What 7,300 Moons in Africa Taught Me

An outline of banana leaves framed the inky, glittering expanse that August night so long ago. My father raised his face to the moon and asked his father in heaven, “Lord, how many more moons will I witness in the African sky?” It was this farmer’s first night in Cameroon at the beginning of a Bible translation assignment that would span the next several decades of his life. With his homeland behind him, hundreds of moons would cross the Cameroonian sky before he would see an Iowa moon again. I was seven.

I have now witnessed over 7,300 moons in the African skies between my childhood and my adult life. Here are the stories I wish I could go back and tell that farmer the night he stared at the hollow moon and considered the cup he bore. 

“Dad, a few weeks from now, under this very moon, my brother will fall deathly ill from malaria, his feverish body folded in a wool blanket. Your desperate prayers will be driven by the crushing story of the two young sons your friends lost to malaria earlier this year. My brother will look small and skinny, and you’ll be scared. Take courage. God will heal your son, and Mom will nurse him back to health. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Under this tropical moon, Dad, my imagination will spring to life chasing tales and adventures across hundreds of pages in hundreds of books with the help of a kerosene lantern and a healthy diet of Vivaldi playing in the background. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will be weak the night you lay your exhausted head down after pulling lifeless men, women with bodies broken open, and babies with legs twisted backwards out of a horrific taxi accident down the street. Brace yourself. It won’t be the last time you do this. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The light of this moon will peacefully fall on the volcanic mountain ranges around our home each night, and your children will close their eyes to the sound of your and Mom’s voices filling our cement hallway with humble prayers uttered from your room, over each child, each family member, each Cameroonian family member. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will faithfully mirror the sun night after night from the first word you learn in Nooni till the day you write your first speech in the previously unwritten language. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the haze of this equatorial moon, I will memorize the deeply furrowed lines in the faces of my Cameroonian mamas as they rotate roasting ears of corn by the fire of their mud brick kitchens for their white child. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will light up the sky every Friday night when Mom lovingly folds pizza dough on her rickety kitchen table and us kids pick out our favorite movie. You’ll whistle your way out under the stars to fire up the generator for our weekly huddle of six around a 9-inch screen. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will shine a little brighter in your world as you sit in your prayer chair and ponder the gift of Mom. You’ll burst with pride watching her skillfully raise a family in a foreign land, make excellent food from scratch, trek mountaintops in a skirt and boots, navigate impossibly rutted roads like a pro, and work with a people you’ll come to love to write the rules to a language that’s never been written. She’s pretty great, Dad. I’ll learn what a woman can do by watching her. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“A sliver of this moon will dampen sad and heavy the night that our family experiences a Big T trauma that will forever shake our lives. Dad, the sun will come up the next day, but there will be a lot of hard moons after that. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The rays of this moon will pierce through a burglar-barred window the night that I will find freedom and love in Jesus Christ as a 16-year-old under your roof. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the glow of this moon, a boy I met in geometry class will take me hippo-watching along the banks of a muddy river in the Central African Republic. Did you know that hippos grunt so loudly you can hear them a mile downstream? It will be amazing, Dad. You’re really going to like this boy. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Dad, a few years later, our trusty moon will cast light on a red clay path for that boy from geometry class as he steadies his shaky legs and musters up the courage to knock on your door. He’s going to ask you if he can love me forever. You’ll be glad you said yes. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This orb will pierce the sky with light and a never-ending message of hope through our family’s most tear-stained bitter nightmares and our sweetest toasted-marshmallow dreams. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will dance like glitter the night the last verse of scripture is translated into the Nooni language, breaking open access for people to read God’s word in their heart language for the first time. They’re the same people who, four decades earlier, wrote a fervent plea in the language of colonizers for their mother tongue to be developed in written form. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Thousands of moons later, I will also look up at the unchanged luminous sphere, but this time it will be framed by the outline of macadamia trees on a farm in KwaZulu Natal. I will have just sung my own babies to sleep and herded my Irish Wolfhound to her blankie. I’ll think of you and Mom, and I’ll start my own mooncount on foreign soil as an adult. Oh, and Dad, the boy from geometry class is the best thing that ever happened to me. God’s grace is sufficient for me.

“Dad, whether it’s your first moon under the unpolluted Cameroonian sky or your eight hundred and thirty-first moon choked out by harmattan winds, you will find that God’s grace is sufficient for you. 7,300 African moons later, I came back to tell you that the moon at this angle is beautiful. It’s going to be an integral part of our family faith story. I’ve wrestled with the same moon, and I’ve found the same thing. God’s grace is not only sufficient, but lavish, for me.”

Can I Find Belonging in the American Church? {Wrestlings of an Adult MK}

by Jessi Bullis

As an adult missionary kid (MK) who grew up with a fairly mobile childhood, “home” and “belonging” have been tricky for me. I remember being as young as five years old and responding to the question “Where are you from?” with deer-in-the-headlights style anxious sputtering. 

As I’ve grown, I’ve spent oodles of time processing how each different country I was raised in has impacted who I am as a person, and I’ve learned to weave them together to make up the mosaic of my personal cultural complexity. Nowadays, I have a ready-made answer for the “Where are you from?” question. But just because I’m prepared to answer doesn’t mean that internal confusion and childhood longing aren’t sometimes set off. 

Over the years, digging into scripture and falling even more in love with Jesus, I came to know Him as my true Home. And since Christ’s bride is the Church, I desperately wanted the Church to be my earthly home.

Afterall, that was the one consistent “location” in my life. In England we attended a church with 300 members, while in Turkey we went to a house church that fluctuated from 20-30 people depending on the week and in whose apartment it was held. Visiting Tanzania, we worshiped in a mud structure, and in Germany church was held in the school auditorium. Each might have looked different, but the underlying feeling was the same.

So when I returned to the exotic, frightening, and magical land of the United States of America for college, my hope was that in the midst of my hardest transition, I would find a home-ful belonging in the Church.

However, while there was hope, I’ll admit there was also a bitter pessimism. 

The American church has often felt like an unsafe place for me growing up. As a child, whenever we would return to the U.S. on home assignment and enter the church circuit, raising support felt like a job requirement to be filled rather than a place to be known and loved.

I felt like a hidden immigrant in the church — misunderstood, but also laden with high expectations to be “the perfect MK.” It was assumed that I would know all the ‘right’ answers to any biblical questions thrown my way, while at the same time I was confused by the jokes and cultural references made in conversation. I learned to play the part, but internally I felt like an outsider.

I also noticed that it sometimes seemed like American patriotism and Christianity were intertwined. 

While my passport country is the United States, and I am legally a citizen, I have struggled to wrap my head around what that means. For many of my mono-cultural friends raised in the U.S., this has meant that the American flag elicits an emotional response, and July 4th comes with life-long traditions of celebration and reverence for American history. Because America was born from the drive for religious freedom, for some it seemed that being patriotic was the most Christian thing they could do.

I, on the other hand, didn’t know the words to “America the Beautiful” or even the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I attended sporting events (which I’ll admit wasn’t often), I moved my mouth around hoping it looked like I was saying the same thing as everyone else. 

So when I attended churches where I heard pastors talk from the pulpit about how “America is the best country in the world” and where church members discussed how great a blessing it is to be American, I felt like an outsider. Many cultures have informed my faith, and the global perspective I have impacts how I read my Bible. I love that about myself and my story, so hearing words of American patriotism in the church feels to me like a sucker punch. Suddenly the separation between me and my fellow American believers seemed even wider. 

