Home Assignment Is _________?

by Kayle Hardrick

Home Assignment is winding down. We are turning our sights towards preparing to return to our host country and to our work there. We are trying to fit in all the last visits we haven’t had a chance to make yet and purchasing the things we had been wishing we had in Cambodia with us the last few years. We are slowly starting to look at weight and space for packing our suitcases. I keep thinking about what Home Assignment is like. How do I describe it?

It is like packing up your family over and over to see people you love and feeling like each visit is not long enough with those people. It feels like fun family times in a car and new experiences because of generous friends and supporters—like driving an RV. It is getting to do things you never thought you’d get to do and being reminded of all the things you would be doing if you lived in your passport country. It is missing your host country and the things happening there while you are away. It is feeling at home in many homes because the people in each home love you like family.

It is buying groceries in many different grocery stores and cooking in a dozen kitchens. It is doing laundry in all kinds of washing machines and sleeping in so many beds of various sizes. It is hauling exhausted children to nine different states and being so proud of them for making friends, enjoying time with extended family, and having relatively wonderful attitudes throughout it all. It is meeting people you have never met in person and being so thankful they have lived this life and for the grace they have with your kids. They understand when your kids just can’t have the manners they should have that evening.

It is watching your kids feel safe and secure because they see and understand the vastness of the family of God. It is your daughter making friends in Sunday School at every different church you attend and opening up her world and her new friend’s world to more. Home Assignment is visiting so many different churches because people you love have found a community they love there, and you want to see it and engage with it. It is having conversations with your kids about all the different church traditions you have gotten to experience over your time.

Home Assignment is lots of coffee, trying old and new foods, and bonding with others. Home Assignment is encouraging others in their lives here in our passport country and being encouraged by them for our work in our host country. Home Assignment is lots of extended family time that you wish would last forever. It is finding a church you can just be in, rest, and enjoy. Home Assignment is being encouraged by the home office because you see more of the big picture within your organization. Home Assignment is far too long and far too short all at the same time.

Originally shared in a newsletter.

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Kayle and her husband Chris serve with Engineering Ministries International in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they have lived for nearly six years. In addition to homeschooling their three kids, Kayle helps with onboarding and language learning at the EMI office, serves on the board of a small NGO-run school in town, and facilitates continuing education courses for cross-cultural workers around the world through Grow2Serve. She loves swimming, hiking, being outside even in the Cambodian heat, and spending time with people.

It’s Time for Research-Based MK Care

by Lauren Wells

We have all heard stories of Adult TCKs who struggle. We have also seen the triumphant stories of TCKs who seem to exude the positive qualities third culture kids are known for. But what influences which end of this spectrum a TCK migrates toward? Is it the number of moves? Parenting styles? Schooling choices?

I began asking this question over a decade ago. Working on the pre-field side of MK care, I was constantly repeating the same presentation about the benefits of being a TCK to parents about to embark on a globally mobile journey. As the years went by, I kept sharing positive aspects of the TCK experience. But I began to wonder – What about those who aren’t doing well? What about the Adult TCKs I know who don’t currently seem to be benefiting from any of these supposed innate positive TCK characteristics? 

It was at this point in my life that I began to study the ins and outs of Prevention Science and analyzing what, for all children, is correlated with thriving in adulthood or not. Then I looked at the patterns of things deemed to be helpful childhood experiences and harmful childhood experiences, and I compared them to the lives of TCKs. I wrote for years about the idea of preventive care for TCKs, and I founded TCK Training on this premise: to cultivate thriving TCKs by providing preventive care. Preventive care does not mean taking away all the challenges of the TCK life, but instead, coming alongside those challenges with intentional care. The challenges themselves are not the problem, it is the way in which those challenges are walked through that determine whether they become resilience-building experiences or result in accumulating fragility. 

But what are we preventing? Anecdotally, I had some ideas. In all my books I shared my hypothesis that TCKs have higher Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores, experience more developmental traumas, and are more prone to toxic stress than the majority of monocultural individuals. Those who have extensively researched these in the general population have found that a high amount of exposure in any of these categories is correlated with relational, behavioral, and physical unhealth in adulthood. So we began teaching preventive care methods, such as Positive Childhood Experiences (PCES) to encourage parents to care intentionally for their children and to ultimately combat their increased risk. 

 

The Research
I knew, however, that statistical data on this concept was critical. In early 2021, TCK Training began the process of preparing to research developmental trauma in TCKs. In June 2021, we launched a carefully constructed and peer-reviewed survey for adult TCKs. The survey asked questions about ACE scores and developmental traumas, and by the closing of the survey on December 31, 2022, we had 2,377 responses. After applying exclusion criteria, we accepted 1,904 responses to be used in our data set. You can read the extensive methodology report at https://www.tcktraining.com/research/tckaces-methodology

In our initial analysis, we’ve learned that our hypothesis was correct, particularly in regard to ACE Scores. We designed the survey with questions comparable to other ACE studies, in particular the CDC-Kaiser study of 17,000 Americans. The graphs below compare ACE scores between our sample of 1,904 Adult TCKs and the CDC-Kaiser study. A particularly important statistic is the percentage who experience 4+ ACE scores. Those with scores of 4 or higher show a significant increase in mental, physical, and behavioral challenges in adulthood. Of the TCK sample, 20.4% experienced 4 or more ACEs, compared to 12.9% of the general American population.

 

How Can Parents Apply This Research to Their Daily Lives?
So what do we do with this information? Our goal for this research is to develop practical advice that parents can follow that makes it more likely that their TCKs will thrive and be able to experience the benefits of the TCK life. We believe that the TCK life is an incredible one! We also know that it does not organically yield a positive childhood experience that results in healthy adulthood. Instead, intentional care of TCKs is needed. 

The research confirmed that we need to support Missionary Kids (a subcategory of TCKs), especially regarding their emotional health. Of the ACE score categories, those pertaining to Emotional Health were the most statistically significant for MKs. 37% of missionary kids in our survey reported feeling emotionally neglected, compared to 15% of people in the CDC-Kaiser study. 40% of missionary kids reported that they were emotionally abused, compared with 11% in the CDC-Kaiser study and one-third of MKs said that they felt “unloved and not special to their parents.” 

For children to feel emotionally supported by their parents, they need to: 

  • Feel that they can express their feelings and feel heard and supported. 
  • Feel their parents “have their back.” 
  • Feel that their parents believe they are important. 
  • Feel loved and special. 
  • Feel that their parents will stand by them in difficult times/situations. 

While we believe that most parents of missionary kids are wonderful, loving parents who want to be emotionally supportive of their children, the data shows that this intention is not coming across well enough to a significant number of MKs. 

Some ways that we’ve heard it expressed are: 

“My parent’s answer to my difficult emotions is always a Bible verse when I really just need a hug and to be told that this is allowed to feel hard.”

“If my parents had to choose between me and the people they’re serving, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t choose me.”

“My parent’s work is more important than me, because their work is reaching the lost and I already know Jesus.”

