Why Cross-Cultural Workers Need Tent Pegs

Home is a complicated word. A complicated idea. What is it? Where is it? As global nomads, we’re not entirely sure how we feel about home. We’re not sure we have it, and we’re not sure how to get it. We know the correct spiritual answer – that Christ is our home. That He is busy preparing an eternal home for us. And that even now, He makes His home in our hearts, wherever we go. Still, we search for a more earthly home. A physical place to set up camp for a while.

As an adult Third Culture Kid, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out roots. But lately I’ve been wondering if I should stop my search. I’m far too easily disappointed; permanence of people or place is not something we’re promised in this life. Even so, we need a support system for lives as portable as ours. This summer I started describing those supports as tent pegs.

A tent is a temporary shelter, and the tent pegs that fasten it to the ground also provide only temporary security. Tents and tent pegs are mobile, going with us wherever we go. They allow us to make a home right here, right now. And when the time comes, they allow us to make a home somewhere else too. Every time we pull our tent pegs up out of the ground, pack them in our bags, and move on, we can take the time to hold each tent peg in our hand and remember.

We can remember the things we did in special places with special people, and in ordinary places with ordinary people. We take those memories with us. We can take physical reminders too, small objects that represent the people and places that are dear to us; a typical expat’s house is full of knick-knacks from previous places. We can hang photos of our tent pegs on the walls of our new homes and keep them saved on our smart phones for anytime the saudade hits.

This summer on home assignment, my husband and I tried to be purposeful in giving our family tent pegs and in recognizing them as such. In addition to all the normal ministry commitments, we visited our family’s places. The settlement of Czech immigrants among the rolling hills of Iowa and the cemetery where most of them were buried. The university campus where my husband and I spent four good years and discovered a heart for ministry.

The Christian college most of my husband’s family attended — and where his great-grandfather was university president for 29 years. Our agency’s home office and its sprawling rural Kentucky campus. Dear friends and family spread across the Midwest, and the little country churches that welcome us with open arms. In between travels, we live at my parents’ house, which is a tent of its own. At each place and with each set of people, we laugh, and we talk about hard stuff. We take photos and we sear the times in our memories. We’re collecting tent pegs.

We look at the old pictures and we tell the old stories. Over and over again. Each place we visit, we tell the story of what happened there. Each person we speak with, we tell the story of what we did together. We listen to the music we heard when we were in each place and with each person. We tell our children the same stories over and over again, until they know them by heart like we do. We tell stories from two, three, and even four generations back. We’re sharing our tent pegs.

Of course, at each of these places, things are not exactly the same. My grandparents have both died, and someone else owns their house, the tent peg house I returned to over and over again as a child. The aunt who lived across the street moved to a different house. All my cousins have moved away. Our agency’s home office building is still the same, but most of the people who served there ten years ago (when we joined) have moved on by now, many to overseas location. We stopped visiting some churches and started visiting others. Sometimes the same people are there. But others have moved on or died, while new families have arrived.

Things change in our host countries too. Favorite restaurants shut down. Coffee shops close. Schools change locations. Open space gets developed. Beachfront vacations become too expensive to continue. Visa laws change. People come and go. We can’t always go back to the same places, and we can’t always see the same people. But we can take out our tent pegs and look at them. We can look at the old photos and listen to the old music and tell the old stories, and we can feel just a little more loved. We can feel just a little more settled and secure.

Our trip to our passport country is coming to an end soon. We’ve been packing up our tent pegs this week (along with enough clothes, medicine, and school books to last the next two years). In a few hours I will get on a plane to return to another one of my earthly homes — for as a friend once noted, we are always heading home, on our way from home. But wherever we go and wherever we stay, we can keep collecting tent pegs. We can take our memories of love and friendship with us to each new place. And we can anchor ourselves anew anywhere we venture off to.

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Here are two songs that my family and I discovered this summer during our travels. They speak to our third culture kid hearts, and we like to listen to them on cross-country (and cross-city) drives. Perhaps they will speak to you too.

No Roots by Alice Merton

Fly Away Home by Pinkzebra

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Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth lived in Southeast Asia for 8 years and fell in love. Then covid happened and brought her back to the States, where she is currently figuring out how to do life in America again. Before moving to Asia, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She and her husband co-wrote "Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker." Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com.

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