In these church sanctuaries I found myself questioning: If I didn’t “feel” American, would I be fully accepted as a sister in Christ? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ first – before our cultural backgrounds? If I voiced concern about patriotism and Christianity being conflated, would my character and faith be questioned? 

In the New Testament, I saw that Jesus spoke with Gentiles as cultural equals. On days when the fear of not belonging has felt strongest, I’ve turned to Philippians 3:20 for comfort (“we are citizens of heaven”). And I always drew hope from Revelation 7:9, where we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together in blessed harmony. 

As I considered these scriptures, I began seeing my own assumptions and prejudices arise. Sometimes my own religious comfort has been built from my cultural experiences, and I have had to repentantly unwind them at the feet of Jesus.

Culture impacts how we interact with God and how we worship. Sometimes this is beautiful and glorifies God in the diversity of His creation. But at other times culture becomes an obstacle to the true message of scripture. I have learned beautiful things about God, His creativity, the depths of His love, and so much more from every culture I’ve worshiped in — including in America. 

I write this article not as someone with all the answers, but as someone who has so very many questions: for myself, for my fellow believers, and for the American church. Questions like:

  • How does national culture play a role in my relationship with God? And with my fellow believer?
  • Do I have opportunities to view Christianity from different perspectives and cultures? If not, do I need to find them?
  • Could I have blind spots towards my faith due to my national culture? 
  • Do I feel closer to a believer from a different country than to an unbeliever from my own country? 

It’s important for all of us to consider questions like these. I pray that each day we, the Church, become more and more like the Bride of Christ that will meet God at the shore of eternity.

“…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

A great resource on navigating God and culture is the Perspectives Course, and if you’d like to know how to support missionary kids in their walk with God, I recommend Tim Sanford’s book I Have To Be Perfect, along with this training for Churches Supporting Missionary Families.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

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Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

Digging in the Dirt, a new book from Jonathan Trotter, is now available!

Hello, all!

I am so excited to announce the release of my new book! It’s called Digging in the Dirt: Musings on Missions, Emotions, and Life in the Mud, and you can find print and Kindle versions here.

Digging in the Dirt contains some of my most heartfelt writings, and addresses things ranging from depression and anxiety, to TCKs and what flying taught me about missions.

It addresses married sexuality on the field, as well as what to do when the thief steals and the power goes out. It’s got some poetry, some top ten lists, and some laments. It’s also got some seeds of hope, and it is my deepest desire that it would encourage and bless folks all over the globe.

I’ll post the text from the back cover and the preface below.

I’m so grateful for the community here, and I’m grateful for my editor, our very own Elizabeth Trotter! Have a wonderful weekend, and may the love and peace of God be very near to you and yours!

all for ONE,

Jonathan Trotter

 

From the back cover:

Welcome to ground level, to the dirt and the mess.

We like the mountain tops and the sunshine. We like green grass under a clear blue sky. We like victory and breakthrough and answered prayers. But sometimes it rains, the shadows deepen, and life turns muddy. Sometimes God seems quiet. What then? What happens when depression descends, or anxiety hangs like a sword overhead? What happens when loneliness suffocates, the thief steals more than stuff, and you get blood on your shoes?

In Digging in the Dirt, Jonathan Trotter delves into the disasters, the darkness, and the deluge, and he offers comfort, presence, and a gentle invitation to hope.

With humor and prose, with poetry and Top Ten lists, Jonathan welcomes us to the dirt, to the places where we actually live. He invites us to boldly see life as it is, with eyes wide open, and reminds us that even when the digging is scary, we are never alone.

To the ones who are dealing with devastation and distress, welcome. To the ones who need to uproot, to pull out, to clear ground, welcome. To the ones who seek desperately to plant seeds of grace and hope in once barren soil, welcome. To the missionary abroad and the believer at home, welcome. Receive the invitation, and join with Jonathan here at ground level, together.

Come, dig in the dirt.

From the preface:

Hello and Welcome!

I’m Jonathan, and it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to journeying with you through these pages. Together, we’ll delve into the dirt of life and relationships, of sorrows, pain, and loss. And maybe we’ll plant some things too.

Perhaps, along the way, we’ll see small, green stalks of life and hope begin to poke through, watered with the tears of the journey. Digging like this can be messy, but it can be good too.

These musings will meander from the hot dirt of Cambodia to the sticky mud of American politics. Some of these musings are inspired by international missionary life; some of them are firmly rooted in an American context. But whether you’re American or not, whether you’re a missionary or not, I hope that you find them all a blessing, an encouragement, and perhaps sometimes a challenge. I wrote them for you, and I share them with you with my whole heart.

Start reading Digging in the Dirt wherever you’d like, and feel free to skip ahead or go backwards. Are you a cross-cultural missionary? Start there if you want. Are you interested in developing emotional intelligence, or are you exploring whether or not Christians are allowed to have feelings? Consider starting in the Emotions section. Are you reeling from recent life events that have left you feeling like you’re choking on the mud and muck? First of all, I’m so sorry. Second, breathe a slow, deep breath, look over the Table of Contents, and start wherever you need to start.

Wherever you are, and whatever your story, welcome to ground level, to the dirt. It is here that the real work happens; the good, hard, sweet, healing work. It is my deepest hope that here, among these musings, you may find grace, peace, and a hope that just might be strong enough to crack through the crust.

All for ONE,
Jonathan Trotter

___________________________________

Check it out on Amazon here!

*Amazon affiliate links help support the work of A Life Overseas

Heaven’s Embrace

Pictured above: Mami Banla meets my daughter, Elaina, for the first time.

Eight Cameroonian mamas adjusted their head coverings and stopped their chatter to watch the colorless foreign family spill out of a truck and into their lives one day in the remote mountain village of Lassin. Father, mother, and four kids poured out of the vehicle, all with gecko-pale skin that the sun threatened to slice right through. Their hair looked unmanageably “slimy.” That’s the only word one chuckling mama could use to describe it.  

The women had heard from the leader of their large, extended family that this foreign family was to come live many years among their nest of eight clay huts and two block houses. The mamas respectfully greeted the strangers and then got back to work making cornmeal mush and spicy spinach to share with them that night.

That was my introduction as a seven-year-old to the eight ebony women who would spend the next 13 years sharing life with me on the Kinyang compound.

We shared space. Bamboo stools in small, smokey clay kitchens, cooking in the dark over open fire, waiting hours for beans to cook to fill rumbling tummies.

We shared life. Gathering minty eucalyptus branches for firewood, pounding clothes clean at the waterfall, hunting for bats in a land void of light pollution, tugging goats home to safety at dusk.

We shared family. Papas, mamas, and babies eating spinach and corn out of shared bowls, hauling heavy baskets of vegetables and dried fish home from the market, working together to save a roost of dying chickens, even a formal adoption ceremony of the six white foreigners into the Kinyang compound, complete with food and traditional clothes. 

We shared comedy. Listening to my best friend’s deep belly laugh as they told traditional folklore around the night fire, discovering sugar cubes together for the first time, playing hide and seek in thatched kitchens, and three kids piled high on my bike as we raced down dirt roads. 