We often hear comments like these from the MKs we’re debriefing and from the Adult MKs we work with. Again, we believe that most of their parents had/have great intentions, but they simply didn’t know how to communicate this emotional support in a way that their MKs could feel. 

One simple way that we teach parents to be an emotionally safe space for their children is by avoiding “Shut Down Responses” and using “Safe Space Responses.”

All of us use “Shut Down Responses” sometimes. What we want to do is know what they are, know which we tend to use most, and try to catch ourselves when we hear that type of response coming out. Sometimes, it means catching it after the fact and then turning around, apologizing, and trying again. No one is capable of always using “Safe Space Responses” and never using a “Shut Down Response,” but awareness of these responses can help us to aim for using mostly “Safe Space Responses” most of the time. 

 

Shut Down Responses
What we say in our “Shut Down Responses” may be true; however, our response shuts the child down from continuing to feel or share their difficult emotions. Instead, we want to give responses that put out a welcome mat for them to continue to come to you when they experience difficult things. After giving “Safe Space Responses,” there may be time to narrate the truth, ask questions, give your perspective, etc., but we often jump ahead to this step, as in the examples below, instead of first being a safe space. 

Downplaying – Communicating that the event or circumstance about which they are feeling difficult emotions is really not that big of a deal. 

“We just evacuated and what you’re worried about is forgetting the single Lego piece!?”

Defending – Defending the decision that caused the grief and thus communicating, “If there’s a good reason or if I had good intentions, then you shouldn’t feel any difficult emotions.” 

“We chose this school and are spending a lot of money for you to go there because we thought it would be best for you, so you need to be more grateful.” 

Comparing – Comparing one person’s experiences to another person’s or comparing different experiences the same person went through. Both things can be worthy of difficult emotions; both people can be allowed to experience difficult emotions. There is enough compassion to go around!

“It’s not as bad for you as it is for your sister. Think about how hard this has been for her!”

“Look at the people around you without enough food to eat. What they’re going through doesn’t even compare to what you’re complaining about.” 

Correcting Correcting the facts when they’re telling you their feelings instead of compassionately ministering to the important heartfelt perception. This way of thinking assumes that “If they just had the facts right, this emotion would go away!” 

“We didn’t actually move 10 times that year, it was only 5 times.” 

“What actually happened was…” 

Again, most of these responses are not inherently bad or untrue, they are just unhelpful when trying to create an emotionally safe space for children. Instead, use “Safe Space Responses” first. 

 

Safe Space Responses
The following “Safe Space Reponses” will invite your children into emotional connection and give them the space to feel heard and supported.

Acknowledge – Acknowledge that they were brave for sharing this with you and that you are glad they came to you.

Affirm – Give affirmation that their emotions are real, valid, justifiable, etc., and that they make sense. 

Comfort/Connect – Offer a hug, time together, a conversation, kind words, their favorite meal, etc. 

Here’s an example of a safe space response: 

“Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I’m so glad you did. It makes sense that you would feel sad that you forgot your Lego piece when we left. That Lego set was really special to you, and realizing you are missing a piece must have been really upsetting. We lost a lot of things when we left, didn’t we? Would you like a hug or to play together for a few minutes?”

This concept of “Safe Spaces Responses” may seem like a simple practical application of the vast research we are doing, and yet, looking at the responses we received on our survey, it is clear that many Missionary Kids feel they didn’t have consistent emotional support. It is likely they could have benefited from some more Safe Space Responses. 

As we continue to analyze our data, we will continue to look at more practical ways that TCKs can be supported in such a way that their experience creates deeper family connection, yields many of the benefits that TCKs are praised for, and encourages thriving in adulthood.

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Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

The “F” Word

by Julie Martinez

Freaked out. Frustrated. Fear. Failure. These are some of the F words that we have been slinging around the house lately. We have also been slinging around the F word Frittata, but that is a different story. We are in the process of transition, and it is creating moments of drama and tension. My son, who was born in Honduras and has lived in five different countries, is now returning to America to attend university and emotions are running high.

This is a boy who has grown up in airports. He can navigate any airport anywhere. From the time that he was three months old he has been flying across the world. I am afraid that when he remembers his childhood, he will tell stories of terrible airplane food and rushing through airport gates laden with carry-ons. Or will he talk about a lifetime of good-byes? Of constantly downsizing our lives to fit into two suitcases?

This is a boy who has lived an unconventional life. He knows how to barter in local markets like an Arab trader. He can hop on a motorcycle fearlessly and navigate unknown roads in third world countries. He is unique. He has been chased by elephants; he has climbed volcanoes; and he has stood where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic. He has seen the world and much of it on the road less traveled and all before he was 18.

So, how does he transition to the USA? How does he navigate the world of fraternities, finals, football, fast food, and other Americanisms? My son is a third culture kid, which means he is not fully American, nor has he taken on the culture of his host country. He has created a third culture—a culture unique to him. He travels to America as a hidden immigrant. As one who speaks the language and looks the part but is missing social cues and cultural meanings.

He knows this and he is fearful — fearful of failure — and is freaked out. His F word is Fear. Fear is paralyzing, sends people into tailspins. Fear is seemingly depriving him of oxygen and causing him to make questionable decisions. My F word, on the other hand, is frustration. I am frustrated because I can’t help him and truthfully, he won’t let me, which also frustrates me. He will be 18 soon and naturally wants to navigate life on his own. And the reality is, I can’t fully help him—he sees the world through a different lens than I do and he is going to have to figure it out.

Living overseas is wonderful, but there are prices to be paid, and they are paid by all. God calls us and He equips us . . . but there are aspects of this cross-cultural life that aren’t easy nor are there easy answers. I wish I could wrap up this story with a three-fold solution. There isn’t one. The only thing that I can offer is that maybe it is time for a different word. Not an F word, but a G word, and that is grace. I pray for this G word in my son’s life — that God will cover him in His grace and that God in His grace and mercy will lead him and that His grace will carry him in the hard places and through the mistakes and the hard times that are inevitable.

What about you? What carries you through your F seasons? How does grace meet you in weakness and uncertainty?

Originally published June 21, 2013

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Julie Martinez has served on the field for 25 years where she raised her two children. She has lived in Honduras, Chile, Zambia, and Cambodia. She currently works at Lee University where she is an Assistant Professor and the Director of the Intercultural Studies Program.

Something New is Being Built

by Kate

“Where is that sound coming from?” I asked my roommates as we all woke, jet-lagged, on day two in our new country. The construction had started early. We stared out our kitchen window trying to locate the sound, but all we caught glimpse of was a dry, brown field.

The next day, we awoke to the same noise and gathered in my roommate’s room to see if her window gave a better view. All we got was a different glimpse of the same field. The loud noise persisted for weeks, as did our search for the source.

There were no answers, only our silly grumblings about a noise that caused annoyance and loss of sleep. Our grumbling soon dissipated, and we accepted the new life we would be living.

