How to Do Life during a Pandemic—Cross-Cultural Workers Can Add to the Discussion

by Craig Thompson on March 30, 2020

Last weekend, my wife and I used Facebook to video chat with two of our sons, their wives, and our four little grandkids. That’s what you do when your children are serving in a faraway land. That’s what you do, too, when your children, like ours, are close by but COVID-19 protocols tell you to stay home.

When we started out overseas, our parents weren’t computer savvy and Skype hadn’t even been invented yet, but I know how important video conferencing has now become for ocean-separated families wanting to stay in touch. And my recent experiences back in the States have got me thinking about what cross-cultural workers could say about how to live life under the cloud of a pandemic. While people all over the world are scrambling to deal with challenges that have popped up in a matter of days or weeks, cross-cultural workers have been tackling similar problems for years.

Now I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’d like to consider the things that cross-cultural workers often take for granted that those “at home” might gain from. Typically, it’s easy for senders not to seek your input: “What is there to learn from people who do abnormal things because they live in abnormal places?” But as we get used to a new normal, at least for a while, we all have things to learn.

So with all the dialogue going on now about how to cope with “social distancing,” “sheltering in place,” and “quarantining,” I hope those of you living and working abroad have opportunities to contribute. You have a lot to share.

Here are some examples I’ve thought of:

You and your loved ones have dealt with extended separation and know how to navigate holidays and special events at a distance. You are masters at video chatting online, wrestling into submission Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, and more, with sometimes spotty internet and electricity. And you’ve developed even more ways of connecting grandkids to Grandpa and Grandma when face-to-face isn’t an option.

Some of you already knew about the uncertainties of dealing with epidemics, because you’ve served populations hit by them before. Some of you work in areas affected by war, famine, and poverty and have seen staples and medical supplies run low. Some of you are aid workers or medical personnel who have to weigh personal and family safety against helping the ill and needy. Some of you are in places where that safety must take into consideration political unrest and religious persecution, as well. Some of you live where fear hangs in the air.

Many of you deal with compromised health environments every day. You and your neighbors often wear face masks to keep out air pollution when you’re outside or to keep in germs when you’re felling sick. You have to be your own food inspectors and make decisions on what unknowns you’re willing to accept. You take a myriad of vaccinations and precautions to fight off diseases and parasites not common in your passport country (sometimes getting them anyway). And you can’t drink the water.

You have made an art out of cooking meals when familiar ingredients are absent or in short supply. And you’ve created networks for getting the word out when certain items hit the shelves.

Some of you know what it’s like to function in the absence of toilet paper.

And some of you have learned the skill of saying hello without hugging or shaking hands.

Many of you know the challenges of working at home and teaching at home while you’re also living at home, often in a small apartment with no yard outside your door. You have long dealt with the need to find a balance—or rhythm—for your different roles, giving attention to self-care as you care for others.

For Christians around the globe, this coronavirus has birthed a new interest in house churches, as large gatherings have been discouraged or banned altogether. It’s birthed a lot of good questions, too, questions many of you have been pondering for a long time. What are the benefits of meeting in small groups? What are the challenges? What makes a small group “church”? What elements are necessary for a church service—singing, praying, preaching, teaching, sharing needs, taking communion?

What resources are available when the Christian gathering you’ve depended on is no longer available? Out of necessity, you’ve put together a plethora of books, blogs, devotionals, online retreats, Facebook groups, videos, Twitter feeds, and podcasts that help nourish your souls.

Many of you have had to find unique ways to do ministry when the community you serve isn’t close by. How do you care for people you don’t see often? How do you reach out to people who don’t live in your neighborhood, city, or even country?

You know from experience that change brings loss and loss brings grief—and losses should be acknowledged and grief should be expressed. You know that not all losses are tangible or easy to describe, and hidden grief can surface in unhealthy ways.

You’ve learned that small, continued stressors have a cumulative effect, that a drip, drip, drip can overflow one’s capacity as easily as a burst from a firehose.

You’ve learned also that difficult times require safe people for honest sharing, people who are willing to listen, really listen, to the unvarnished truth.

Is doing cross-cultural work the same as living during a pandemic? Usually no—COVID-19 has brought increased difficulties to everyone. But you have faced some similar circumstances. Do you have all the answers? Probably not, unless things have changed drastically since I was overseas. But you do have lessons to share, lessons often learned through trial and error, which can be good teachers.

As we all come together to confront this challenge, please take your seat at the table and join the conversations that are circulating. I hope you’re invited in. We’ll need to keep our chairs apart, though, so maybe you can help me figure out Zoom.

[photo: “DSC06088,” by Nickolay Romensky, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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