When I was in Haiti, high up in a mountain village, I was greeted every morning by a little girl who carried water for her family. The container was as big as her torso, perched perfectly on her sweet head. It seemed too heavy for such a tiny girl and I mentioned this to the pastor’s wife. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we’d like for everyone to have accessible water but really, it’s good for the children to carry water. It is the least of their battles.’ She, of course, was right. I was there to teach about PTSD but during my stay I was informed about their battles for education, gender equality, food insecurity, and opportunity.
‘Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ Plato
That was my mantra as I dove into inner-city ministry twenty years earlier. There were fun battles. Walking through a foot of snow to the latest ‘hole in a wall’ food haunt with friends. Teaching the Sunday School lesson from on top of the classroom table with some nice hip hop moves for ‘Moses’ and, my favorite – being ornery late at night and blaring Luciano Pavarotti into my Tupac driven neighborhood. And, there were dark battles. Perplexing injustice and violence, exhausting vigilance for safety, and the loneliness of pouring myself into others when I was still becoming whoever ‘I’ was. But there was something even more destructive that was leaving my soul ragged and orphaned. Depression and anxiety.
I attended small groups with other twenty somethings living in the city. I probably looked like I connected but internally, I felt void and unmoved always feeling like I was looking in. In staff and community meetings I was robust in debate but would give a big sigh as I crawled into bed feeling a mere shadow of my former self. The only time I truly felt myself was when I sang. I’ve always sang and performed but during those years, I loved worship because I felt alive, like my inner and outer being had finally merged for those few moments.
I remember helping some friends from the Jesus People apartment out of their car. We were talking about simple things. Familiar things. I was ‘spirited’ in my share of the conversation. As the wife gathered her belongings from the back seat her husband looked at me over the top of the car and said, ‘you know, Tam, it is okay to be angry.’ Me, a sweet Kansas girl happy to serve and eager to go that extra mile, angry? Shortly after that conversation one of the young women in our ministry told me, matter of factly, that I was just ‘not real.’ No one had ever said something like that to me. I was the one people sought out not dismissed.
Those two interchanges were simple, almost benign, but enough observation to slice into my façade. I was angry. And, I was submerged, not real and not accessible. I didn’t have a clue what that meant or how to deal with it so I did what any reasonable person would do and had a breakdown and left. It would not be the last time I would slowly, imperceptibly, fade away, and fall apart.
That was before I made frenemies with my nemesis. Before the devastating symptoms there are alarming whispers and I’ve learned to lean in and listen but, mostly, I’ve learned to care for myself. To those who are also the prey of depression and anxiety, this may mirror your own effort to be present instead of being submerged and fighting to breathe. Often and sadly, as a leader, or missionary, or, ‘person of repute’ as my mother would say – you do not get to be depressed or anxious. Which means you are a fool or crazy or, the very worst – needy.
After numerous battles fought, with some won but many lost, I decided that my truest offering might be to merge my 20 years of experience in ministry with the artful ministry of the soul – counseling. I know from experience that the demands of ministry, particularly in impoverished and vulnerable communities, can ‘out-crisis’ my crisis any day leaving me to silently fade and flat line. In combination, I know how vapid and confusing it can be, when faced with the challenge of serving in communities with a prevalence of trauma and consequential mental health decay, all while trying to honor culture and expressed felt needs. But my offer to you would be through my new mantra:
“Living well and beautifully and justly is ALL one thing.” Socrates
When I am not congruent in mind, body and soul, when I do not indulge in beauty and creating beauty, then justice seeking is really a mirage of intention. The Gospel tells me that I am free to float to the top, to engage, to wonder aloud about all these pains and to live in kindness because my battle matters too.