It wasn’t long before I began walking my Middle Eastern neighborhood. I’ve always loved walking. Give me a path around a lake or just a sidewalk, and I’ll put on a podcast and put my feet to the pavement for as long as I can. These walks soon became daily and felt almost holy.

One day, maybe a month in, I decided to go for a stroll around my new neighborhood. As I turned the corner, I saw some old wood scattered on the sidewalk and street. Next to it was a big pile of concrete waiting to be mixed. I looked up at the house and saw men tearing down part of the side of it. It was clear they were preparing the way for something new to be built.

“Huh, that’s how I feel,” I said to myself, my eyes puffy from the tears I had just cried about missing my family and feeling unknown in this foreign land. “So this is where the noise is coming from,” I thought. It turns out that the call to prayer isn’t the only thing that can be heard at a distance in a concrete jungle; you can also hear construction.

On that day in July of 2019 when I first found the source of the noise and felt God whispering, “This is what I’m doing in you,” all I knew was what I was losing, what was being torn down.

Later as I stood on the big balcony of my rooftop apartment, despite hearing the loud noise, I thought, “This is the house I have chosen, and I love it and wouldn’t trade it for the world.” And it’s the same with this strange life I have chosen to live. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I hate the loss . . . and the tearing down? It’s painful.

The truth is, while trainings and courses are beneficial, they can only prepare you so much for living abroad. It’s not until you have a one-way ticket that things get real. And I guess in some ways I’ve numbed the pain of loss. It’s easier to just pass by and say, “That’s annoying,” and run off to a friend’s quiet apartment. But the reality is that noise still is there, and I know it.

I never could have imagined the pain of five friends and family dying while I was overseas, crying on my couch alone as I watch their zoom funerals. Or the loneliness that comes from someone asking how I am doing and putting on a brave face because I wonder how they’ll judge me if I answer honestly. It’s like suddenly in this new life I don’t belong anywhere. I hate watching my best friends’ kids grow up over FaceTime. I hate seeing my mom bawl and not want to let go of me as I walk through security at the airport.

I feel loss as I walk the streets of my desert city, staring at the ground so as to not stare in the eyes of men, making sure I’m wearing loose clothing and cardigans that are long enough. I miss the fun, short-sleeved Kate I can be in America, and I feel as though I am somehow more silenced than I have ever been in my life. I could never have been prepared for my body being overtaken with sickness, lying in the hospital relying on an IV and medicine to bring my body back to health. They told me before moving overseas that all of me — the good, bad, and ugly — would be exposed living abroad and guess what? They were right.

It’s almost as if, when I asked where the loud noise in my neighborhood was coming from, so too I asked God as I cried myself to sleep, “Where is this coming from? Why is this so painful? Is this even worth it?”

But maybe most impactful was the loss of comfort in how I knew and engaged with God. Small groups and worship nights? Forget it. Being completely immersed in a different culture and religion forced the loss of knowing and believing all the right answers. I even sometimes lost the belief that God was good and had my best in mind. That He was out for my joy and that His power could change my neighbors’ and friends’ hearts. As I sat with friends who are refugees, and as they told me stories through tears about the bombings and rapes they have experienced, I lost any ability to ignore evil in this world.

Just as my roommates and I complained about the noise, all I could do was fall on my face before God and cry and question — until that too, exhausted me, and it seemed easier to ignore it all.

But remember that concrete waiting to be mixed next to the wood that was torn down?

About a year after passing by that house, God answered a prayer for my friend and me to be invited into that exact home. As we sat eating dates and drinking chai, our neighbor told us that they were building an elevator onto their house for their elderly parents.

And in that moment all I could think of was, “Something new is being built.”

The loss, the grief, the pain, and the tears may always persist.

And something new is being built. The invitation to grieve the losses has also been an invitation to experience God adding new parts to me, to my friendship with Him. I would have never known what was being added unless I got up close and went into the home of our neighbor. I would never have known this story if I hadn’t asked what was happening or seen the wood on the ground.

So too it has been with my loss. The easy route is to skip the street with the construction. To hear about it, complain about it, and become numb to it.

That is one way to live.

But I’ve come to learn that I should always say yes to God’s invitation. My “no” always leads to missing out — on knowing God in deeper, life changing ways. So I have a choice.

Will I come face to face with my loss and also come face to face with God — who is deeply acquainted with all my ways and is out for my good and joy more than I can imagine? Or will I refuse to answer that invitation?

Spring came around and one day my roommates looked out our kitchen window. We saw a green field and flowers blooming.

There is loss and there is new life.

May I be faithful to accept God’s invitation into both.

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Until she moved to the Middle East three years ago, Kate had always lived near Washington, D.C. Kate takes her faith and fun seriously and is eager to invite others into both. She can often be found sitting on a cushion on the floor drinking chai with friends, fumbling her way around town in Arabic, or learning what it means to rest well while living abroad. With a big sports history in her past, she will always say yes to shooting hoops or doing anything active outside with friends. She loves connecting with friends new and old — you can find her on Instagram at @myfriend.kate.

Was Jesus Punctual?

by Suyai R. Cameron

I remember meeting many missionary families in church who loved Jesus so deeply that they had decided to leave their countries behind and move to the narrowest and longest country in South America: Chile. Although each one possessed different personalities, they had some similarities that made them stand out from the local crowd. One of the most obvious was their love of structured time and the way they expected everyone, including nationals, to always be punctual – and how frustrated they became with the laid-back attitude of Chileans when it came to starting times, and especially finishing times, of every church meeting or get-together.  

Over the years, many of them opened up to me and shared, among myriad things, how they found themselves feeling disrespected by the apparent nonchalant attitude of Chileans towards time. Even though I was born and bred in Chile, I was raised by a French grandmother and British grandfather, and so I have always been acutely aware not only of how important time and efficiency are for most Westerners, but also how easily frustrating different aspects of any culture you migrate into can be. After moving to the UK as an adult and having spent almost fourteen years here, I can now further empathise with the expats I met in Chile and can better understand the massive gap between the Western and the Latin American concepts of time and how we experience it. 

The English phrase ‘don’t waste your time’ has an equivalent in Spanish: ‘no pierdas el tiempo’, which strictly translated means ‘don’t lose [the] time’. There is, nonetheless, a subtle difference between the English and the Spanish. Whereas a Westerner feels they can control time (by deciding whether to waste it or not), a Latin American feels they cannot control time (it gets lost). 

One of the many anecdotal theories I have come up with over the years is that efficiency permeates everything in the West. Countries function in apparent order; people respect queues; and if you meet a friend for coffee they will give you an exact hour of their time and then have something planned to do right afterwards. In Latin America, however, it is relationships that seep into every aspect of life. If you’re invited for lunch, you will probably also stay for dinner; you will be more likely to find a job if you know the ‘right’ people; and if you meet a friend for coffee, you will stay there for at least two hours, if not more. None of these things is inherently right or wrong. They are simply different ways in which cultural mindsets are wired and entrenched deep within us. 

