Children in International Mission
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a kid of international missionaries? Hear first hand from kids who grew up living abroad and consider themselves “global citizens.
by Ana Gobledale, currently serving the Churches of Christ in Australia through Global Ministries, along with her husband, Tod, her son, Mandla (and her daughter, Thandiwe, who comes home for holidays.)
“As a missionary kid, you have something so special – an understanding of the rest of the world that not most U.S. citizens have. You are a global citizen, and that is something that needs to be embraced.” – Jenny Dale, 21
“I’m more aware of all the things around me. I have multi-cultural aspects to myself and I feel I take a lot less for granted.” – Mandla Gobledale, 18
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a kid of international missionaries?
Tod and I headed to South Africa in 1993 with me a few months pregnant with Number One! Our two children–Thandiwe (now 21), born in South Africa, and Mandla (18), born while living with Tod’s parents on furlough–have never been listed as “missionaries” in any official mission board documents, yet their lives have been a vital part of our life and identity as a missionary family. They both have been a gift to us, to our neighbors in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and now Australia, and to the wider church. And they are part of an ever-growing group of Missionary Kids (MKs), who have not grown up on mission stations on which the “home” culture is preserved and cranberry sauce is opened on Thanksgiving, but rather have been integrated into the local life of the host country where cranberry sauce may be unheard of and the fourth Thursday in November may be merely another warmer day as summer approaches.
The term “Third Culture Kids” (TCK), coined in the 1950s by two social scientists, Drs John and Ruth Useem, fits these missionary kids well. Because TCKs do not grow up in the culture of their parents, except within the walls of their own home, perhaps, and they are a “visitor,” not immigrant, to the familiar culture of their friends, these children exist fully in neither one culture nor the other, but betwixt and between–in a third culture. They bounce back and forth between the USA (usually visiting every 3-4 years) and their home country, sometimes two or three home countries, as our children did.
While this obviously presents a challenge for parenting, the benefits I witness in the young adults who have straddled multiple cultures seem priceless. “Those life experiences of living abroad make you into a richer and more conscientious person. I see myself as a global citizen.” (Jenny Dale). What follows are pieces from interviews with three of these magnificent young people, all Third Culture Kids. Jenny Dale, now a senior at Grinnell College, lived in El Salvador as a child, during a time of war and uncertainty for the people there. Katie Campbell-Nelson, a recent graduate of Earlham College, grew up in Indonesia where her parents still live. And my son, Mandla, has grown up in South Africa, Zimbabwe, the USA, and now in Australia where he’s finishing high school.
Being a Missionary Kid inevitably means spending lots of time at church! This can be either a joy or a pain in the life of a child…
Katie: I didn’t like going to church. I didn’t like having to sit in the front row of events and try to maintain the best of manners.
Jenny: I don`t know if it`s being the child of a missionary exactly, but the church was huge in El Salvador. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, because I was so young, I knew that the church community was important to my parents and to me. It has mostly been a recognition after the fact that my parents took my sister and me to a war zone to work in solidarity with the Lutheran Church because they were trying to help the people of El Salvador. This social justice aspect of the church was a key value instilled in me as a missionary kid.
Another imposition in the life of Missionary Kids is the compulsory furlough in the USA every 3-4 years. The USA stay, often called “homestay” by folks in the USA, means the missionary kid is uprooted from their home for a significant amount of time, usually at least 6 months. They meet relatives from photos and lots of church folk, who are happy to see them, but who often expect them to know the cultural and social “rules” of the USA. And then there’s school and church that are often so different. These TCK’s know that, upon entering the USA, they are entering new territory, a new culture into which they don’t always slide in easily. “I think coming back to the U.S. is the hardest thing,” writes Jenny.
Behaviors and attitudes with which they are familiar, are suddenly “foreign” and even unacceptable. Katie writes, “I like to squat instead of sit in a chair. I don’t like to wear tight clothing or anything that shows too much skin because no one I grew up with did. I was told once that I have bad eye contact when speaking to elders.”