After becoming acquainted with the battles of the people in that mountain village in Haiti, what was it then that unnerved me about that tiny, little girl carrying water on her head every day? Quite simply, it was because it said, ‘I am in need.’ It was Christ, at high noon, asking for a cup from the shamed woman at the well. I get to share a cup of water with Christ when I admit, ‘I am in need.’ And when we all gather at the well, the water just might turn to wine. It’s most often not our choice what we get to carry in life, whether it is water or depression or injustice. The real battle is to be present, flatfooted and standing in our space in this world. I don’t allow my battles to remove me from my life anymore. I carry them, on my head if I have to, so I can live well and beautifully and justly. And that is kindness.
What hidden battles do you carry? What would it cost you to carry them on your head for all to see?
Tamara has over 20 years experience in urban, international, and diverse populations serving complex situations of individuals, teens and families in crisis. She founded and directed two nonprofit organizations in Chicago and Denver serving homeless families, teens, gang members and single mothers, with a focus on addictions, attachment, trauma and life skills. An undergrad student of theology, organizational development, and communications she holds a Masters in Counseling Psychology. Her areas of expertise are trauma and PTSD, addictions, pre/post adoption, therapeutic parenting and attachment, grief and loss and, of course, depression and anxiety. Tamara is a single, adoptive mother who resides in Colorado with her children who amuse her, pets who shed, and friends who make her laugh.
I get out a stack of paper, and draw a tombstone on each sheet. On each tombstone, I write one of the losses she’s mentioned in passing. As I write, she remembers others.
And on the floor of my office, we memorialize a life of subterranean loss. We realize that every time there’s a major life transition—graduation, marriage, moves, births—there’s been an episode of major depression, as this mass of grief wells toward the surface.
So we sit with it. We weep, we mourn. We write, we talk, we pray. And God heals. He really does.
Some thoughts about TCK wounds:
- To be human is to be wounded. It’s part of the deal. We didn’t choose this gig, but here we are. And we’re not getting out of here without getting hurt–TCK, civilian, whatever.
- TCK wounds of loss and grief are a particular subset of the human condition of woundedness. There’s good research on this. (See Third Culture Kids, by David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken.) We might not like it, but there it is: our deal to deal with.
- Our TCK’s are losing their whole lives, every time we put our families on a plane. And sometimes none of us recognize it until years later, right about the time parents are thinking, “My work here is done.”
Some things that can help:
- Fix our own junk. Our kids have enough stuff. They don’t need to be worrying about mom and dad’s issues, too. Go first. Make it OK to be sad. To be mad. To be scared. To trust that God meets us in all those places, too.
- Let them have their own voice about their own story. It is way too easy for the Adult Standard Version to be the only version. Let the kids tell their side, even if it’s not how you remember it.
- Do it right. Take all the vacations. Have the family fun nights. Break “the rules” if it means your kids will be happier and healthier.
- If you think something is wrong, you’re right. Get help.
On our first furlough, we asked our kids to write something for our newsletter, and this is what we got. Our 5-year-old drew a picture of a boat. (Read, constant transition?) And our extroverted 7-year-old couldn’t figure out why people in America were inside their houses all the time.
What emotions are you feeling right now, as you read this blog?
Sad, glad, mad or scared?
What emotions or behaviors are you seeing in your children that might indicate pain and grief?
This guest post offered by Kay Bruner– MA, LPC-intern, former missionary to the South Pacific.
I am a progeny of the short-term missions movement. My life was shaped by trips I took as a teenager to Guatemala and Peru. And here’s the ripple effect: in addition to sending tens of thousands to the field, my family has been profoundly affected. My daughter Estie just left with her college group to Ecuador, my son Seth Jr. has spent a year in Nicaragua, and for the last 17 years, my parents have spent three months doing medical ministry in Kenya.
Building on that early experience as a teenager, I’ve spent 25 years doing short-term trips and it seems that my blog “Are short-term missions becoming faddish?” has made me something of an “authority.” Over 60,000 people have looked at it since I wrote it a year ago. And the tide of emails in my in-box like the one I just received made me realize that perhaps it’s time for a considered response.
So, be warned, this is gonna get long – hang in there!
A random person recently wrote me saying, “Hey, I am doing a speech opposing short term missions [STMs] today, I was wondering if you have any data or statistics that would work for this?”