The other side of the cultural coin is what we experienced when we arrived in the UK and started inviting people to our house. We quickly realised we couldn’t just ask someone to come for lunch on the same day – we had to agree on a date at least a few weeks beforehand. When they finally arrived and departed after two hours at the most, we were left wondering what on earth we had said or done that had offended them, as they had left so soon. We were used to people staying after a meal for hours on end, just talking about nothing and everything. There is even a Spanish word which has no translation to English: sobremesa (literally ‘on the table’). It is used to describe the period of time after everyone has finished their meal but are still sitting down and chatting about life in a leisurely manner for a long time. Here, it seemed that if our guests intended to stay even a wee bit longer than two hours, we needed to actually do something together, like go for a walk or play a game. Leisure for leisure’s sake was simply not on the cards.  

I remember pondering about the frustration Western mission partners felt about Chileans not complying with set times. The palpable irritation they felt when a meeting started half an hour or more after the set time whilst people took time to greet everyone in the room and catch up before it started, or when people casually walked into the church service forty minutes after it had already begun. Most Chileans couldn’t really grasp this and usually considered issues revolving around time as secondary and not to be taken into account that seriously. 

Many times, this cultural clash got me thinking about Jesus – was he actually punctual? Although we know the Bible was written by Middle Eastern people, our minds tend to somehow forget this, and we end up mostly reading it from a Western perspective. Even growing up in Latin America, many are taught by Western mission partners and thus tend to use the same lens. We are drilled in church with the overuse (or, dare I say, misuse) of ‘God is a God of order’ (1 Corinthians 14:33) and that therefore one should always be mindful of time and respectful of time. 

However, we can see throughout the Bible how relationships trumped efficiency most of the time. We see Jesus taking his time – days – to get to his friend Lazarus, who had died, even though people found it hard to accept that he wouldn’t hurry up and feared he would be too late. We have the Mary and Martha story, where Jesus praises Mary for simply sitting at his feet whilst Martha is making sure everything is ready and on time. We witness Jesus giving children unrestricted time to come to him despite the open frustration of his disciples. It is hard to imagine Jesus rushing people around to start or end a meeting, although I can’t picture him wasting time either.  

Once my husband was told off for having preached just over twenty minutes at a church in the UK as surely he should have been able to preach five-minute sermons following the example of how Jesus taught (e.g. the parables)? I couldn’t help but think about Jesus feeding the multitudes as they stayed for the whole day just to listen to him teach for hours and hours. Just because you can read a parable in less than five minutes, it doesn’t mean it actually happened as quickly in real life! 

So, was Jesus punctual? I believe it would be fair to say that perhaps Jesus wasn’t necessarily punctual, but he was indeed always on time. There is a difference. We see Jesus interacting with people from different backgrounds and gently adjusting to their culture whilst still modeling a countercultural way of living, even when his own experience of time knows no bounds. When ministering cross-culturally, how you experience time can be a challenge both for yourself and the ones you are ministering to. As with everything in life, we need to accommodate our cultural expectations accordingly. 

Nevertheless, as Christians we belong to a much wider subculture. Depending on where we were raised, Jesus’ cultural understanding of time might not exactly match our cultural (mis)understanding of it. One thing is clear though: he always made time for people at the exact moment when they needed it, even when it did not seem ‘convenient’ or ‘right.’ The God of the Universe walking among us was – and is – all too familiar with time being eternal and with our hearts yearning for time spent with him no matter what our watches may try to dictate. Jesus didn’t see people as interruptions, but as valuable enfleshed souls requiring unconditional love and every single ounce of his attention, despite our own earthly understanding of time. 

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Suyai R. Cameron cannot imagine a life without writing. She has lived in forty-six houses (and counting) across two continents and feels at home in at least four countries. Together with her husband and their son, they have been serving God in Northern Ireland, UK, for more than a decade. On top of working as an editor and translator, she enjoys dark chocolate, reading books under her velvety weighted blanket, leisurely walks through lush forests, and pondering on the intersection between the Bible and ordinary everyday life. You can follow her on Instagram at @suyai.r.cameron and on Facebook as Suyai R. Cameron.

Remember When? (plus a retreat invitation)

I remember the days when A Life Overseas was in its toddler stage, just a couple years old, and the Velvet Ashes community was in its infancy. Who else was around in those days? Do you remember how the whole online community thing was new and fresh to the world? It felt like the cork had popped on our collective pent-up missionary angst. We finally had these places to express ourselves amongst others who understood and felt the same things.

There was a word that flew frequently in these spaces in those days: burnout. 

We were exhausted people. We were working ourselves to the bone for the Kingdom, desperate for renewal and pretty clueless about how to find it. 

I lived in a concrete jungle on the 18th floor of one of the world’s most polluted cities. I had little children at my ankles all day, and I was as desperate as the rest of us to “fill my tank.” Trying to fill that tank felt about as productive as pumping water into a colander. 

The word “retreat” filled me with longing. But how? When? Where? I didn’t know anything about creating or leading retreats. I just knew my own yearning, and I saw it echoing back to me in our online conversations. We needed to retreat. 

So our Velvet Ashes team came together and said, “What if we do an experiment?” The phrase “online retreat” didn’t exist back then. Chances were high this unheard of thing would flop, but hey, why not give it a whirl? 

Our jaws dropped when 700 of you said, “Yes! We’re in.” Then something even more amazing happened: this online retreat thing turned out to actually be a significant time with the Lord.     

Fast forward to 2022. The world is a different place. Missionary burnout, exhaustion, and angst have whole new dimensions today. COVID. Closed borders. Invasions. We could lament and count the ways.  

But I wonder if we could pause for a moment today to acknowledge that something else has changed since the days when A Life Overseas and Velvet Ashes were young. Can we recognize that the worldwide missionary community is no longer clueless about finding renewal and help? Thanks to these two communities and so many other beautiful voices, there is now a wealth of information flowing in these online spaces, sharing opportunities for counseling, spiritual direction, debriefing, small groups, webinars, retreats, and so much more.  Can we celebrate what God has done through raising up people and advancing technology? There is now equipping and resourcing and supporting unlike anything in history.    

At Velvet Ashes, we’re celebrating that there are now thousands of women across the world who have made it a rhythm of their lives to take a spiritual retreat once or twice a year – wherever they are in the world. You no longer have to wait for a retreat to come to your area. You don’t have to put it off until a furlough. No waiting until borders open. We’re learning to be filled by God right where we are.

God has taught us a lot about what it means to offer a retreat experience. We’ve never stopped being surprised by the personal way God interacts with each person in a time of retreat. God moves in the symphony of story videos, worship, art, movement, guided time in the Word, prayer and reflection. It’s time and space to be with God to allow him to tend to your heart.  

If you are not already planning to join us for The Velvet Ashes 2022 Online Retreat, consider this your invitation.  