We shared healing. Watching a mama boil eucalyptus and citrus leaves in a cast iron pot to “chase” my fever, praying life into a baby slipping into death, later naming that baby Kembonen or “Blessing,” driving friends on death’s door to the mission hospital two bumpy hours away, and mourning, nay, screaming grief out the healing and healthy way when loved ones died.

We shared education. Making a sprawling dollhouse fantasyland out of braided grass on the soccer field, twisting horse hair snares to catch live birds for pets (and secretly collecting the horse hair to begin with), quickly escaping the wrong side of a green mamba.  

We shared tragedy. My mom fishing two Fulani boys out of the bottom of a swirling river using only a rope and a hoe, visiting and praying over a deeply mentally disturbed woman, praying for the salvation of a boy whose body was being hollowed out by HIV/AIDS (the first case I witnessed), a baby falling into a fire.

We shared death. Losing one of my new best friends to traditional medicine malpractice, quietly staring at another best friend’s tear-stained cheeks as he stood over his father’s grave, two family friends being poisoned in a Salem-style witch hunt.

We shared new life. The most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen with piercing ink eyes named Sheyen (“Stay and See”), a sweet nonverbal soul born into our compound family and named Peter, a young mama working in her cornfields up until the day of delivery, my mamas holding my own baby girl for the first time.

We shared love. Sharing meager amounts of corn, chickens, and firewood, being hugged tight by eight mamas when I went off to boarding school, and many years later, those same eight mamas washing my body with a bucket of water and dressing me for my traditional wedding to a very white husband who had to pay my bride price through a translator.

Love has a heavenly manifestation in Lassin. It is a literal physical embrace called “Ngocè,” specific to the region and used when someone has been away so long, you’re not sure if you’ll ever see them again. Short life spans, limited transportation, and no media communication at the time all contributed to the very real threat that you may never see someone again if they go off to the big city for college, boarding school, or a job. 

If and when they do return, you drop everything right out of your hands, run to them, grab them with every fiber in your body, pat their back, and squeeze their arms almost in disbelief that they are standing in front of you. It is a symbol of astonishment, of amazement, of deep understanding of shared experiences, and of intense joy at reunification. It’s recognizing the gift of a moment you don’t deserve but are so glad to have. Ngocè is endowed through blood lines or adoption into a family, as we were.  

I first experienced the Ngocè embrace from my mamas at age 12, after coming back from our first year-long furlough in America. I was back home, and I knew it. I experienced it again after coming home from boarding school in the capital city and when I brought my man home to negotiate a bride price of goats and rice with my mamas as a respectful (and fun) gesture. And again, years later from my dad, when I stepped off the plane from America to celebrate the 20-year project of the Nooni New Testament translation in Lassin.

A visiting friend happened to record the Ngocè heavenly embrace when I returned to Lassin that final visit for the New Testament dedication celebration. I hadn’t seen the video in years and pulled it up on youtube last night. Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat when I watched my dad, my mom, and my mamas Ngocè me back home. Just watching it felt intensely like coming home, and it broke open a piece of my heart that comes alive when I’m really, really home.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly how I will meet Jesus in heaven. Running, arms flung open, in disbelief at the beauty of the moment and amazement at a new but long-awaited reunification, accepting a grace I know I don’t deserve but am so glad to have. We’ve shared space, life, family, comedy, healing, education, tragedy, death, new life, and love even longer and even more intimately than my Lassin family, he and I. The Ngocè embrace is the only way I can picture my first moments there with the one who so loves me. 

Dear Sending Church: We Need to Get the Parents of Missionaries on Board

My mom sits at her mom’s breakfast table, wailing and pleading. My grandmother sits opposite her, wailing and angry. 

It is one of my earliest memories.

I’d never heard so much emotion out of either of them, and the sunny little room encircled by cabinets of glassware suddenly felt tense, alarming, to my five-year-old soul.

My Gram struggled to accept that we were moving to Africa, so that day at her table was one of many tense conversations. In her anger that my mom was taking away her grandchildren, Gram even consulted a lawyer to see if she could sue for custody. 

During our first two-year term in Liberia, we faithfully sent her letters and pictures. My mom tape-recorded my brother’s and my voices and mailed the cassettes off too. Gram didn’t call once during the entire two years. She didn’t send a single letter. Her anger and grief consumed her. 

My grandmother never understood my parents’ love for Jesus, so their motivation to become missionaries didn’t make sense to her either. But unfortunately, her response wasn’t all that different from many parents who do share their children’s faith. 

In Mobilizing Gen Z, Jolene Erlacher and Katy White quote the Future of Missions study from Barna: “Only 35 percent of engaged Christian parents of young adults say they would definitely encourage their child to serve in missions, while 25 percent are not open to the idea at all.”

They continue, “Career success and physical safety are the top concerns. Nearly half said, ‘I’d rather my child get a well-paying job than be a career missionary.’”

Reading this didn’t come as a surprise to me. I coach new missionaries as they are preparing to move overseas, so I hear their stories of conflict and heartache with parents who don’t approve. Keep in mind that this disapproval often comes from engaged Christian parents – people who have surrendered their lives to Christ, who are hearing the Word of God preached every Sunday. So what is happening here?

Maybe we’ve all just become a lot more fearful in the last few years. Maybe churches have let their missions programs fade away. Maybe Christians have latched on to the idea that two-week stints are all that’s needed for transformative ministry.

I hear many people protest that our own country has its own share of problems, so shouldn’t we narrow our focus here? And that’s true – but we also have churches on every corner. Have we forgotten that almost half of the world’s population has little or no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Will we remember that Christ’s final command to His followers was to disciple the nations? 

When every book tells us to live our best life now, when every advertisement whispers that we need more, deserve more, it’s easy to believe that this life is about our personal fulfillment. We forget that there has always been a cost to the gospel, and that cost might include our most significant treasures. Our comfort. Our dreams. Our children. Or perhaps even more gut-wrenching – our grandchildren. 

My own children are nearing adulthood, and I am beginning to comprehend the depth of the grief I would feel if one of them lived across an ocean. I don’t want to minimize the engulfing sorrow I would experience if I had to watch my grandchildren grow up over Zoom calls.

The sacrifice of missions is real, it’s deep, it’s enduring. Those who leave feel it acutely, but sometimes we forget that those who are left behind feel it just as much. 

The sacrifices only make sense in the light of eternity. Do we have the faith to believe that Christ is worth it? 

Churches are often good at inspiring young people with a fresh vision for the Great Commission, sparking in them a passion for bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. We send our students to Urbana and Cross Con; we sponsor them on short-term trips. 

Yet I can’t help but wonder: How many young people have felt convicted to pursue career missions but can’t find the courage to devastate their God-fearing parents? 

So while we exhort our young people to serve God wherever He calls them in the world, let’s also rally their parents to be their biggest cheerleaders, to open their hands and release their fears and their dreams to the One who sacrificed His own Son so that we might be redeemed.    

And when we celebrate and send out new missionaries, let us also remember the pain of their parents. They need our special attention, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. They need the church to be their surrogate family when their own is ten thousand miles away. They need us to give them the vision of how their sacrifice is an equal part of the Great Commission. Our Savior is worth it. 

