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.

To Love Two Places

Heidi and her husband are overseas newbies. They moved to Kenya in October, 2012, to capture the stories and images of the people and work across Africa. Her story of loss and gains is a poignantly beautiful look at the early days. Some Life Overseas readers are looking forward to those days, some are looking back on them, and some are smack in the middle of them.

EagleFlyingIt’s been nine months now since the airplane’s wheels lifted off of our beloved Minnesota soil and I felt arrows of sorrow shoot through my chest. My heart was already heavy, burdened with the faces of goodbye, and I struggled to swallow as the mighty Mississippi River shrank into a ribbon and then disappeared behind a cloud.

And that was just the beginning of the heart pains.

Eight months ago, I took off my wedding ring and hid it away, because I didn’t want the streets of Nairobi to steal it from me. But my finger’s nakedness is still stark and shrill.

For three months, we rode matatus, those reckless, necessary public transit vans that added color and anxiety to our days. But despite the sunburns, blisters, and tears, we grew. We learned how to walk the streets like everybody else, we started to recognize the people we passed each morning, and we gained camaraderie with our fellow vehicle-less man. We started to belong.

Itasca, the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi in northern Minnesota.
Itasca, the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi in northern Minnesota.

Now that we found a car and have settled into a sensible routine, the pain comes in a different way. The kite bird that caws like a seagull reminds me of our favorite vacation spot on the shore of Lake Superior. The still, warm evenings fill me with the longing to have a bonfire in a backyard covered with crackly leaves. And the road that circles our neighborhood ­­­­and serves as our nightly walking path makes me wish that the football field in the middle was a lake teeming with goslings and that my best friend was chatting beside me.

This homesickness sneaks up on me, startles me. And leaves me wondering why. Why now? We spent two years of our married life looking forward to our move to Kenya, and now that we’re here, we can’t stop gazing backwards.

It’s a fine art, I’m realizing, to live in the present moment, to take each heart pain as it comes and pray that it won’t last long. Or that it will bring us one step closer to calling this new, lakeless city home.

This afternoon, as we sit on our doorstep beneath our avocado tree with our Kenyan mutt nuzzling us for more attention, I feel my heart beginning to open, to sense that I am splitting in half. It comforts me and it scares me, because to love two places will be dangerous.

But it will also be beautiful.

How do you handle a split heart? What are the things you miss the most about your home country? What will you miss about your host country?

Me (1)

       Heidi Thulin, missionary writer in Nairobi, Kenya

blog: Thulins in Africa  ministry: On-Field Media