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

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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.

When Expectations Aren’t Reality: Supporting Your TCKs in the First Years of University

by Lauren Wells

I stood on a grassy hill hugging my parents tight as they prepared to drive away and head back to Africa, leaving me at university in Indiana. I had prepared for this transition. I had visited the school, had already made some friends, had earned my driver’s license on a previous home assignment, and felt ready and excited for this new chapter. It was going to be great.

A few days into the semester, I was required to go to an international student workshop. I was excited, thinking this was the part where I’d meet other TCKs. I was surprised to find that all of the other international students came from other passport countries for the purpose of university and that this was their first time living outside their home country.

I was equally surprised when our workshop consisted of teaching American currency (“This is a dollar. This is a penny, it’s worth one cent.”) and explaining how to dial 911. Having lived in the US until I was 13, I quickly realized I was the outsider in the international student group, so after I’d met the requirements, I never went back. 

As the semester went on, I tried to make friends. But it felt like every time I opened my mouth, the words I spoke didn’t get the reaction I was expecting. My attempts to be funny were met with awkward smiles. My attempts to deepen relationships by sharing about something a bit more vulnerable were met with comments that communicated a lack of ability to relate to my experiences and no invitation to continue the conversation.

I quickly felt like I didn’t belong with the monocultural crowd, but I told myself it didn’t matter. “I’ll only be here long enough to get my degree anyway, and it will be easier to leave if I never make close friends.” I knew what it felt like to leave close friends, so when my initial attempts to build relationship hadn’t worked, that seemed like a good excuse to stop trying.

I became the quiet one who walked through campus trying not to be noticed. I succeeded academically but have no memories of good social experiences. That first Christmas break, I remember feeling like a shell of myself, never having felt that level of emptiness and despair before, and I simultaneously decided that I just needed to toughen up and keep moving forward. 

School resumed, and I took on more classes than recommended, thinking that if I just poured myself into the academics, I could ignore the rest. But then, the grief started to creep in. Not just the grief of that year, but the grief that I had so skillfully pushed down for a long time before that. My Grief Tower was collapsing.

At TCK Training we work with TCKs on both sides of this story – educating families who are raising TCKs on how they can be intentional in caring for the unique needs of TCKs so that they can prevent adverse outcomes in adulthood and serving adult TCKs who reach out to us for support. 

In between the two parts of that story, we have found the need for preventive care and support. Sometimes universities have a wonderful TCK program, like MuKappa, that provides community and support for TCKs in their university years. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of resources available to university-age TCKs to guide them through that season. 

But there is good news! We can be intentional about supporting our university-age TCKs well, especially in those first couple of years. 

  • Set them up for emotional success by making sure they’ve had the opportunity to debrief and unstack their Grief Tower before university. The books The Grief Tower and Unstacking Your Grief Tower can guide you in doing that process in your own family. We recommend doing this at least 3 months before the transition to university so that the grief these conversations bring to the surface has time to begin to heal before they experience the major transition of starting university. 
  • Make sure they have avenues for connection and continued processing with safe people – family, friends, counselors. There will inevitably be difficulty in the transition, but they will not always want to share their hardships with you. Often this is because they won’t want to burden you on top of your international work or because they won’t want to disappoint you at their “failure” to thrive. Take away that shame by regularly asking them what has been hard. Ask them questions, and even when they don’t answer, let them know you don’t expect everything to be easy for them. For more on this, check out KC360’s workshop, “Indicators that University Transition is Going Well (or Not) with Dr. Rachel Cason” included in their free website membership
  • Help them develop a support network. There is potential for heavy, hard, or just unexpected circumstances to arise that require the help of a supportive adult. Asking for help can feel shameful, but that fear and shame can be reduced when the TCK has a list of people who have agreed to be a support to them. It is even more helpful when those people regularly check in with the TCK to see how they’re doing and what they need. Have your TCK help create a “supportive adult” list, and then ask the people on the list to regularly reach out to the TCK – both asking what they need and offering tangible ways they can help. For example, “Can I take you shopping for a winter coat? Can I come help pack up your dorm room for summer break?”
  • Teach them to celebrate wins. Adult TCKs often struggle to acknowledge their victories due to consistently feeling the need to adapt to fit the communities around them. The internal need to continue performing at ever higher levels leads to burnout. Celebrating victories, however, allows for rest, builds confidence and a sense of value, and strengthens their emotional bank to handle the difficult waves that come. 
  • Provide them transition support in their first year or two of university. An example of this is TCK Training’s Launch Pad program, which provides repatriating TCKs with a 10-month virtual cohort community, education, and support directly related to adult TCK experiences. There is space to process and grieve, along with regular checks-ins to celebrate victories and continue developing as an individual.
  • Familiarize yourself with Adult TCK resources so that you can support your Adult TCK by sending them relevant resources along the way. There is so much available now that simply wasn’t around only a few years ago! You can view all of TCK Training’s ATCK services, workshops, and resources at www.tcktraining.com/for-atcks 

The first couple years of university are notoriously the most difficult transition for TCKs. We believe, however, that with intentionality we can make these years not only healthy, but years that set them up for long-term emotional and relational health. 

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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