I’m afraid my response wasn’t too encouraging: “You may have mis-read my perspective.” I wrote. “I believe your position is unbiblical. Luke 9 and 10 is a clear biblical precedent. My issue is not STMs, but STMs done poorly, which is most of the time these days. If you’re ‘opposing STMs’ then you’re opposing Jesus.”
What’s going on here? Is this a tempest in a teapot, or do we need to trash short-term missions and start over?
On the one hand, STMs have become over-the-top faddish when you can now sign up for a “missions cruise,” – I wonder whose “have-your-cake-and eat-it-too” thinking produced that? On the other hand, when you go to a bad restaurant, do you give up on eating food? Many of us attend dull churches, but believe in the concept of church. Everywhere in life there are examples of excellence contrasted with poverty of imagination and execution.
STMs are a necessary part of discipleship. The people who would do away with them are missing a big chunk of Jesus’ pedagogy. Jesus was big on faith – asking us to do a trust-fall with the Father. How else are you going to learn faith if not by being thrust into unfamiliar territory with an overwhelming assignment? You can study diving all you want, but until you jump off that high dive, you don’t know diving.
STMs are also a necessary part of missions. Paul went on a series of STMs and jump-started the long-term mission movement. Usually when planting a long-term work in a community, those planning it are going to begin to establish relationships in a series of forays that culminate in a long-term commitment.
STM teams work – sometimes spectacularly. The uneven results they can produce open the door to criticism. Here are the most prevalent criticisms:
*They cost too much.
*Short-term missionaries can’t do a missionary’s job.
*Short-term missionaries should help the needy people in the U.S. first.
Jesus tells us, “Go into all the world spreading the good news.” The passive approach to faith is an oxymoron – we can’t sit still and practice the kind of risky faith steps that Jesus advocated. Christ sounded a clarion call to battle. Religion for couch potatoes placing a premium on safety or formulas doesn’t sit well with our Lord. We’ve been commanded to get out of the malls and into the streets. The question before the court then is not one of a mandate. The questions are: What we should do with the mandate we’ve been given? And, just how far should short-term missionaries go with their mandate? Are there any limits?
Sometimes, the critics score a bullseye. Mission trips too frequently are costly. By definition they can’t incorporate the follow-up work that only someone with a long-term commitment to a particular mission field can. Often they are overly ambitious, aspiring to pierce the darkness in a place like Romania, when the light may be dimmer next door in Philadelphia.
Other criticisms are more easily countered. Some critics dismiss short-term missionaries out of hand with the comment that “They’re not really missionaries.” To which I say, if being a missionary means something other than sharing the love of Jesus cross-culturally, then it is true, short-term missionaries may not measure up. Yes, often they do have a quick-fix mentality in a world where change may be measured at a glacial rate. However, I suggest that labels are a peripheral issue. Jesus called us all to be missionaries. He sent his disciples out in pairs as the first short-term missionaries (Mark 6:7-13). To judge the validity of the STM movement, we need to dispense with old preconceptions and look at the fruit, not the duration of the term or even the commitment of those involved.
Another criticism in the same vein is that the ministry on a mission trip is more to the short-termer than it is to those to whom they’re ministering. To which I say, “So what?” It’s true that STM leaders may seem more focused on the needs of their group than they are on the ministry they’ve undertaken. Often the changes that occur in their lives are profound. It may frequently be the case that short-term missionaries are the primary beneficiaries of their trip; however, the most successful models of STMs emphasize a partnership in which both participants and nationals benefit equally as they develop relationships with one another.
These kinds of criticisms persist and confusion flourishes when STM leaders embrace questionable models of STMs. Because there are so many flawed models floating around, they inevitably tarnish those models of STMs whose fruit has stood the test of time.
