by Beth Watkins
I had this nagging sense I was doing something wrong.
I had decided to be a missionary. And while that in and of itself didn’t seem simple enough, the idea that I would go to one place, learn the language, be a part of a foreign place, integrate with the lives of people in a new place did. I imagined myself, like the single older ladies in the missionary biographies I read about, gray haired, wearing flowy dresses, with kids and neighbors knowing me and the sincerity in my good intentions. I would grow old in a place that was no longer foreign. This was the dream.
And boy, that dream shattered real fast. Two years in I was booted by state security, persona non-grata, told in no uncertain terms I would not be welcomed back.
The rest of the story goes something like this: moved to South Sudan, was there when war broke out, got married, traveled constantly for work and support raising, moved to Egypt, lived with a mystery sickness that kept worsening, acquired green card for the husband, and returned back to living on American soil just over 6 years after I left.
A whirlwind. That wasn’t what I saw coming at all.
And this whole time I had a sense I was doing something wrong.
This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. This isn’t what is supposed to happen in life. God calls us to relationship, rootedness. He cares about community. He calls us to investment in people and places.
In each move I had a sense I was doing it wrong. Starting all over again, all over again, and now all over again. We were suddenly in our new American city, with no time to figure out where we’d like to settle in the city long-term, where we might possibly want to be rooted here.
And with each move, I cried into my pillow and scribbled in my journal. And now that I have a husband around, I sigh loudly and grumble. What about settledness? What about roots? When do we get to stop making brand new groups of friends? When do we get to stop finding our feet and losing them again? When do we get to feel settled? Stop changing churches? Learning new streets and shops? When do I get to have the same life routine for some sustained period of time?
More than anything I want to know it’s coming. I want to know stability is coming. I want to know we’ll get to buy a forever home, I’ll get to plant fruit trees and bushes that I myself will be able to harvest from in 10, 15, 20 years’ time. That I’ll get to stop proving myself anew in a workplace every 2 years. I want to know that, though life ebbs and flows, I won’t need to start all over with no friends in a place again. I want to feel rooted in church, in vocation, in friendships.
There are seasons in life. Some relationships are short and impact us profoundly. Some relationships are long, some life-long, and they teach us hard lessons about patience, grace, and anger over, and over, and over again. But not all relationships can be forever. I don’t think they’re meant to be. Some roots grow deep, strengthen the soil, and ground tall plants to stand up to difficult conditions. Some roots are pulled from the ground, shaken of their dirt, and provide needed nourishment. We don’t get to choose.
I wanted to be in community forever with the street boys in my desert home. I wanted to watch the girls in South Sudan grow up. I wanted to sit and drink tea and laugh with Mama M on the reg. During these years, I also wanted to have coffee with my sisters, wanted to enjoy Christmas with my Mom, didn’t want to miss being there as my nephew was born, wanted a yard with soil I could fortify and plant in year after year.
I wanted it all, all in the same place. And now I just want to stop. I want to stop and not do it anymore and just stay and that’s it.
And maybe rootedness turns into an idol this way.
Maybe I long for something I’m never meant to have. Maybe I’m supposed to get just a taste, so that I can know it in full and in true when the Kingdom of heaven does come in full on earth as it is promised.
Settling in a place forever is not the ideal. It can’t be. I look to the prophets, to the wanderings of Jesus. The disciples travelling. No matter where we look in the Bible there is a theme of uprootedness. Every biblical character in the Old Testament and the New Testament was at some point a refugee, displaced person, was forced out, had to leave, or flee.
Not that I put myself in the category of extraordinary characters in the Bible, but I find comfort there. So many people for so many reasons had to leave their homes, their people, the places they choose and the places picked for them. Many never got to go back; some did and were rejected.
My experience is very less than exceptional, considering especially that though there were challenging circumstances, I had a choice. I had means and freedom and I was able to go. And I’ve been able to return to my home country with my immigrant husband and have been welcomed back warmly and with the help and support of many. My hurts are quite mild compared to many. My complaints more frivolous than not. My losses modest. I know that. But I also know many people get to pick a place and stay, and my restless heart has felt jealousy.
And when I wonder if I will ever find a place to put in roots and then get to stay, it is freeing, comforting somehow to remember this isn’t the biblical example or ideal.
God doesn’t will forced migrations, wars that people must flee from, or people being forced out of housing they can afford in the form of gentrification or otherwise. And when it is a choice, when we move for work, for safety, for family, or because we feel called, the moving itself is not wrong. Of course it is not wrong. We do our best to do the next right thing. It’s all we can do.
And so, when the corners of my heart, well-versed in self-condemnation, tell me I’ve screwed it all up by moving around so much, I have to banish those voices if possible, ignore them at the very least. So, too, with the hidden corner that whispers to me that I deserve to be in one place, to never be uprooted again, to have the life I dream in my head.
I will take the shaky soil of the place I am now, and call it home. I will hold it neither too loosely, nor too tightly, knowing God has given us space in this world as more than just permanent guests. He takes foreigners and makes them citizens, strangers and makes them family, and we would do well to reconcile the wrongs in this world by doing the same, rooting ourselves in love for our neighbors instead of our own comfort or ideals.
Beth Watkins spent the last 6 years working in North and Sub-Saharan Africa with street children, refugees, and other vulnerable populations. She is currently settling back in the US with her immigrant husband and writes about living toward the kingdom of God and flailing awkwardly into neighbor-love at iambethwatkins.com, where her free e-book “For the Moments I Feel Faint: Reflections on Fear & Showing Up” is also available. She’s also on Facebook and Twitter.