We’re exploring Solomon’s temple and discovering the incredible pathway it provides for us today to deepen our experience of God. We are tapping into our multi-layered longing for home as we learn what it means for our hearts to be God’s home. 

We hope you’ll join us and spread the invitation to those you know. 

Check out all the details and register here.

Whether this is your first retreat or your tenth, the invitation is the same. Jesus extends the same invitation to us today that he did to his disciples 2,000 years ago. He says, “Come away with me. Let us go to a quiet place and rest for a while.” 

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Danielle Wheeler sat on her porch one day and had a dream breathed into her heart, a dream of global women linking virtual arms to find connection and courage for their cross-cultural lives. As Velvet Ashes’ founder and current Director of Spiritual Formation, she loves watching this dream grow beyond what she ever imagined. Mother to four, she and her husband ride the waves of life and culture, leaning hard into the One who leads.

When the Third Culture Kids Are Not Alright

by Elizabeth Smith

Editor’s Note: Christianity Today recently published an article by Rebecca Hopkins (who has written for A Life Overseas in the past) titled “The Missionary Kids Are Not Alright.” This guest piece by Elizabeth Smith was submitted prior to the publication of the Christianity Today article, but it beautifully addresses the concerns raised in the article. ~Elizabeth Trotter

I don’t know how many times my father told me that he had been around the block a time or two. All the troubles I faced in my childhood, he had faced too. He had experience to guide me through the complexities of life. What a gift to possess that level of expertise! I can’t relate.

That’s because years later, I looked into the eyes of my own baby as a helicopter took off behind me, leaving us in a village in the middle of the jungle. There were no blocks here. I had not been around them. I had no experience for my own cross-cultural challenges, let alone my son’s third culture challenges. While I navigated American sleep-training in Papua New Guinean baby bilums (portable baby hammocks), I could only wonder what it would be like growing up in a world of blended cultures. 

What was it like ducking under a mosquito net to pull up Paw Patrol on the tablet?  What was it like deciding between cereal or roasted taro root for breakfast? What was it like transitioning from running naked and free in the village to having to wear clothes all the time in America? (That one I knew would be hard!)

In those years, there weren’t a lot of resources for little Third Culture Kids. Most resources came in the form of terrifying statistics of suicide rates among TCKs or support groups for struggling adult TCKs. When it came to preventively nurturing TCKs, there was a void. Until Raising up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids was published.  When the author, Lauren Wells, founded TCK Training, she outlined the unique needs of TCKs and how to support them in practical ways. 

Finally I saw how TCKs are influenced by more than one culture but belong to none of them, and I saw how that impacted their identity. I saw how TCKs were praised for smiling through the confusion and uncertainty of transitions, and I saw how that stunted their emotional intelligence. I saw how TCKs normalized loss, transitions, deep poverty, social injustice, crime and more, and I saw how that added to an unstable Grief Tower threatening to collapse. I saw how TCKs expect to go back to their passport countries as adults, and I saw how subconscious expectations set them up for lives fraught with disappointment. 

Most importantly, I learned that when supportive adults provide preventive care, these challenges can be mitigated. When TCKs receive support and preventive care like this, they experience the unique gifts they’re entitled to: high emotional intelligence, healthy empathy, responsible adaptability, a beautiful mosaic identity, and rich contentment in life. I clearly shared a passion with TCK Training, and in time I joined their team, helping to train TCK parents and caregivers in preventive care.  

The question most of us have is: How do we as supportive adults provide preventive care for the TCKs we love? That is the question TCK Training was created to answer! Here are some of the ways TCK Training can help you as you seek to help the TCKs in your lives. 

 

  1. Parent and Caregiver Education. We realized early on that the most efficient and practical way to care for TCKs is to empower the adults already in their lives. For that purpose, we have a huge archive of workshops, with more being added monthly. We have practical tips for all ages, from TCK toddlers and elementary-aged kids to teens and university-aged TCKs, but the foundational information on how to practically care for TCKs is found in our Raising Healthy TCKs workshop.
  2. Family Curriculum. To take the education we provide in workshops and bring that to your TCKs, we developed the Family Curriculum. These are fun lessons that you can do as a whole family that specifically target the key challenge areas for TCKs. 
  3. Debriefs. There is a very widely spread myth that children are resilient. What this looks like in practice is that they don’t receive the care that their parents receive from their sending agency. So TCK Training offers debriefs geared specifically for the kids or for the whole family. Again targeting the key challenge areas for TCKs, our debriefs focus on the TCKs while also supporting the parents with practical ideas on how to care preventively. 
  4. Family Care Packages. Our family care packages are a year of care in the form of monthly or bi-monthly check-ins. These packages are excellent for families who want someone in their lives who is prioritizing the emotional lives of their TCKs. 

 

As I’m writing this, we’re packing up from our time in Egypt and preparing to transition to Jordan. My son is a pre-griever, so we’re making space now to think through our losses.  We’re breathing deeply as we do brunch one last time on the Nile. We’re talking about how much we’ll miss our resident stray cat as we dip pita bread into baba ganoush. We’re thinking about how much time we’ve spent in Egypt and wondering how this will change us. We’re crying because it was beautiful, and we will miss it. 

I still haven’t been around the block. The village streets in Egypt are more like a labyrinth, anyway. But I’ve been around the globe, digging into research and collecting stories from TCKs worldwide. Through my work with TCK Training, I’ve learned that the number one thing TCKs need is for their parents to make space for their grief and loss and to sit with them and say, “It makes sense that you feel that way. I do, too. Let’s learn together how to walk around this block.” 

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Elizabeth and her family are full-time travelers. They started their global journey doing mission work in Papua New Guinea for 5 years. Now Elizabeth works remote for TCK Training, traveling for in-person debriefs, conferences, and speaking engagements. She never travels without her French press, chef’s knife, flyswatter, and pop-up hamper. Elizabeth is the author of the upcoming book The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabethvaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining

Searching for a Sense of Home

by Beth Barthelemy

“The word home summons up a place—more specifically a house within that place—which you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and which in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment.”  –Frederick Buechner, Longing for Home

//

I sat around our school table, looking into the mostly eager faces of my daughters, though one face was less eager than the rest this morning. A single candlestick flickered in the middle of the table. My hands rested around my coffee mug as I sat back from our morning’s Bible reading, once again having veered off topic.

“South Africa is our home. We barely even remember living in America. This is where I have mostly grown up and where the cats are,” simply stated the black-and-white-thinking, animal-loving child.

“I just don’t know where my home is,” stated the more pensive daughter. “I mean, I love America, that’s where I was born. I think that’s my home.”

The third-born just snuggled on my lap, listening carefully as she always does but saying nothing this time. The youngest was singing in a loud voice on the carpet beside us.

