by Ron Snell
How do you reach out to a missionary kid on furlough?
I sit in the middle of the back seat of a long, green station wagon-a donated gas guzzler with rather loose steering connections. In the middle of the front seat is my older brother, beside me my younger sisters. Obviously, when it was time to argue for the best seats for our ride to church, I lost.
We’re on furlough. Notice I don’t say "home on furlough," because as far as we kids are concerned, home is the other country we just came from. But nobody understands that when we walk in the door of the church.
"Welcome home," they say, gushing over their missionaries. Dad and Mom greet them warmly, hug them, say how good it is to see them, and introduce us: "Terry, Ronny, Sandy, Melody." Born in that order. "My how you’ve all grown," these greeters tell us for the skulzillionth time. We don’t remember ever seeing them before. To us they are complete strangers, though we have been told over and over again how important they are to our lives and our parents’ ministry of Bible translation.
"They’ve supported us and prayed for you kids since you were born," we were reminded this morning when we asked, "Do we have to go to another church?" We want to try to be grateful, but we have no relationship with them deeper than the pictorial church directory we get every couple of years. We don’t even know our aunts and uncles.
With big smiles, they invite us to split up and go to different Sunday school classes. Melody, the youngest, clings to Mom. The rest of us only look back longingly as we march politely to our separate classes. We know how to look confident and enthusiastic on the outside because we’ve practiced at a dozen other churches, but on the inside we feel lonely and inept and uncles.
"Ronny, it’s so good to have you today," says the Sunday school teacher, who sat in Sunday school with my mother when they were both little girls. "Come up to the front and tell the class a little bit about where you’re from."
I do, talking about Peru, where I grew up with the Machiguenga Indians. Kids look blank. At 12 years old, I have had the most interesting life of anyone sitting in the room, riding rafts down wild rivers, helping care for dying Indians, climbing thorn trees in the dark to escape a herd of stampeding peccaries, speaking three languages, teaching a Machiguenga man to read, eating monkeys and macaws, living a full life in the Amazon rain forest. But I don’t say much about any of that because I know from long and painful experience that these kids don’t care very much. In junior high, what they care about are each other’s hair and clothes and shoes. Most don’t have a clue where Peru is.
So how do you reach out to a missionary kid on furlough? For starters, let’s just admit that it’s not easy or natural. They come to you from a completely different world and they are going through a sort of cultural shock that neither you nor they understand. Still, there are significant things you can do to help:
Remember that they aren’t glad to be "home." They’re homesick. They may be white and speak perfect English, but they probably aren’t terribly loyal to America and probably even resent repeated comments that imply they’re lucky to finally be back in such a nice country. Don’t ever say, "Aren’t you glad to be home?" Instead, you can say something like, "We’re really glad to have you here, even though it must be hard for you being so far from home."
When you know a missionary family is coming to your home for dinner or to your church, do some homework. Look up the country on a map. Read an encyclopedia article about it. Prep your own kids to ask meaningful questions, like "What are some of the ways you think Peru is a better place to live than America? "
Plan some activity for your kids and the missionary kids that will give them a chance to bond without pressure or awkward tension. If possible, try an activity that neither your kids nor the MKs will have done before, so they are both learning a new thing. MKs excel at new things, and you will be building memories that provide a foundation for future relationships.
When you meet MKs, don’t assume that they know anything about you. As a natural part of your introduction, include something about yourself that they might remember. "I’m Martha Anderson-I’m the one who sent the fruitcake that you all hated."
Never say, "My, how you’ve grown." My MK son wanted to make a T-shirt that said, "My, how I’ve grown." It’s a phrase we all learn to hate.
Ron Snell Duncanville, Tex., grew up in the rain forest of Peru, where his parents translated the Bible for the Machiguenga Indians. He has written three books about those years.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 76-77. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.