothes (out of slum clothes, into presentable vaccination clothes), grabbed our important documents (government ID, marriage certificate, my passport and visa), and jumped on our motorcycle. My husband sped through traffic, and we arrived at the police center perhaps twenty minutes after the phone call.

The police center was celebrating their birthday; in honor of the birthday, they were providing vaccines for the community. 

They looked at our ID cards, accepted my husband’s since he is Indonesian, but rejected me. I could not be vaccinated. I fought back disappointment and consoled myself with knowing that my husband was getting his first jab. Twenty minutes later, we were back on our motorcycle and going home.

Two days later, after numerous phone calls and confirmation from the same government leader near my in-law’s house, I set off by bike to go to the government clinic. This time equipped with a letter from the official, saying I was a resident and lived in the neighborhood. I spent two hours waiting in line with about 100 others– this time to get a swab rapid test in order to be eligible to be vaccinated the following day. After two hours of waiting, it was finally my turn and I presented the letter and my ID card.

“What is this?” the lady said.

“My permanent resident card.”

“We can’t use this number. You don’t have the right number.”  She confirmed with a higher-up and they sent me home.

I fought back angry tears once more. 

In some strange way, I felt like this experience bonded me with our neighbors.  Many of them do not have the proper documentation– not only is it a struggle to get vaccinated, but anything legal is a challenge. Registering for government elementary schools. Making marriage certificates. Or birth certificates. Or government health cards. I have a friend who had to travel 3 hours during labor to return to her home village for an emergency Cesarean.  

Scripture says we are strangers and aliens in this world.  There’s nothing like living somewhere ten years, but getting denied a vaccine to remind one of this truth. No matter how many years I live here, I will always be the “Bule” (pronounced “Boo”+ “lay”). I will always be the white-skinned one, with brown hair instead of black. I cried, not so much because I really wanted a vaccine, but because I wanted to belong. To not feel like an outsider in this land where I have given birth, taught hundreds of children, and planted myself. It just did not seem fair.

The following morning, we biked 55 kilometers round trip to the Zoo (where we were refused entry because of new Covid restrictions and because our ID cards were not from Jakarta).  I knew I was dragging a little bit, but a sudden rainstorm refreshed us and we made it home happily.  After a shower, however, I realized I was feverish. I spent the rest of the day in bed. My husband also started to feel sick. We wondered (Asian style) if it was because of getting rained on. 

The following morning, we got Covid PCR tests. We were positive, along with one of our teammates. We paid to get tested at a private clinic, as trying to get a free PCR from the government clinic is nearly impossible. Officially, our test results should be reported to our government health clinic. Officially, if one of our cases were to deteriorate, they should be responsible to send an ambulance and help us get to a hospital. But because we live in a slum, this is not possible.

If we chose to self-isolate in our sabbath house, in the middle-class neighborhood according to our ID address, the health officials would help us.  But since we would rather be at home in our slum house– where there are neighbors who can shop for us, where there is a field we can walk on and get fresh air, where our pet rabbit is, where we feel more comfortable– there is no government health center to report to. Slums are by definition illegal. We live on “dark land,” without government leadership. Slipping through the cracks of bureaucracy. No one wants to help our neighborhood. 

When we explained to our neighbor about trying to report to the government clinic, she laughed and said: “If we die, they don’t care.” 

And for us it does not really matter. Thankfully, our Covid cases seem mild. We have an oximeter and can self-monitor oxygen levels. We have money to buy vitamins, paracetamol, and nutritious food. We also have health insurance and money in the bank if we needed to check ourselves into a hospital. We have lots of middle-class friends with extra money to send us care packages of food. My kitchen is overflowing with fruit, snacks, honey, and other goodies sent to us– not only from our “rich” friends, but also from our friends in the slum.

But as I hear my neighbors cough, I wonder what they will do if they need to be hospitalized.  I wonder how much money is wasted when they go to a doctor and are given amoxicillin and told they just have “strep throat.”  I know that the official numbers of Covid cases in Indonesia are sky-rocketing, and I know that the real number is likely 20x higher than what is reported.  I feel the injustices of lacking proper ID cards. I feel the struggle of my friends wanting to access free government health care. I sense the denial and optimism of our street, hoping that everyone else just has a “normal cough.”

Lord, protect the most vulnerable.  Have mercy on all those who are sick.  Heal our bodies. Heal our souls.  Come, Lord Jesus.

For the past ten years, living in a slum, I have found solace in the words of Psalm 146.  I read these verses again today and they seem so applicable. My hope is not in princes (or government officials)– my hope is in the Lord. The Lord watches over the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, and the bowed down.  And the Lord watches over the foreigner, too (hey, that’s me!). Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

 The Lord reigns forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.

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Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.