When STM groups come in for criticism, most often it is because they have adopted one or more of the following flawed models of short-term missions. Let’s look at the six worst:
1. No Preparation
2. No Prayer
3. No Jerusalem
4. No “Ends of the earth”
5. No Stewardship
6. No Perspective
Some critics see STM groups as being on a kind of philanthropic sightseeing tour. An STM team can be a negative experience for both long-term missionary and participant alike if the team is inadequately prepared and is seen as a necessary inconvenience. The same team can have an incredible impact if they are trained and come to the field with the right attitudes.
The above article was used with permission from Seth Barnes, President of Adventures.org. Since 1989, they have taken over 100,000 young people overseas on short term missions trips. You can check him out at his blog, SethBarnes.com or on twitter @sethbarnes.
What are your thoughts on Short Term Missions? How have you seen them positively affect people, help your long-term ministry, or impact the culture where you are living?
Long-termers: What do you want short-termers to know before they start their trip? Advice for them?
This guest post comes to us from Colleen Mitchell, missionary in Costa Rica.
Because the stress levels that accompany missionary life can often be so over the top and we are constantly battling our fears and fighting for peace, it is imperative that we as missionaries keep our sense of humor and ability to laugh at ourselves.
Nothing can cut through the stress of a miserable day or a humiliating cultural mistake like a good laugh. It’s important for us to remember that as serious minded as we missionaries can be, there are many aspects of our lives that are truly humorous.
The other night, our family enjoyed a good long laugh reliving our favorite missionary mishaps. It was so good to enjoy a little comic relief.
We laughed recalling my confusion of trying to make sense of the English that the islanders spoke at our first mission post in the West Indies. We thought we had taken the easy way by heading to a mission post where they spoke our language. Only they didn’t. It might have been English words, but it was not my English.
Our first day on the island I befriended a young girl and her cousin who was very pregnant. A few days later when I saw my new friend again, I asked her how her cousin was. She responded, “She go up she make she baby.” I smiled and said “good” and hoped it was. Later when I saw the cousin arrive back on the island with a newborn baby in her arms, I realized that “she go up she make she baby” translated to “She went to hospital on the mainland to have the baby.” Relief. It was good.
One afternoon, my neighbor across the street cornered me on the road to my house. Her face was set stern and her tone harsh. I had not yet learned that our perception about this was wrong and that it was just the natural countenance of these people, so my stomach did a flip when she blurted out, “You take things from people?” I stared blankly. She repeated it more loudly, “You take things from people?” I tried to figure out what in the world she could possibly think we had stolen from her. My southern upbringing told me to be gracious as my head spun and I responded, “Oh no, ma’am. We’d never take anything from anyone.”
She looked back at me crestfallen and said, “Oh, because I bake you some bread.”
“OH! That kind of take things from people! Yes, yes, we do that!” said the missionary standing in the street feeling like a total fool. By the way, it was the best bread I have ever eaten and I’m so glad I took it.
One of our kids’ favorite memories is the morning in Costa Rica. In the midst of breakfast men peddling chairs arrived at our door. With three little ones and morning sick wife looking on my husband tried to politely turn them down. They were quite insistent that we really needed these chairs. The kids were screaming for their breakfast. I was totally incapacitated. In his frenzied state to get back to the chaos taking over our home, my husband closed the door, proclaiming loudly what he meant to be “No thank you, I have to go feed my children now.” Only in the confusion of the moment, he declared that he needed to go EAT his children.
Well, it worked anyway. Those men backed down the walkway with their plastic chairs and never came back again. If you ever run across a Costa Rican who is under the impression that Americans are cannibals, it’s our fault. Sorry.
We try hard, we missionaries. We try to learn the language. We try to learn the culture. But in the process, we mess up. A lot. Sometimes it’s awful and it’s stressful. But other times, it’s just plain funny.
And it’s good to laugh about it. Because if we take ourselves too seriously, we’ll never survive this wild ride called life overseas.
So, today, let’s take the time to laugh together. Tell us about a communication/cultural mishap you’ve had in the field that you can laugh at now. Let’s lighten up our missionary hearts today and share a bit of laughter and fun.
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