Inwardly, I sighed. I did not feel up to having this conversation this morning, to steering their hearts toward the truth that I myself was desperately seeking. I knew well the significance of this conversation for my children, who live an ocean away from where they were born. My heart was fragile, had been fragile for some time after a devastating family tragedy a few months earlier. I resonated deeply with my daughters’ rationalizations about home. Our life and ministry was here in the deep south of the African continent, yet my hurting family and missing loved one was across an ocean, back in the place where I had grown up. Even in the move five years before, I felt the sore splitting of my heart; it had not healed over time, no. In fact, that splitting was deeper and sorer than ever.

I took a deep breath. I shared that I too struggle with this question of home, and that isn’t home where we are all together? We reflected on the little farmhouse where we had briefly stayed years ago, and how that indeed felt like home, if only for that single month. “And,” I added, “I think there is a part of us that will never feel completely at home anywhere in this world. We will always feel a bit split between the people and things we love here, and the people and things we love in America, because neither of these is our true, forever home.”

The girls sat silently nodding, knowing enough to understand the true, forever home to which I was referring. That seemed to satisfy them well enough, for just then they were off to another subject. I still stared out the window, however, trying once more to imagine a home where I would never again feel this splitting, this longing. A home where the shadows of this world would never darken.

//

Buechner has similar conflicted feelings about home, though unique to his own life just as my feelings are unique to mine. As he does in many of his works, he connects his own story with many of ours; he has weathered his fair share of storms and is well acquainted with the dark shadows which follow for the rest of our earthly lives.

“I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom,” Buechner writes in The Longing for Home, “which exists both within us and among us as we wind our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.”

Both within us and among us. This is the beauty of the gospel breaking into this broken world; it is transforming our individual sinful hearts and the larger world in which we live. We see our need for home met in the coming of Christ’s kingdom, in that “here but not yet” reality. Yes, Jesus, you are here in my heart and life, and I long for that day when I will be fully at home with you. And, yes, Jesus, you are alive and at work in this dark world, and I am looking for the ways your kingdom is breaking through. I want to see.

As the years fly by in my life — I’m now in my mid-thirties — I am learning that much of my daily work is to see properly. Many days, the shadows of the world threaten to overcome the good and the inherent light. As those of us old enough know, we have little control over the shadows. And if it’s not the shadows, the distractions are endless, the worldly pulls ever strengthening their grip. What I can do, and what I can help my children to do, is to look for the light, choose to see the good, and foster our imaginations for our true home. This is the work of living as children of God in this world, wherever we may find ourselves.

And even as the shadows lengthen, even as we feel the splitting in our hearts, we keep looking for the places the kingdom is breaking in, we keep longing for home. It’s coming.

~~~~~~~~~

Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to four young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, have lived and worked in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for the past five years. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her online at bethbarthelemy.com and on Instagram as bethbarthelemy.

Seeing Dignity Instead of Misery Among the Poor

by Amy Straub

I used to assume that life must be joyless for those without all the material comforts that were commonplace to me. When I considered people who had only the clothes on their backs and just enough food for each day, my first and strongest reaction was pity. I felt it often in our early years in Zambia, and that revealed a lot to me about my true priorities. When we equate poverty with misery, our core values are exposed. 

In speaking of poverty, I’m not referring to a life-threatening lack of resources (absolute poverty), but to the many people around the world who are deemed “poor” in comparison to Western standards. People in relative poverty have their basic needs met, but they have a smaller than average income for their society. It’s easy to assume that people in these circumstances must be miserable when we view them through the lens of our own experience. It requires deeper insight to explain the unexpected joy and laughter that are so often found in places of material emptiness.

Our western worldview clashes with the scripture that plainly affirms, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (I Timothy 6:8). These words force us to acknowledge that contentment, satisfaction, and even outright joy are possible with very little. Maybe they’re even most possible with very little. But those of us who were born into privilege can’t internalize this through personal experience. We have to learn from those who understand this paradox because they live it every day. The ones with limited resources who embrace their lot with joy can teach us that poverty offers a different kind of fullness that is invisible to our eyes. 

This is not to minimize the adverse effects of poverty on individuals and families or to gloss over the depth of human need around the world. Poverty in itself is not a virtue, and making light of the suffering of others is irresponsible and potentially even harmful. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of poverty simply because kids in the slums flash beautiful smiles. God takes suffering seriously, and he calls us to align with his heart for those in need. Like him, we must accurately name poverty and its effects. And when we acknowledge its true weight, we see that the burden of poverty is directly proportional to the measure of respect that we owe the poor for their joyful endurance.

******

Several years ago near our home in Kitwe, the water main to a high-density neighborhood broke. For weeks, hundreds of people lost access to running water in their homes. With a heavy heart I watched young and old carrying buckets from the Kafue River back to their houses, and I wondered how they were coping. One day I found myself driving behind a pickup truck that was carrying several men with large barrels of water into this neighborhood. I felt a wave of pity for the massive inconvenience they were experiencing. 

Then the truck hit a pothole, and water from the barrels splashed all over the men, soaking them from head to toe. My pity deepened at this added difficulty, and I fully expected to see signs of frustration. But instead of getting angry, the men erupted into laughter. As they laughed they caught my eye, giving me the opportunity to laugh with them. I will never forget that moment or the impact it had on my perspective, and they will never know how much their joy taught me. Over the years, as I have had the privilege of observing hundreds of moments like this, my pity has been transformed into deep respect. 

When we have the honor of knowing people in poverty who radiate joy and bubble over with easy laughter, we become uncomfortably aware of our own misconceptions. Our view of the world is often clouded by our privileged (and therefore limited) perspective. Those who are content in their poverty demonstrate that the less a person has, the greater their ability to treasure each good gift that comes to them—however small it might be. A cup of water, a glowing lightbulb, a filling meal, family and friends. Maybe it’s those of us in the wealthy minority world, trapped in an endless cycle of consumerism, who are most to be pitied. “One who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry soul, every bitter thing is sweet” (Proverbs 27:7). Excess quickly becomes a burden, but those in need are able to receive everything as a gift. 

******

Pity is a common reaction to poverty, but there’s another response that is worse, and that’s judgment. Assuming that people in poverty must deserve their condition also reveals how wrongly we rank material things. If poverty is a punishment and we are well off, then we must be upstanding people who deserve the comforts we have. While it might feel good to view ourselves so highly, scripture condemns this attitude as an insult to the God who intentionally became poor. 

From his example of poverty, Christ taught that living for both God and money is an unattainable goal. We have to choose which will rule us. Scornful religious leaders mocked Jesus for this teaching because of the discomfort they felt when they heard it. In their hearts they knew they loved money more than God. His response to them was a sharp rebuke: “You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Contrary to many human assumptions over the centuries, wealth does not equal decency. Christ goes even further than this and describes poverty not as a punishment, but as a spiritual advantage (Luke 6:20-26). In contrast, he warns that wealth can be a spiritual hindrance (Mark 10:23-25).

Material wealth isn’t wrong in itself, but it comes with unique blind spots and temptations. God doesn’t require us to repent of our wealth, and material blessings shouldn’t incite feelings of guilt. But in order to thrive spiritually, we must reject the belief that wealth brings joy, and instead trust the God who says we can be content without it. 

We grasp and affirm the truth of scripture only as much as we participate in it. If we are blessed with abundance, we have the opportunity to hold it with open hands and practice letting it go easily. Contentment grows in a heart that doesn’t clench its fists. We do not live to serve our wealth, consumed by our focus on and protection of it. Rather, we live to serve with our wealth, looking outward to find needs and meet them. Through the spiritual practice of generosity, we become steady streams of goodness to others. 

And if we are granted a life of poverty, we have the privilege of walking with the One who had nowhere to lay his head. Contentment grows in a heart that knows solidarity. Christ chose a life of poverty, and because of this, those who have nothing of material significance in this life are able to identify with him, lean on him, and receive from him in ways that are beyond the grasp of the wealthy. It’s the needy who are driven to ask, seek, and knock. One of the beautiful mysteries of scripture is that God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith (James 2:5). This truth is displayed around the globe, and it has been a privilege to see it firsthand in Africa. 

My husband and I are part of a ministry that trains African church leaders to plant churches and equip believers in their own languages and communities, taking the gospel into areas of Africa where foreign missionaries would be ineffective. We’ve met rural pastors who have so few spiritual resources that they travel for days, sometimes on foot, to attend our ministry training conferences. Their hunger for theological education, Bibles, and ministry resources is profound, and it is matched by an equal volume of joy when those resources are secured. Witnessing this deep faith and passionate love for God and his word has challenged and encouraged us again and again throughout our years here. 

******

We owe a debt of honor to our brothers and sisters in the developing world who are actively growing vibrant communities of faith with far fewer resources than we enjoy in the western world. The center of global faith has shifted away from the affluent west, which reveals that it’s not an abundance of resources, but a deeper dependence on God, that ultimately turns the world upside down. 

Instead of pitying or judging those with less, we can de-center our own perspective and learn from the experience of others. We can lay down our assumptions and take up humility. We can learn to recognize and avoid false comparisons. I might be miserable in certain circumstances, but that isn’t necessarily true for others. Many people have developed far more fortitude than I have. It’s ultimately unhelpful to measure the majority world by minority world standards.

Furthermore, if wealth hasn’t rendered the West content and grateful, why should we assume it is – or should be – the ultimate goal of those without it? The comforts of this life are a gift, and we should seek to relieve suffering whenever possible. But the need that drives us into community and into dependence on God is not ultimately an enemy to be defeated. Treating it as such reveals what we believe is most important in this life. 

Poverty does not equal misery or failure any more than wealth equals contentment or success. Rich and poor alike are marked by the image of God, and it is this imago dei that endows each person with intrinsic and sacred value. This is what shines through when joy and laughter are found among those in poverty. They are not oblivious to their suffering; they are putting it in its proper place. It is momentary and fleeting, and it will someday be overshadowed by a weight of glory. Not having treasure on earth, they have the opportunity to see the eternal with unclouded eyes. 

May we honor the poor as Christ did. May we recognize their dignity and value them for their personhood rather than their possessions. And may the words of our savior in Luke 6:20-21 remind us of his heartbeat for those in need:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Together we have the opportunity to carry this heartbeat into our global communities, while looking forward in hope to that kingdom where the hungry are filled and the weary rejoice. 