Resources for parents of missionaries:
A book: Missionary Mama’s Survival Guide: Compassionate Help for the Mothers of Cross-Cultural Workers by Tori Havercamp 
A website: Parents of Goers
An article: Senders Make Sacrifices Too
A ministry: Parents of Missionaries Ministry

Photo from Dobrila Vignjevic

What Does It Mean To Be A Missionary Kid? 

by Iona McHaney Marcellino

I grew up in Angola, where my parents served as missionaries from 1999 to 2011. People often ask me what it was like to be a missionary kid. I never have a succinct answer.

It would be easier to share a memory, a well-rounded vignette of life in Angola, life on the mission field, that would allow the listener to see how nuanced their question is. It would be easier to sit the questioner down, hand them a cup of tea, and say:

‘I have a memory from Angola…..’

We were standing off the road in a remote area, at the Cascades de Kalandula (Calandula Falls). The absolute beauty of the sight was magnified by its seclusion. I had already been to Victoria Falls, and it was fine, but it wasn’t a memory I’d want to write about. 

As for why I had the opportunity to see these beautiful waterfalls? That’s a more complicated story.

My dad had fallen ill on a mission trip to the interior of the country. I don’t remember what he had. Malaria? Cholera? Marburg? Something obscure and foreign to Western ears, something easily preventable or easily treatable when you’re surrounded by modern facilities and deadly when you’re not. 

I think I was nine. Or ten. I may have been twelve. I don’t remember a lot of the wider details, but I do remember the drive there. 

We drove over 10 hours on dirt roads, bumping along, first in the coastal heat, then in the interior mugginess, and then finding a little relief as we hit the freshness of elevation. We crossed a river on a bridge made of tree logs wedged in between the banks. If I had ever doubted my mum had faith, I didn’t after she drove over that bridge. 

Then we heard that my dad had died. He was so ill that the people he was visiting didn’t believe he could recover. It just didn’t happen in their experience. When he was moved to a bigger city, the rural church announced on their radio that the American Missionary had died. There was a prayer vigil for his family and gratitude for his life. Meanwhile my dad was paying $100 a night to sleep on a foam mattress in a dismal hotel.

I don’t know if I heard about it before we left Luanda, while we were on the road, or after we had my dad back in the car. My memory is not really about my dad being ill and announced possibly dead on Angolan radio.

My memory is of the waterfall. 

The water roared and tumbled over the cliff, rainbows flitting off the spray. The sound was purely ecstatic as millions and millions of water molecules clambered over and around each other, then landed on rocks and plunged deep into a pool obscured by the rising mist. 

We stared and stared at this magnificent, jubilant display of Creation. What a treasure. 

No tourists were flocking with their cameras to get a better view of water they didn’t know and a land they didn’t care about. No one was posing in front of the rainbows for a thousand clicks and then off to their next excursion. No one was traipsing through rained out roads and minefields to see this tremendous display of glory. 

No one, except for us. 

And we were only there because we had to collect an American missionary who had almost died in a rural village. 

I remember staring at the shrouds of mist as they rose back up over the cliffside, the water giving an encore, another wave before wafting off to its next journey. I pulled a woven wrap from Chad around me and shivered, no doubt pretending I was some distant relative of Lucy Pevensie and that this was my Cair Paravel. And in a way, it was. 

I remember turning to eat lunch with my mum. I remember watching my dad, who’d lost about 15 pounds in two weeks, eat his lunch and speak to the team leader (who had travelled with us) in English, then turn to speak to his friend in Portuguese. 

When people ask me, ‘What was it like being a missionary kid? What was it like living in Angola?’ I wish I could somehow transport them into this scene and share with them everything I was seeing and feeling all at once: the juxtaposition of a recovering man, loyal friends, near tragedy, and the absolute, unashamed wonder of Creation at our feet.

I wish I could share that memory and hear people say, ‘Ah, yes, I understand, what a difficult balance to live in.’ 

It’s really difficult to explain that challenging balance, of recognising the good and the terrible all at once, unless you’ve experienced it first hand. 

Being a missionary kid in Angola was living in the constant state of seeing the worst and seeing the best. Watching war ravage a nation and a people, then watching that war end and witnessing peace weave back into a land. Standing by as epidemics hit all around, and also seeing the flood of help that comes from churches when others are in need. Feeling fear at night and being grateful in the morning. Being different and still loved. Being a foreign misfit and still welcomed. Driving all day on roads that would fail any British inspection dismally to reach a father who may or may not be alive, find him recovering, then standing in front of the most beautiful natural wonder I have ever seen and probably ever will see, and giving thanks to God for undeserved provision. 

There are many different responses when I explain my life on the mission field. Many people exclaim how adventurous it must have been – and it was. But the majority of people have more negative, and maybe more naive, things to say about my lived experiences. 

Those are the people I most wish I could somehow share this story with – a strand of my memory demonstrating the reality of living between the good and the bad, between the eternal world and this broken one, between the plagues and the cascades of mercy.

Missionary kids, on any field, live in that space. Some missionary kids spend their childhoods in the back of a four-wheel drive watching the Jesus film over and over. They watch as the Holy Spirit captivates and moves, they watch on Sunday mornings as people grieve, weep, and share about their lost family members, their dying children, their lost homes, their broken land.

Other missionary kids live in a completely different context, some in thriving metropolitan neighborhoods, others in stable, quiet towns, but they continue to watch their parents serve a community, take on its burdens, and give their time and resources to a cause beyond this world. MKs often have a front row seat at the visceral fight for life; there on the mission field we see that precious glimpse of eternity over and over again. 

Some people say I must be relieved to be in the US or the UK and grateful to have left Angola, my home. Others tell me how unbelievable my parents’ sacrifice was. Some press to learn more, asking endless questions. Was I scared? Angry? What terrible things did I see? How is this life justified? Others, I know, are not really interested in hearing anything about a life so far beyond their own context or understanding.

No matter what you think of my experiences, however, my prayer is always that someday you get to see those same waterfalls. I hope that someday you are able to see an immense display of cascading mercy and joy amongst a seemingly impossible trial. I hope you too will be able to get a glimpse into Eternity as you stand on the edges of this world. 

***

The missionary life comes with a lot of sacrifice. It comes with losing time with family, losing time at home, in growing up too fast and in not knowing enough about your own passport country. It comes with extreme loneliness and even greater joy.

Missionary families need support tailored to their experiences, and those experiences are not always easy to understand. I will link to several resources for churches, families, and sending organisations who want to support and care for their mission families at the end of this article.

As an adult who grew up on the mission field, it has taken time to learn how to interact with my past with grace, compassion, and honesty. Living in a country that was not mine and living on the edge of a community as it grieved and grew was not always easy. It has taken years for me to be able to take hold of my story, with its misplaced grief, its perpetual homesickness, and its ill-fitting stories. There is a lot to unpack as an Adult MK.

Thankfully, you do not have to unpack it alone. There are some really valuable resources for adults who are looking back on their missionary kid experiences and trying to make sense of it all. I’ll list them at the end of this article, and I really encourage you to pursue them.

Your memories, your stories, your experiences are worthwhile. They are invaluable pieces of who you are, and navigating your story with grace, honesty, and understanding can be challenging but also restorative. There are unexpected travel plans, unknown illnesses, family stresses, hidden losses, and some grief sidelining most of our stories. But there are also beautiful surprises, like hidden waterfalls, that make remembering the journey a little sweeter. 

