by Andrew Atkins
In this time of increasing concern about the welfare of the children of missionaries (MKs), we have to look at al of the significant factors, even if our search uncovers some unpleasantries.
In this time of increasing concern about the welfare of the children of missionaries (MKs), we have to look at al of the significant factors, even if our search uncovers some unpleasantries. One element that I have found missing in our international conferences, scholarly essays, and books is what I’ve chosen to call MK elitism.
I feel I’m save in using this pejorative term because I myself am an MK. My analysis convinces me that MK elitism is like the guidance system built into intercontinental ballistic missiles. Or, to put it psychologically, MK elitism is the source of many behavioral strings to which we dance. (From now on, "we" refers to MKs.)
For starters, as foreigners, we’re automatically numbered among the rich overseas. We’re dust-makers as we drive; the locals are the dust-eaters as they walk. Our church offerings sound the whisper of paper money, theirs, the clank of coins. We’re invited to embassy parties as hot dog consumers; the locals as hot dog grillers. We beg the beggars to leave us alone; they beg to be filled. We’re told to drive away from livestock killed on the road; the villagers skin and eat road kills.
We may think that we sacrifice virtually everything to serve the people. However, our level of needs still leaves us wealthy. Even if we could manage to live like they do, one day we pack up and fly away. So, all told, we can’t escape being elite.
Growing up, we’re constantly reminded of our privileges. Our attitudes, personalities, and expectations are molded by our status. Becoming uncomfortable with our elitist perks, we actually begin to believe that these things are our God-given right. Elitism becomes a security blanket to cover our inferiority.
Inferiority—that’s what smashes us in the face when furlough comes. Rather than being the elite, on furlough it seems like everything is orchestrated to the score that we’re needy. We constantly dance to the tune of the poor, suffering missionary.
Our hosts proudly open their missionary barrels to us. If we don’t gleefully dive in, they’re offended. Their kids heap scorn on us because we’re not up on the latest entertainment, computers, and sports. Our well-worn games of peg chess or peg checkers seem woefully inadequate next to their mounds of toys. We covet owning a minibike or go-cart, not just riding them.
No solutions to this dilemma arise, because, after all, it’s only temporary; it only hits us every two or four years. After furlough, we’re quickly and comfortably ensconced back in our protected, elitist environment.
But when we’re sent "home" for keeps, then the battle rages. Reentry means climbing down the social status ladder and that’s painful. We drop from the top rung to the bottom rung. The game is no longer, Stick it out until furlough ends.
Consequently, we react differently. Some of us kicks and scratch to get the home culture’s elitist symbols. Others of us suffer with an almost pathological longing for our real homes overseas. Some of us rebel against our elitism and head for poverty.
Taken to the extreme, all of the above reactions hurt. By God’s grace, some of the pain goes away as we manage to resolve our conflicts and adjust. However, adjustments could be much less painful. If we could understand the forces that shape us, we could avoid the more serious damage caused by some of our problems. We have to find and accept the root causes. Then we can turn reentry into growth.
Let me suggest a diagnosis of the causes of MK elitism: (1) our growing up with servants; (2) our lack of a work ethic; (3) our lack of ministry. How can we turn them around and lessen their negative impact? After all, God himself calls missionaries into these situations. So, we have to find out how our parents can help us to accept our status, not because it’s our right, but because it comes from God.
OUR HAVING SERVANTS
I remember in boarding school themounds of dirty dishes, the sacks of stained clothes, and the expanses of messy floors served up to thelocalstaff. We ran our toy trucks along the garden weeded by Africans. Ornamental bells summoned us to devour the fruit of our cooks’ labor.
What happened to my attitude as a result of growing up with servants? Two scenes tell the story. First, I was a cocky ninth grader and we moved to the city. Despite all kinds of discipline, I stoutly refused to touch the dishes. Next, I was a brash 17-year-old, acting like a governor, cajoling and browbeating about 100 men and women trying to carve out a jungle airstrip.
The key is our attitude. We have to grow up knowing that local help is a privilege, not a right. I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of having servants. But those missionaries who choose to have help must communicate the proper attitude to us. How can they do this?
First, they must show us that having servants is not to avoid hard work, but to save time. One of the best things parents can do is to have us do the chores once in a while. For example, on the help’s day off, don’t let the dishes pile up. Same thing with weeding the garden. Even family teamwork on big tasks, like mixing cement, shows that we can work together.
Second, our parents should assign chores to us. We must learn how to take responsibility. While cook washes the dishes, we can dry. We can help the gardener to feed the livestock. Marketing, weeding, and washing the car can be shared. When we get older, it could be time to let the servants go.