~~~~~~~~~

Amy grew up in Minneapolis, MN, where her idea of travel was her family’s annual trip to Kansas. That all changed when she married Ben, a Canadian TCK with a travel bucket list as large as the globe. Together they moved to Kitwe, Zambia, where they have served for the past 10 years at Central Africa Baptist University and in their local Zambian church. They have four kids, two dogs, and five guinea pigs. Amy enjoys reading, having people over for shared meals, exploring new countries with her family, and the year-round sunshine and gardening of the Southern Hemisphere. She sometimes enjoys homeschooling, and has permanently retired from Minnesota winters.

Do Local People Have Anything to Teach Us?

by Stacie Ellinger

We moved house ten days ago. We are in a beautiful, leafy part of Adelaide, Australia. The summer sun enters through the many windows, creating an open, airy, bright feel. There are local playgrounds. The street cleaners have cleaned the street twice since we moved in. The footpaths are flat and wide enough to walk on. 

It is such a contrast to the Cambodian open-to-the-street house that we lived in for five years. I’ve been reflecting on the difference between the two neighbourhoods a lot over the last few days. Superficially the environment here is “nicer,” it’s definitely cleaner and quieter, and there is less chance of things being stolen here. 

Yet I find myself missing our community in Cambodia. I miss my kids playing on the street with the neighbours. I miss chatting to the recycling collectors as they collect our cereal boxes. I miss the ladies doing cross-stitch together in the late afternoon. I miss the fact that when we moved in, the neighbours introduced themselves and brought over food. 

It’s been ten days since we moved in here, and I am assuming the houses surrounding us have people in them. I haven’t seen any of them. 

It seems like a total cliché to say that I miss the community in Cambodia. It’s the one thing that all short-term and long-term missionaries who return from Southeast Asia say. “I learnt so much about community, about eating meals together, about living intergenerationally.” And even though there is an element of truth in that, I wonder if it comes up so much because it’s the one thing that we westerners are “allowed” to say that we have learnt from Southeast Asians. 

Ok, that’s a big statement, so hear me out. 

The act of going overseas for missions comes with an unspoken list of assumptions. Assumptions from the people going about their ability to live cross-culturally, assumptions about their giftings, skills, and knowledge about the Bible. Assumptions from the people who are staying about the sort of activities the people who are going will do. Assumptions built upon stereotypes and pedestals and upon our historical knowledge of “missions” and “missionaries.”

Even if I acknowledge that God is already in the country where I am going, I still carry the assumption that I have some theological insight or understanding that they don’t. An assumption that I have something to give and that they need that something. When unchallenged, assumptions like these bring attitudes of superiority, and when added to the historical complexities of colonialism and the current global wealth inequalities, they become fertile ground for “white saviourism.” We carry the idea that our education, our knowledge, our wealth, and our theological perspectives are crossing cultures to be given away, generously and freely, to those who don’t have or who don’t know. 

So back to my big statement. 

Criticising the western understanding of community is a bit in vogue. We know that isolation is increasing among western nations. We hark back to the good ol’ days of the 1950s (the sitcom version, not the realistic 1950s of post-war PTSD and racial segregation). We talk of missing nuclear families, of the rise of individualism and self-promotion on social media, of the financial struggles of working 2+ jobs, of the over-scheduling of wealthy kids’ schedules. Coming back from a Southeast Asian country and saying that they taught us about community fits into that narrative, but it doesn’t ask us to actually critique our culture in new ways. It doesn’t challenge our understanding of the world. 

Opening myself up to be discipled by Cambodian Christians, allowing their leaders to challenge the significance I placed on my own personal life experience and education, and learning to read the Bible through a cultural lens different to my own took time and a level of humility I often struggled with. And it’s a journey that people “back home” seem less willing to hear about. It’s not a story about what I did or what I brought. It’s a story about learning where I was wrong, misguided, or blinded in my understanding.