 

Resources

For Adult MKs: 
Misunderstood by Tanya Crossman 
Unstacking Your Grief Tower by Lauren Wells 
Unstacking Sessions with TCK Training  

For parents of MKs: 
Our Children, Our First Ministry: Discipling Missionary Kids
How Parents Can Help 

For sending churches, grandparents, and others at home: 
Churches supporting missionary families
Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help
10 Questions Missionary Kids would love to be asked
10 Questions MKs Dread 
Caring for TCKs when you’re not the parents 

For sending organisations:
TCK Training for Overseeing Agencies

 

Photo by Jared Erondu on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~~~

Born in Scotland to American parents and raised in Angola, Iona McHaney Marcellino is a second generation Adult TCK, a nurse, and a writer. She currently lives in Cambridge, UK, with her husband and daughter. She enjoys working alongside others who are committed to supporting TCKs with research-focused TCK Care, and she interned with TCK Training from January to July 2023. Iona writes about her own experience as a TCK in her blog, authentic unrest. She enjoys connecting with other Adult TCKs, virtually or in-person, and discussing the nuances of the multicultural life.

I Coped Well in Transition…Until I Didn’t

I remember all the dogs at the Dar es Salaam airport. Usually people don’t travel internationally with their pets, but in the spring of 2020, nothing was normal. The dogs were restless in their cages, but the rest of us stood unusually still, tense, our faces strained from lack of sleep, frantic packing, a thousand unknowns.

I remember the recorded British voice that politely reminded everyone every five minutes: It is not permissible to bring plastic bags into Tanzania. In a dark humor, I thought, How about infectious diseases? 

Just a few days earlier, we got a call in the middle of the night telling us to book a flight as soon as possible. Many in our community were making the same decision, but it was even more significant for us. We had planned a year earlier to relocate to the States in the summer of 2020. So this early, frenzied departure meant leaving a life of sixteen years with no closure, no dignity, no RAFT. 

The memories of these moments in March 2020 are sharp and vivid, as if they happened three days ago, not three years.

In the five days before our departure, I can picture myself lining up my kids’ baby shoes, carefully saved for so many years, and taking pictures of them before handing them off to a friend. I remember making broccoli beef for my last meal in the crock pot I’d owned for 12 years. I remember how our feet echoed on the empty marble floors of the Ramada hotel restaurant on the night before we left. 

I could list thousands of tiny, minuscule details of those five days. My focus was razor-sharp. My emotions were not.

Other than a couple of bursts of despair or panic, I went numb during those five days. And then during the long, unpredictable journey to California. And then during the next three months when we lived like vagabonds, trying to hold together our jobs in Tanzania while applying for new ones in the States.

If you had asked me how I was doing, I would have told you I was okay. I wasn’t happy, and sometimes I was decidedly unhappy, but I didn’t fall into a depression. I got out of bed every morning. I wasn’t crying all of the time. I wasn’t having panic attacks. I wasn’t having nightmares. Well, not many.

I am task-oriented. I did what I needed to do. And big feelings were not on the agenda.

But I was not okay, and that fragility manifested in unexpected ways. Suddenly, I had an aversion to anyone outside my immediate family. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, even people I normally would have been thrilled to be with. (Pandemic restrictions made this easy.)

Another A Life Overseas writer asked me to be on a podcast of people who were evacuated because of the pandemic. A little voice in my head said, “You like things like this.” But a bigger, louder voice said, “No. No. NO. Not even an option.” The big voice didn’t give me a reason. It just bullied me into saying no. 

I stopped writing. I went months where my mind was mostly devoid of anything to write about, even though it was usually the best way to process my feelings. It was like my emotions froze, and I became a robot. 

I was trying to adapt to a new life, and I was restless and impatient. I wanted to feel productive and meaningful again. But I had no energy, no creativity, no mental space. I could only focus on what was directly in front of me. I was frustrated that I couldn’t do more, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I thought I was fine. I knew I was sad, but I thought I was handling our transition well. 

I wasn’t. Not really.

About a year and a half after our arrival, my brain and body decided to shut down, and I stopped sleeping for ten days. I finally got help. I told the urgent care doctor, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I know what anxiety feels like, but this is different. It’s like I’m on overload and can’t get my pulse to slow down.” That admission was the beginning of feeling better.

I’ve been back three years, and it’s taken me that long to figure out what was happening inside me during that first year and a half. I only see it now in hindsight. 

There are times in life you know you’re a mess; the pain or the fear is big and consuming. Every moment of every day feels like a fight. (I’ve had seasons like that, and this wasn’t one of them.)

But other times, you don’t realize you’re in a fog. You are coping quite well. You are doing what you need to do. You don’t realize your soul is actually withering. Then one day, the sun breaks through the clouds and triggers a distant memory: Oh yes! This is what warmth feels like. 

This is what it feels like to be creative, my mind brimming with ideas.
This is what it’s like to live without a constant sense of being overwhelmed.
This is what it feels like to be happy.

I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t doing well until I started to feel better, and to remember what it feels like to be fully alive. 

Today, I love being with friends and meeting new ones. I’m doing seminars for small and large groups. I was a guest on a podcast. My brain comes up with way more things to write about than I have time to get them out. 

I don’t think I anticipated the jarring effect the transition would have on my body, mind, and soul. Or that it would last as long as it did. Seeing this in myself has given me empathy for others around me who are in transition: the new parents, new empty-nesters, the immigrant. How can I show them grace? How can I help to bring light into their fog? How can I walk alongside them for as long as it takes, knowing it will probably take longer than anyone anticipated? 

But also, I want to remember to give myself grace the next time. To be more patient with myself. To remember that some of the hardest parts of life must simply be faced a day at a time until they get better. 

This morning at church, a song unearthed a sweet memory of Tanzania, and I cried. For what I left. For what I’ve missed. For what I’ve gained. For how far I’ve come. 

A Pocket Guide for Talking to Missionaries: Dozens of Missionaries Open Up About Questions They Love and Questions They Don’t

“Soooo…..how’s Mongolia?”

Let’s be realistic here. There really is no perfect way to start a conversation in the church foyer with someone you haven’t seen in three years. Especially if that person has been living in Mongolia. 

Uh, Mongolia’s good. All good. Cold, but good.

Cue awkward silence while both parties are nodding and fake smiling. 

But hey, at least this person remembered the name of the country. That counts for something. Especially because any missionary will tell you that the awkwardness of “How’s [fill in the blank country name]?” is eclipsed only by the even awkwarder question “How was your trip?”

My “trip” that took three years and included a child being born, another almost dying of malaria, a church plant, five moves, one flood, a new language, and an unfortunate incident involving a police officer and a scorpion? That trip? Um, it was good.

We know you mean well. We’re thankful you’re even talking to us. It’s far worse standing in a church lobby with no one to talk to (because that’s happened too). We’ve got gobs of grace for awkward questions. But may we offer some suggestions? 

We asked some cross-cultural missionaries which questions they dread (and what they would love to be asked!). Want to make a missionary’s day? Keep reading.

The Church Foyer Questions (a.k.a. Small Talk)

Don’t ask questions that assume they feel at home.

Ashleigh: One question I dread is, “Aren’t you happy to be home? or “Do you miss it here?” How do I answer either one of those? I can’t explain myself because often I don’t know what home is or how I feel about either location. I love both, but I also miss the other when I’m not there. 

Meredith: When they come back to their sending country for furlough, don’t say, “It must be great to be home!” The place where they serve is becoming home. 

Instead ask questions that reconnect.

