by William D. Taylor
MKs are often shielded from stark realities and meaningful relationships.
It would be so easy to assume that I’m a pure North American. After all, I look like one-red hair, fair skin, freckles. I sound like one. And I carry a U.S. passport. But the truth is that I’m a hybrid. Laboratory tests on me might well reveal signs of tortillas, rice and beans, and even coffee grains in my blood. Other tests would certainly reveal long-term parasites living in symbiotic relationship with me. These creatures and I have after many years come to terms with one another.
I’m a Third Culture Kid (TCK), a Missionary Kid (MK), and an Adult Missionary Kid (AMK). Born in Costa Rica, I lived some 30 years in Latin America, 17 of them as a missionary in Guatemala City. I do have a mother tongue-English-and probably a primary culture-North American. But, I am bilingual and bicultural, being neither exclusively North American nor Latin American. And, by God’s grace, I am fairly well-adjusted and psychoses-free. In his goodness I have been granted the privilege of growing up as more of a world citizen and a pilgrim, with specific and often mixed loyalties of culture, geography, language, and faith.
Reviewing my own experience as an MK, a missionary, a teacher of missions, and an international networker with the World Evangelical Fellowship, I find I am deeply concerned about some of the problems of the missionary family. In this article and the one to follow in the July issue I want to address two major issues and then suggest some solutions. So travel with me back in time and then into the future.
Ah, the memories. I close my eyes and they flow over me like warm ocean waves. Was it not yesterday, at age seven, that I traveled with dad into Cabeza de Buey (Ox Head) on Costa Rica’s east flank? I remember that old horse, loaded down with our cargo and with hundreds of deadly ticks that finally killed him. Dad and other believers walked the path as I ran ahead searching for the great experience, exulting in the splendid geography of my birth land. After we arrived, the Bible conferences began. While dad taught and counseled, I ran, swam, and rode healthy horses up and down the mountains. Those were the days when Dad and I would sleep on dirt floors or slatted church benches, eat my favorite rice and beans with chicken, and drink hot coffee or fresh, warm milk, al pie de la vaca-at the foot of the cow.
Most of my friends were very poor, but super kids. I tended to envy their freedom-they didn’t wear shoes, which to me seemed unfair. I couldn’t understand why mom always made me wear those confining leather contraptions.
I experienced both of my births- physical and spiritual-in Costa Rica. There I came to understand my need for Christ as my redeeming Lord and Savior through the ministry of my father in a local church. As I sat in the back row that night Jesus came to me and the angels sang as dad and I both wept tears of joy.
It seemed to me I lived in paradise. A child of poor but loving missionary parents, I grew up in a healthy, functional home open to new and old friends and shared with my older sister, Grace. A picture of my first home- old, very small, weathered wood with corrugated tin roof, right on the public square of Turrialba, shutters without glass, small rooms, distant memories- hangs today in my present home. My kids get a kick out of it.
Somehow I made it through the passages of life as an MK without anger, long-term bruises, or deeply felt problems.
Yes, as a child I had traveled five countries away to a boarding school for seventh and eighth grades and was gone for seven months of the year without seeing by family. But those actually were two great years that resulted in bonded friendships that continue to grow even today. Yes, there were some letters I never wrote and others never sent. Yes, I was mischievous and restless, creatively getting into mishaps, but not necessarily a trouble maker.
I recognize that not all of my friends enjoyed the healthy positives of my childhood and youth. Many were bruised during their fomative years- coming from dysfunctional missionary homes; or having been sent away to boarding school too early; or perhaps because of their own personal displacement without a clear mother tongue or mother culture; or maybe they were sent back to the home country without a strong support system to aid their reentry. Each has a unique story to tell.
THE DANGEROUS FIRST BUBBLE
My real pain as an MK – a pain that shattered my idyllic MK world with its memories laced with love and beauty – came years later during and after my first term of service as a returned Adult Missionary Kid (AMK). Not a deep emotional pain because of things that had happened to me, but the pain of realization that came when, as an adult, I understood the why of Latin American realities. Why so many believers’ homes had dirt floors. Why my friends didn’t wear shoes. It wasn’t that they chose those limitations. They didn’t have any choice. They were forced to live on the underside of paradise. That was when my first bubble finally burst – the bobble of my very unrealistic childhood vision of a Latin American world of unending bliss.
An idealized adopted culture that is never penetrated with true understanding and discernment is a bubble that many MKs live within. Regardless of the country of missionary service, the MK often lives with the deceptive luxury of not ever having to come to terms with his adoptive culture, while at the same time unaware that he or she is living in a bubble. The tricky danger of this bubble increases if the child has lived for years within the protected context of an MK boarding school and without significant interaction with the national culture.
THE SECOND BUBBLE COMES INTO FOCUS
There is yet another bubble. This second one is living on the mission field in an exported and protected evangelical subculture-be it North American, European, Korean, Nigerian, Singaporean, Australian, or whatever. It is like a foreign cyst implanted onto a host body. And cysts can either be benign or hide malignancy. But cysts are never normal. Something is wrong.