Living in a society where allegiance to a patron — whether that be a political, social, or religious leader — influenced how you lived your life, whom you called on when you were sick, or whether you had financial security completely changed how I viewed Jesus’ interactions with his disciples, their confoundment at his death, and their empowerment at Pentecost. As a non-American who has never had to pledge allegiance to anything (and who would in fact be mocked as an Australian for pledging allegiance to anything but a favourite football team), words like Lord and Kingdom began to take on a different meaning. In Australia, comfort and financial security are the biggest values that drive our society (as evidenced by our intense focus on keeping the covid pandemic out of our country and continuing life as “normal”).  

But what does allegiance to a Kingdom of identifying with the poor, of radical welcome, and of healing others mean for my financial resources? What do I do when my allegiance to another kingdom cuts me off from the way that society operates? How does our understanding of the Bible change when we understand honour and shame from the perspective of a culture that is more similar to the honour-shame culture of the ancient Middle East than the guilt and innocence focus of my homeland? 

One of my greatest challenges was building friendships. For example, in the church community I was a part of, it was not ok to invite just one or two people over for dinner to get to know them. That was seen as favouritism. Instead, I was asked to invite the whole church community. (Now, I’m not sure about you, but I am much better at hosting 4 people for dinner than 25. Or at least I was!) What do we do when our local community’s understanding of friendship requires us to completely change our previous understanding of friendship? Is one of them wrong? Is the other one right? Or are they just different? 

When we enter a new country as foreigners, whether intentionally or not, we are asking locals to understand us, to understand a bit of our culture and to understand how we think in order to get to know us. Is it too much to expect that the reverse will not also happen? That the locals might ask us to change? For those of us who come representing Jesus, we deliberately and vocally ask them to change their perspectives and understanding of the physical and spiritual world. As iron sharpens iron, surely, the locals’ understanding of the world can challenge our understanding. Their knowledge of God can reveal new things to us. And God can use that to shape our understanding of ourselves as our own cultural sins and blind spots are revealed to us. Surely our western practice of community is not the only thing that can be challenged by believers in the Global South.   

Cross-cultural service is not an invitation to go and do. It’s an invitation to go and be. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds as we learn from other members of the body. Our cultures and our experiences of God are as diverse as the climates and landscapes around us. When God calls us to not conform to the patterns of the world, He is inviting us to notice these patterns. To see which patterns block or harm others. To see which patterns stop the light from getting through. And like any pattern, we must acknowledge that the patterns of the world look different from a different vantage point.

By taking the time to immerse ourselves in another viewpoint, we open ourselves to see the bigger picture more clearly. We cannot do this on our own. We need others to be with us on this journey. The beauty of faith is that it is not a static place; it is an invitation to grow closer to God and each other as we press deeper into relationship. When locals and foreigners can join hands to seek the Kingdom of God together, we truly become the family of God on earth. 

~~~~~~~~~~

Stacie and her family served in Cambodia for six years before returning to Australia in 2020. She enjoys good books, good movies, and good chocolates and misses the heat of Cambodia terribly. Stacie now uses her aid, development, and missions background to run educational workshops for schools and churches about the complexities of poverty alleviation and ‘doing good.’ She blogs at www.walkhumblyinitative.com.

I Too Am a Foreigner

by Ivy Cheeseman

I’ve been contemplating these thoughts for years, but I’ve been hesitant to share them. Most importantly, I didn’t want to make any unfair comparisons. Unlike some of my foreign friends from other nations, I’ve never fled a house being burned by soldiers. They’ve endured so much trauma, and they can’t return. I, on the other hand, can go back “home” anytime I want.

Neither did I want to be misconstrued as being political. I’m not here to offer political commentary on complex issues such as immigration. As a Christ follower, I live in this place in order to serve others.

And lastly, I have a wonderful network of local friends who have helped me navigate life in Thailand. By highlighting my inner struggles, I didn’t want to discredit the kindness of my Thai neighbors.

But despite all those things, I still feel a connection to other global nomads who are wandering far away from the country of their birth. Some of us have “figured out” life in our host country; most of us are still working on the lifelong process. When I meet a stranger in Thailand who stares at me with a mixture of confusion and suspicion, these are the things I wish I could tell them.

1. In my country, I was once a competent adult.

I don’t know how many times (especially in my first year here) that I’ve stood in the grocery store attempting to read the tiny Thai script on the back of a product. I want desperately to explain to the person next to me that I’m really not stupid. I once understood chemistry and calculus. But right now I need help telling the difference between a bag of flour and powdered sugar. My breakfast of pancakes with maple-flavored syrup (which Thais think reeks of urine) depends on it.

2. My odd habits are shared by millions of unseen others.

I’ve tried to adopt Thai customs that do not conflict with my own religious or personal convictions. But it’s hard to kick the bizarre American within. My Thai friends may never understand why I have a little round machine on my kitchen ceiling whose sole purpose seems to be alerting the neighbors that I burned another batch of popcorn. Once, my husband went outside to explain the beeping sound to a concerned neighbor. He used the wrong tone/verb when explaining the pot of burnt beans, and essentially explained that the reason smoke was billowing out of the kitchen was that he had just lost his virginity. Which leads me to the next point.

3. I’m trying harder than you think to learn your language and culture.

But “picking up” a language as an adult is not as intuitive as I once thought. When I make mistakes and sound like a child, please know I’m trying my best. If you speak clearly and simply, I can probably figure it out. When I revert to hanging out with my English-speaking friends, it’s not because I don’t love your culture. It’s just nice to occasionally have a conversation where I understand 100% of the words. Or to have a listener understand what I mean when I talk about a “Thanksgiving dinner” or “living on a farm” or . . . “a pot of burnt beans.”

4. Not all foreigners are alike.

Southeast Asia attracts many backpackers and long-term residents. Some are lovely. Others get drunk and do extremely offensive and illegal things like taking selfies on top of ancient, sacred structures. I’m terribly sorry for the way foreigners have mistreated this culture and its people. I know I will make many of my own mistakes, but please give me a chance to learn through relationship. I am extremely grateful for my many Thai friends and neighbors who have taken that risk.

Perhaps some of the residents where you live can relate to these sentiments. Foreigners around the globe, regardless of why they live in a land not their own, are real people. When you meet a struggling immigrant face-to-face in Walmart, I see only one Biblical way to respond—with love. If you’re not sure what that looks like, a smile is a good place to start.

So the next time you see a foreigner grappling with your language or culture, think of me, and have compassion for them. With smelly foods, weird customs, and a thick accent to boot, I, too, am a foreigner.

 

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. . . . I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.

Matthew 25:35-36, 40

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Ivy and her family have served with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Southeast Asia for the last 10 years. She enjoys hiking, writing, and seeing God’s grace and power shine through the local church.

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.

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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.