“We’re so happy to see you! It must be so disorienting to be back here after so long. I’m ____, in case you forgot.” 

“Can you remind me of your kids’ names and ages?”

“How long was your plane ride? What airports did you pass through?”  

“What weather change did you experience when you got on a plane there and arrived here?” 

“Who are the people you’ve been excited to see?” 

Or ask about something specific from their recent newsletter or social media post. 

Don’t ask how their vacation is going.

Lynette: Although I may be home on furlough, it’s still not a holiday! Many missionaries spend their “holiday” in their home country, but it’s far from restful. Fundraising, updating, and meeting sponsors simply have to be done and are vital to continuing the mission, but it’s not a break from the work. Only a different environment.

Jenny: Don’t assume their furlough or stateside visit is restful or that they are on an extended vacation.

This question is so discouraging that we wrote a whole post on it.

Instead ask what this time looks like for them.

“I know you’re working hard while you are here. What does your time here look like?”

“Will you be able to take a vacation?” 

“What fun things are you looking forward to doing while you are here?” 

“What’s the restaurant everybody in your family wanted to visit first?” (Bonus points for following this up with: Can I take you to lunch there after the service?) 

Bottom line: Assume your visiting missionaries are feeling awkward and disoriented. Keep it light. Keep it welcoming. Don’t monopolize their time. Introduce them to others. Save the deeper stuff for when you have more time to chat.

The Coffee, Dinner, or Small Group Questions

Don’t ask questions about a “typical” day or week.

Joshua: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical week look like?”

Fred: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical day look like?” I love the heart behind this one, and it’s heading in the right direction! You are trying to get a picture of what life looks like, and that’s awesome! 

Most missionaries don’t have a typical day or week. Instead ask more specific questions.

Marilyn: “How is life different for your family there than it is in the U.S.?”

Joshua: “What do you love about your city? (Or about the people where you serve?)”

Jean: “What breaks your heart?”

Linda: “Where have you seen God at work?” 

Kimberly: I love any questions about what we see as cultural differences, church differences, ministry differences.  I love explaining that I feel both cultures can learn from each other. 

Don’t ask questions that assume the worst about their host country.

Amanda: Don’t ask about the weirdest food we eat. It’s not “weird” in our host country—it’s normal and cultural.  

Matyas: I don’t like questions about politics through the lens that the person asking already has a “right” answer. For example: “Is Hungary a dictatorship?” This assumes they already think Hungary is, and they aren’t open to changing their perspective after they hear the answer.

Heather: “Doesn’t it make you thankful for how blessed we are here (meaning America)?”

Angela: “Is it safe?” I hate this question. Most people don’t understand the complexity of answering this question as a single female in the field. [For thoughts on safety overseas, go here.]

Instead ask open-ended questions about cross-cultural life.

Ashleigh: One question that I love is, “What was your first/biggest culture shock?” And I think it is a great question because it is always so unique to each person, and so incredibly different depending on the cultural context.

Stephanie: Missionaries appreciate humor and being asked about normal life things! It’s lonely out there, and we want everyday-type of connection.

Matyas:  I like questions about people. “How are the people thinking or how are they different?” I like to talk about different cultures and different worldviews. 

Rachel: “What makes London [or host city] feel like home? What are your favorite local places/people, etc.?”

A.W. Workman: “How have you changed since you went overseas?” 

Don’t ask why they aren’t serving in their home country instead of abroad.

Peggy: “Why are you helping kids in Africa when so many kids in our own country need help?” I get this question surprisingly often.

Megan: “Couldn’t you do that in America?” (‘that’ being coaching, cross-cultural outreach, immigrant work, etc.) 

When it comes from Christians, this question is demoralizing since the Bible makes it clear that reaching the nations should be a priority. If you’re not convinced, take a Perspectives class

Don’t get too personal.  

Kendra: Don’t put pressure on the single missionaries to talk about being single on the mission field. There’s so much more to a person than their marital status. You wouldn’t ask any other secular professional about their personal life…it would be considered very inappropriate and crossing a lot of boundaries. Chances are their work and their people are what they’re in love with currently anyway. 

Rachel: [I dread] questions to or about our teens/kids that assume they are spiritually ‘solid,’ or consider themselves to be missionaries, without realizing that (like most kids) their faith may be still developing.

Beth: We’ve been asked, “How’s your marriage going?” How can we possibly answer that question in a group setting with people we don’t know well (or could remove our funding!)? 

Instead, save these questions for close relationships or a member care/debrief setting (see the next section below).

Bottom line: Be curious. Yes, ask about their ministry, but also ask the non-spiritual questions

Questions for Missions Care Teams and Close Friends

Bottom line (but at the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Don’t ask for numbers.

Jocelyn: Please don’t try to quantify work down to how many baptisms, healings, conversions we have been part of. We are broken and walk alongside broken people, and we are not responsible for numbers. We are responsible to love people. The complexity of the life situations and injustices we walk through with people as we work overseas are immense. We feel misunderstood by others when the validity of the work is quantified by “conversion stories” and “how many baptisms.”

Instead ask about the highs and lows of ministry.

Meredith: “Where have you seen the Lord at work? What’s the most encouraging (or discouraging) thing about your ministry right now?”

Brook: Ask questions about real people, like having the missionary choose one person they are working with and share either disappointments or exciting things they see in that person’s growth and maturity.

Jonathan Trotter: “What are your dreams? What are you looking forward to? How can we support you in the future?” 

Do ask about their health (physical, mental, spiritual, marriage & family) and support systems.

Matt: Senders in a position of responsibility should ask very direct questions about their missionary’s future. Are they planning well for future financial needs? Do they have adequate life insurance, and are they investing appropriately in their physical and mental health?

Audrey: So many missionaries deal with [trauma] and I believe it’s because people don’t know what to do that they tend to ignore it. Many things we face overseas are beyond the comprehension of those who live in our sending countries. Big issues are ignored, not because we are not loved, but because no one knows what to do or how to help. Civil wars, coups, abuse of power by those in authority, constant goodbyes as people come and go in your community — the trauma can be big or small, but it is very real.

Laura: Leave room for conversations about the hard stuff — marriages falling apart, frustrations with ministry, discouragement, feeling out of place in our passport countries, etc. We’re human, too. We’re not “saviors.” Treat us like regular folks and listen to our stuff, too.

Deanna: Is their children’s TCK identity being adequately cared for? Spousal relationship, prejudices toward the people/culture, and how God is working in that?  These can be pretty invasive questions, but it is necessary for missionaries to evaluate these hard topics and for those sending to help them with that, especially if their sending agency is hands-off or lacks resources.

Bottom line (repeated from the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Like everyone, missionaries want to be seen, heard, and understood. They want to be cared for and prayed for. 

So our last word of advice is to please listen and pray.  

Benjamin: Listen well, be curious, laugh lots. You don’t have to completely understand every nuance of the culture they’re serving in to be a great listener, empathize, and pray for them. 

Judi: Listen . . . Don’t talk. Don’t ask too many questions. Just listen. With eyes intent and an open heart.

Karin: Ask about their joys and their sorrows — really listen — and pray with them right there. Being heard, especially in our areas of grief and sorrow, means the world when we are travelling and speaking and sometimes feeling like everyone thinks we are better than we are!

Anna: Don’t talk. Listen. The end. 