Third, our parents should teach us respect for age and position. Hired help is almost always older than we are, sometimes older than our parents. Rather than let us look down on the servants, parents should teach us to use the proper words of respect. Even subtle things like giving up the front seat should come naturally. Porch sitting can be a great equalizer, when servants are invited to joint the family conversations.
Finally, parents need to keep a keen eye out for indications that our attitudes are degenerating. Our tone of voice when speaking to servants is the most obvious indicator. Any signs of arrogance should be corrected. Orders for work should be given by parents, not us. Parents must support their help when they have a valid reason for correcting us. These people are a valuable resource in language, culture, and local practices. They tech lessons that our parents can’t.
Parents’ attitude is crucial. We will copy our parents. If our parents take extra care to show respect, kindness, and honor to their servants, we probably will do the same. If we help around the home, our own entry into a servantless society will be eased considerably. We must appreciate that servants are a special privilege.
OUR LACK OF WORK ETHIC
I was sitting in a rural McDonald’s, sipping a strawberry milkshake, while my boss gently chewed me out. He told me I wasn’t putting everything into my work; that I didn’t care if the job was done well or not. He saw me as just doing the bare minimum to keep my job.
We grow up without learning how to work. Missionary culture is a Garden of Eden existence. We depend on people and churches, not the sweat of our brow. We don’t live under the gun of financial cause and effect. Most jobs are filled by either missionaries or local people, so there isn’t much for us to do.
We live with constant change, so we rarely stay anywhere long enough to learn perseverance. There’s a constant round of schooling, vacations, furloughs, and moves to new stations. Friends come and go all the time.
What can we do to learn how to work? In addition to what I mentioned above, consider the following ideas.
First, our parents can teach us accountability. They cannot permit laziness. Biblical principles about work must be taught and practiced. Granted that we may not face the same kind of accountability hat other employees do, but our parents should teach us that we are accountable to our supporting churches and individual donors. We may notsee the direct link between these people and our food, clothing, and shelter, but our parents shouldreinforceit psychologically.
Family prayers should include thanksgiving for those people who provide our needs. Accountability comes through prayer letters, annual reports, financial records, and ministry and project logs. We can have a had in these. When furlough comes, it should be seen as a time when the worker reports to his boss.
Second, school teachers can teach us the work ethic. It can be reinforced by giving us the change to help raise money for upkeep, recreation, and expansion. Schools can give us jobs on farms and in workshops, for example. We need to learn job skills, as responsibility for school budgets.
Third, those of us who are older can work during the days. Mission jobs should be made available. When we begin to earn money, our parents can help us with budgeting, banking, and tithing. If we learn how to balance our books and keep out of debt, we’ll avoid pain later on.
OUR LACK OF MINISTRY
One day I pour out my bitter complaints to a senior missionary. I could not understand why the mission imported 30 Canadian and U.S. young people to do famine work, when not one of the more than 15 resident MKs—experienced in language and culture—had been asked to help. He told me to stop complaining and sign on. I did.
A few weeks later, one of the Canadian kids suddenly woke up and found himself staring straight in the eyes of a huge rat sitting on his chest. Five nights later that kid was back in his bed in Canada. Any of us would have swatted the rat out of the door and gone back to sleep. We could have saved the mission a lot of money.
We often grow up untouched by the spiritual battles being waged by our parents. They go out to confront demons, kidnappers, and witch doctors, but not us. Our spirituality often comes second hand. The mission does not tap our language, culture, and behavioral skills—much more natural to us than to our parents.
Here’s how this vast ministry resource can be used.
1. We can lead Bible studies and teach Sunday school.
2. We can help with translation.
3. We can deliver supplies and help with selling literature.
4. We can be counselors and ushers in citywide crusades.
5. We can run film ministries, retreats, and do visitation.
The possibilities seem limitless, but planners seem to ignore our potential. Our schools should give us credit for such ministries. They might even give us time off for special evangelistic drives in the villages.
We often reject the faith, search for answers, and then come back to God. Much of this stress could be avoided if we came away from the field with some battle scars of our own and a firsthand, not a hand-me-down faith.
Elitism is a major force in our lives. It insulates us from the dust and dirt of the real world. How well we handle servants, our lack of work experience, an our lack of ministry experience will determine how well we make it in our parents’ culture.
God has given us a certain carefree life. We can cruise through our first 18 years, never having tasted the dark side of life. This is God’s gift, but he doesn’t want us to be spoiled children.
Jesus did not ask God to snatch his disciples from the battle (John 17). He asked God to care for them in the crash and clatter of war. As missionaries’ children, the more we can mix it up in the real world, the better it will be for us when we are on our own.
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