In the providence of God, I don’t believe I ever lived in this second childhood bubble. Why? Because my parents gave my sister and me a transparent familial incarnation into the very life and fiber of the Latin American church. Our homes in three different countries were characterized by an "open door policy," to the consternation of some of the older veterans on the field. I clearly remember one day during high school when my mother had invited her entire Sunday school class to our home for a special celebration. We then lived-the only time in my life-in a compound. That day history was made, for dozens of Guatemalan women filed through the forbidding gates to the hidden world of the missionaries’ private homes. The following day my mother was rebuked by the veteran matron in charge. "Stella, we just have never invited the native women into our home like that." To which my mother replied, "Well, now we do." Case closed. My mother had written a new chapter in missionary-national relations which to this day is still remembered.
Sadly, I know scores of Latin American MKs who never got out of either the first or second bubble. They lived on the periphery of Latin culture and of the grass-roots church. In some cases, the MK schools themselves contributed to the bubbles. I graphically remember one excellent missionary confessing Ms pain to me one day that when his children came back from the MK boarding school they could not speak Spanish. The MK school had not offered Spanish classes. Worse yet, it isolated the kids from life in the Spanish culture and local villages.
In other cases, I know of missionaries in larger cities who capitulated to certain pressures and sent their kids to English-speaking youth groups for social interaction and a "home touch." While parental desires might have been laudable, this effectively contributed to isolating their kids from the Latin American youth groups and church life. It also perpetuated the deceptive bubbles. I know some of those kids, now adult MKs. Some of them have acknowledged that their Spanish never was good enough for them to feel comfortable in Latin America and that they never grew spiritually in a Latin church and youth group.
A CHAIN OF BUBBLES
This bubble syndrome can turn into a life-long evasion-a chain of bubbles. The MK blithely moves from MK field life to MK school to Christian higher education in the home country and then perhaps back as a missionary into the known and secure mission field world. A significant percentage of these MKs return to the very field they grew up in. Here, many times, their escape becomes pathological. Can God be glorified in spite of this situation? Yes, but at a great personal, family, and even ministry price.
Some will return to the mission field from clouded motives. One of the deadliest is the assumption that only in ministry can God really bless me. Or, said differently, "God’s highest vocational choice is missions." That thinking is not only wrong and sub-biblical, but it also can devastate MKs who select other "secular vocations." When will we in missions underscore that all vocations are sacred before God? Let us not fall prey to promoting a "missionary call by guilt."
As I now travel about the globe visiting a cross-section of missionary homes – from many sending nations – I am sadly convinced that the bubble syndrome is an international virus. During the November, 1989, Third International Conference on Missionary Kids, my son David and I talked with scores of other MK missionaries, and many young MKs. We listened to case after case of the same story. David finally said to me, "Dad, this bubble thing is a real problem. I can’t believe the number of MKs who live in unreality. Some of these kids don’t even know the language of the people."
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
Mission agencies and missionary families most avoid or even break out of their double bubble existence. The first bubble induces a false security when the dimly understood adopted "mission field" culture is overly idealized but not truly understood or identified with. The second one imports a superimposed foreign evangelical world view. Here are some suggestions that might help both agencies and families.
1. Home is the key. A dysfunctional home will radiate dysfunctionality to all aspects of life and ministry. A healthy, open, sharing, feeling, bonded home will also radiate its strengths. Just being a missionary family does not guarantee a strong, positive family. Geography seldom determines whether a home is healthy or sick. Take advantage of all resources and ministries that strengthen the missionary home.
2. Recognize the reality of the bubble syndrome. It is real, seductive, dangerous. If you assume it does not exist, beware. Don’t try to brush it under the rug. It is intricately related to our concept of and attitude toward identification and tending with our host culture and the context in which we minister.
3. Analyze the virus and develop mission and family responses to counter its attraction. I think this is a valid topic for candidate schools. Certainly missionary parents can reflect on their own family priorities and life style. Is there any evidence of the bubbles? To what degree are our children learning the language, engaging with the culture, becoming part of the national church life? Encourage the children to a healthy dual bonding with national and passport cultures. It may not be easy, but it can be done. At the same time, missionaries most avoid the phenomenon I have seen where the missionary family so dislikes the "home passport" country that the children grow up rejecting their mother culture.
4. Take the risky step of developing significant friendships with national believers. Open home and heart to them. Invite them into the intimacy of who you really are. Ask God for that journey to be a mutual one where you can enter the deeper levels of their own life and dreams. In this way you will grow as adults, and you will model to your kids the most profound kind of loving friendships characterized by honesty and trust. This will identify you as nothing else; and it will help prevent the bubble virus from invading your family. I must warn you that if you take this radical step you may find that some missionary colleagues will criticize you for "going overboard with the nationals." But don’t let that stop you.
5. Be sure that as a missionary you are reading the literature and enjoying the art of and about your adopted people, nation, and continent. Develop a love for national writers, study books that help you understand the history and ethos of your host culture. Start a hobby that identifies you with the people, or collect national art. Make your home a loving display of identification and understanding.
Incarnating the missionary family within the context of geography, history, culture, human crises, and the life of the church of Christ without losing them in the subtle cracks of dysfunctional homes and confused cultural identities is not easy. But with alertness, commitment, and dependence upon the Holy Spirit, it can be done.
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