Angie: The question I love is “How can we pray for you, your family, and the pastors you work with? Give us specifics.”  (When someone wants to know the specifics, it makes me feel truly cared for. They are not assuming they know what we need; they are asking for the details.)

We really don’t have words to express how grateful we are for those who love us and partner with us in taking Christ’s hope to the nations. Thank you for caring about missionaries!

My Love/Hate Relationship with Living on Support

Lois was only a few weeks away from death when I visited her in a nursing home. Lois was a widow, and she supported our ministry in Tanzania at $200 a month as a widow. By the time I could visit her, she had developed cancer. I told her how grateful we were that she supported our family so generously for so many years. 

“It’s my pleasure,” she told me, her eyes bright with the energy her body lacked. “You know, I discussed this with my kids. They agreed that they didn’t need a big inheritance. They are okay with me giving away my money to missionaries.” I sat there dumbfounded, tears in my eyes.  

In Tanzania, we attended a church where we were often the only non-Africans present. One Sunday, the preacher spoke passionately about God’s call to cross-cultural missions. Afterward, an African woman I had never met approached me. She smiled and said, “Thank you for serving as missionaries!” She handed me an envelope containing about $75 – a considerable amount for many Tanzanians. My eyes gaped. My mouth gaped. I’m sure I looked like a codfish. All I could think was, She probably needs this more than I do. Yet I knew it would insult her to refuse, so I sputtered out my thanks and hugged her.

Our mission organization keeps a database of every donation we’ve received since we first moved overseas in 2001. Sometimes I look at the cumulative totals our donors have given us, some going back 20 years. They could have gone on a nice vacation with that money, I think to myself. Maybe an Alaskan cruise. That family could have remodeled their kitchen or bought a car with these donations. And in one case, They could have bought another house with that money. Not kidding. A whole house. 

When we knew we would relocate from Tanzania to the States in 2020, my husband and I started a job search. We cast our net far and wide, looking at schools, churches, and non-profits. There was one thing, however, that I was adamant about: whatever we decided to do next, I did not want to be in a support-raising position. No siree. I had been there, done that. No matter how cool an opportunity sounded, if it required raising support, I was out. I’d lived on support for 18 years. It was time to move on. 

But I have this wonderful friend, Alyssa, who has this habit of drilling into my soul. So when I told her my intention of finding a regular, non-support-raising job, she was not satisfied. “Why not?” she insisted. “What if God shows you the perfect job that is a perfect fit for you, but you have to live on support? Would you still say no?”

It’s so irritating when Alyssa is right. A couple of months later, God dropped that exact scenario into my lap, and I was forced to reckon with my resistance to living on support. What was my problem? God had always provided abundantly for us through the generosity of others. I loved the relationships I had formed with supporters. So why did I hate it so much?

I thought of Lois, and the woman with the envelope at church, and the people who could have bought a house with their donations. I realized I hated how their generosity made me feel so….humbled.

When you are trained in support-raising methods, they tell you that “the ask” will be hard. It’s challenging to look someone in the eye and ask if they will sacrificially donate money so that you can fulfill your calling. But you know what they don’t tell you? That asking may be hard, but receiving is even harder. 

After all, I’m a good, hard-working American with some hefty bootstraps. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone. I don’t want anyone to sacrifice on my behalf. I’d rather earn my keep. 

And therein lies my problem. Living on support feels like grace, and I don’t like grace. 

Those words fly out of my brain and through my fingers, and I instantly feel foolish. Considering that grace is the heart of Christianity, you could say this attitude is a problem for someone following Christ. 

The Creator of the universe lowered Himself to become dependent on mortals, so who do I think I am that I should refuse to depend on others? Is this not the Lord’s earth, and everything in it? Is it not God who provides for my needs, even when I try to provide for myself?

Daily I must release my independence. I cannot be self-reliant, and when God provides through others, I must lower my pride and receive it. I am not in control; I cannot spend my money as though I deserve it, and I am reminded that I am only a steward of God’s resources. Ironically, living on support teaches me how I should be living as a Christian. 

I surrendered and said yes to the perfect job that was a perfect fit, even though it meant I had to rely on support. I am ground to the dust in gratitude for the three churches and 76 households who faithfully continue to financially support me. But Jesus spent a lot of time in the dust, so I love the opportunity to identify with Him. 

Photo by Andre Taissin on Unsplash

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.

To Bribe or Not to Bribe? That is the Question.

We were on our way home from church and stopped at a petrol station.

We fished around for cash; credit cards weren’t an option in our host country. My husband had only 50,000 shillings on him.

As the attendant filled the tank, I triumphantly rustled up another 30,000 shillings from the depths of my purse. “Aha! We can top up now!” I declared.

I leaned over and asked the attendant, “Please add another 30,000.”

But instead of giving us more gas, the guy pulled out a wad of receipts from his pocket and rifled through them. He pulled out one for 80,000 shillings and offered it to me with an arched eyebrow.

I stared at him, baffled. What on earth was going on?

Suddenly it dawned on me: he didn’t realize I was asking for more gas; he thought I wanted a receipt for 30,000 more than what we had paid. Why would he make that assumption and then nonchalantly comply? 

Because it was a commonplace request. 

In our host country, hiring a driver to run errands was routine. It was also routine for that driver to fill up the gas tank and then bring his employer an inflated receipt for reimbursement, making himself some profit on the side. 

So when customers left their receipts behind, the gas station attendants collected them, ready to dutifully pass them on to pilfering drivers. If I had wanted a false receipt, all I needed to do was ask. Embezzlement was that easy.

****

I sat in the cubicle next to the designer’s computer as she put the finishing touches on the banner I was requesting. 

“Looks great!” I exclaimed. “You said 150,000 shillings, right? Please put the name of my school on the receipt.”

“Oh, if you want a receipt, it will be an additional 20%,” she quickly corrected me. 

20%: The government sales tax.

Why wasn’t the tax automatically included in the quotation? I didn’t need to ask why; I had heard the answer before. Many customers would go elsewhere if she included tax in her quotations. If her business wanted to compete, her only choice was to offer under-the-table prices. She was trapped.

****

I entered my new culture in my early 20’s, idealistic and naive, ready to change the world. The reality of ethics in a developing country smacked me in the face.

I heard first-hand accounts of teachers who withheld critical exam information from students who wouldn’t pay up. Nurses who ignored any patient who wouldn’t tip them in advance. Social workers who bent adoption laws for the right price. Visas granted only to those succumbing to bribes.

It seemed pure evil until I became aware of the other side of the story. Indeed, greed was part of the equation, but sometimes employees weren’t paid enough to live on – or their paychecks were backlogged for months. Desperation was also a factor. 

In a society where no one plays fair, picking yourself up by your bootstraps sometimes means stealing the boots first. If you want to get ahead, you have to play dirty. 

So what happens when foreigners find themselves trying to help those locked in corrupt systems? Should we capitulate, arguing that it’s better to give in, as long as we do good work? Or do we defy corruption, even if it means suffering the consequences?

The answer is not always clear. In some places, what we might see as a bribe is interpreted as a “pre-tip” for expedited service. We must observe and explore these cultural nuances, recognizing that the conclusion is not always black and white. 

Many times, however, corruption is blatant. Occasionally, acquiescing is a matter of life or death. But should cooperation with corruption be our default?

Confronting corruption is costly. It’s easier to slip the police officer a few bills and drive away than spend an hour arguing for justice. It’s cheaper to give in to the customs official demanding a bribe than to be charged exorbitant fees. Waiting for visas can stretch for months when you refuse to grease the wheels.

But do we want to see quick fixes or lasting change? Corruption breeds oppression for the vulnerable. When fraud has free reign, the subsistence farmer can’t get a fair price for his crops. The small shop owner can’t compete with powerful companies. Emergency aid fills the stomachs of government workers instead of displaced refugees. When we feed that system, we hurt the powerless. 

We must remember that as expatriates, we are privileged. We have money, resources, and safety nets. Someone has got to break corruption’s cycle, and those of us with privilege should be the first to fight. 

Our attempt to stand up against corruption may seem feeble. Is it worth the trouble? That’s not our concern. Our job is to obey God, do the right thing, and trust Him with the result.

The day may come when our small acts of integrity result in large-scale transformation. I know people who have found themselves perfectly positioned to go head-to-head with an entire corrupt system, and miraculously, they see change manifesting right before their eyes. They are immersed in a profoundly challenging and spiritual battle, but their story proves that change is possible.

Cynicism is the pendulum swing from naivete, and neither is healthy. Somehow we must walk the tightrope between wisdom and suspicion. Not every government official in a developing country is corrupt, and foreigners are not saints. As Christians, we should be alert to the brokenness in this world and ourselves – but also never lose hope. 

****

The police officer stepped into traffic and held out his palm in front of me. Sighing, I pulled to the side of the road so that he could inspect my car. “Ah! Look at this,” he announced. “Your insurance has expired.”

I groaned inwardly. He was right. My insurance had expired the day before, escaping my notice. 

He demanded a 40,000 shilling fine. “I will pay it,” I told him, “but only if you give me a ticket.”

He did not have a ticket book, and I refused to pay without it. We reached an agreement: I would go to the police station to pay my fine and leave him my license as collateral. When I could show him proof of payment, he would give it back.

The next day, I got up early and drove 45 minutes to the police station. The police there laughed at me. “Why didn’t you just pay the officer? We don’t have any ticket books here either.”

I drove to another station: same result. Finally, at the central police station downtown, in the little room at the very back, I found an officer with an authorized ticket book where I could pay my fine (which was actually only 20,000 shillings).  

In the end, it took four hours to pay my fine legitimately. But I felt as successful as a Jedi rebel, a small act of defiance against the Empire. It was worth it.

Seasons

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Psalm 84:5

Outside of my window there is frost. The green of summer and the gold of fall are long gone, replaced by winter with its early sunsets and frosty mornings.

For years I lived in places where there were no seasons. Winter was when it got below 15° Celsius and we could bundle up in light sweaters and drink cocoa. Palm trees were our Christmas trees, and we could never convince those who lived in colder climates just how cold the inside of a concrete block building could get. When I moved to a place where there were seasons, I had to adjust to changing wardrobes and activities.

Initially it felt impossible. How could I possibly survive winter? When would the shivering stop? Why was everyone else so excited about the first snow and blizzards?

One of the things you learn when you live in seasons is that if you don’t relax and accept them, you will constantly be fighting with them and everything that surrounds them. It will be you against the seasons, and the seasons will always win.

And so it is with life seasons. If you don’t relax and accept them, you are in a lifelong fight, and you have already been declared the loser. Life seasons always win.

From my comfortable chair looking out on the current changing season, I’m thinking a lot about life seasons, because it’s time to make a change. I will no longer be writing for A Life Overseas.

From maternal child health nurse to boarding school parent to stay-at-home mom to working as a nurse in a large multinational oil company to helping my husband run a study abroad program to teaching nursing students at a public university, my overseas careers and seasons have been many and varied. I birthed five babies on three different continents and created homes in 36 different houses along the way. I lived in four countries, studied three languages, and still only know English well. Through the years I’ve not only had to learn how to create a home in other countries, but hardest of all – I’ve had to learn how to create a home and place in the United States. And it was here at A Life Overseas that my stories and experiences found a home.

I began writing for A Life Overseas soon after I began writing publicly. It was Rachel Pieh Jones who connected me to the site and asked me initially to post as a guest. The invitation was welcome. I had recently returned from working in flood relief in Pakistan, and my heart was restless to make sense of living between. Writing publicly, initially for my own blog followed by A Life Overseas, was an incredible gift. It was through writing that I processed my life experiences from Third Culture Kid to Adult Third Culture Kid and three-time expatriate. Through this medium I connected with so many of you and we “got” each other. The loneliness, the disconnect, the joy, the humor, the homesickness, the reverse homesickness, the jetlag, the lost luggage, the cultural humility, the mistakes, the raising kids, the figuring out life, the missed flights, the language learning, the misplaced pride, the sense that we could never make it back in our passport countries, the “too foreign for here and too foreign for home”* – all of it was here to be wrestled with and figured out. Through writing I processed, connected, cried, argued, and laughed.

Along the way I have grown and learned. I have felt God’s pleasure and direction, His love for the world and for those of us who love the world.

But I have always known that at some point it would be time to pass on this privilege to others. And so it is – now is the time. There are others whose voices need to be heard, others who are living this life who can communicate what it is to walk faithfully and confidently between worlds. I have also known that when it is time to move on, it’s best not to fight it but to go with grace, to go with God. Seasons come and seasons go; only God Himself remains the same.

A couple of years ago while sitting at an airport on a lonely Sunday night, I wrote the following. I offer it here to you as a word-gift, a tribute to all of you. Whether you are weary and lonely or energetic and people-filled, whether you have left your overseas life behind or whether you are still in the thick of it, I salute you and your courage and pray that God may keep you in the palm of his strong, everlasting, ever-loving hands.

Here’s to the lonely ones, sitting at airports waiting on delayed and cancelled flights.

Here’s to the tired ones, weary of travel and goodbyes, idly eating granola bars and sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups.

Here’s to the mom, traveling with kids, weary of meeting the needs of little ones who are out of their habitat.

Here’s to the students, in that weird space between childhood and adulthood, carrying Apple computers purchased with graduation money.

Here’s to the immigrant family, a long way from home, juggling as much hand luggage as possible as they wearily look at an airport monitor flickering out their flight delay in blue digital letters.

Here’s to the grandparents heading home after visiting with a future generation of sweet and soft baby smell. A new generation who doesn’t yet know th
ey exist but will miss them long after they are gone.

Here’s to the third culture kid who has said far too many goodbyes. Here’s to the refugee who carries their pain in their body. Here’s to the expat who is moving on to their next post with the fresh memories of their last home like an open grave receiving a coffin.

Here’s to Arabic and Hindi; Swahili and French; German and English; Chinese and Spanish; Portuguese and Farsi – and every other language of the heart that at times must be hidden in new places and spaces, but in the airport is completely at home.

Here’s to the singles and the couples; the black and the white; the discouraged and the lonely; the arguing one and the laughing one —  with more in common in life’s journey than any of us can possibly know.

Here’s to my fellow travelers, sitting under the glare of fluorescent lights in the chaos of modern day travel. May you have safe journeys and traveling mercies. May God keep you in the palm of his hand and may you know his grace.

Thank you for reading my words – In Grace, Marilyn


*From Questions for Ada Diaspora Blues: “So, here you are too foreign for here too foreign for home. Never enough for both.”