Yet with all the challenges of being a Third Culture Kid, in this world of shrinking boundaries and globalization, these Third Culture Kids often exist as living bridges between cultures, races, and even religions. And, as adults, they often continue to bridge the divergent parts of their reality.
“In my work and interactions with the Latino community inside the U.S. and outside my fluency in Spanish is a huge way to break the ice and get to know each other. The food, the music, the movies have all played a huge role in who I am. It definitely makes people pause to see a gringa rocking out to Maná. Or the fact I know what a pupusa or an empanada is.” –Jenny
TCK’s experiences can defy many of our North American assumptions about racism. Identity can be stronger with a racial group other than one’s own, and because of this, the North American “rules” of “race” and color often don’t hold true for the TCK. “The race relations in the United States are not recognized by TCK when they return, and thus they have to learn them at a different stage in their lives. They have not been socialized with the racism and definitions of race like most Americans have.”1
“Sometimes (being white and American) I, in fact, can experience being a minority and know what it means,” writes Mandla whose first three years were lived at Mfanefile, Zululand, South Africa, where he was the only white child in the community other than his sister. Later, in Plumtree, Zimbabwe, he was the only white child in his school after Thandiwe left for secondary school. His experiences, Mandla explains, have defined his personality, especially “my non-tolerance of ignorance that I feel so many people possess about other cultures and lifestyles. I am not racist or judgmental towards people who are ‘different’ from me.”
Katie writes, “I didn’t like being one of two rich white kids in the neighborhood.”
Jenny reflects, “It has been a challenge having this dual identity of having aspects of this U.S. “culture” and El Salvador culture. Not knowing where exactly I belong because I see things differently. To not really fit with the other “white” kids, but because I`m not Latina, not with the Latina kids even though I share so much of the cultural aspects. So this lack of a place is something that is a treasure but also challenging in developing your identity.
Missionary Kids are forced to decide, upon entry into the USA, how much to adapt to this new culture and how much to keep intact of their “home” culture from which they have come. This will differ from family to family, from kid to kid. My children, knowing they are different and that their names alone will make them stand out, look for ways to easily blend in.
Jenny, whose family moved permanently back to the USA, shares her perspective on re-entry (or first entry) into the US culture: “[Upon leaving ones overseas home and entering the US culture] the most important thing is to keep ties to the country and the people where you lived as a missionary. Try to keep the language and the cultural aspects, because I know for me they are so important to me and if once I moved back to the states I simply blended in with the dominant culture, I would not be the same person I am today.” Jenny’s parents have enabled the family to stay connected to El Salvador friends and culture by enrolling their daughters in a Spanish-speaking school in Chicago and returning to El Salvador annually. “My ties to Latin America are forever. The people, the culture, the language, everything is in some way or another part of who I have become,” writes Jenny.
As for long-term effects of this multi-cultural upbringing…
Katie: “I like traveling. I like having grown up with independence and adaptability in most situations of my life.”
Jenny: “I want to live the rest of my life working for the well-being of all of the world`s citizens. This passion for social change is something that came from my experience in El Salvador. Seeing the church as an instrument of social change and working in the name of the poor shaped my ideas of what the church should be doing in every part of the world.
Mandla (who spent his years in southern Africa without a TV): I am not a slave of TV.
When asked for words of wisdom for missionary parents, Katie provides encouragement and assurance, “Don’t worry about having moved around so much with your kids; it builds character.” And Mandla adds, “I think that the whole missionary kid situation can be heaven or hell. As long as the kids are moved overseas at an early age, you’ll be OK. I think it is harder as kids grow older.”
Jenny offers advice for older Missionary Kids moving abroad,
“When you are in the country, become a part of it, immerse yourself in it as best you can. Find a support community because it`s hard being in a new and strange place.”
In the end, whether one live in the country of one’s parents’ culture or in another or move between the two, it’s all about friends and community, loving and being loved.
Jenny: I love to remember just playing with friends at the end of our dead-end street. The people are the things that stick out in my mind. Their love and care for me as part of their family. These friendships that I have kept and maintained into adulthood are the most special and favorite part of when I lived abroad.
Katie: I liked growing up in a neighborhood full of kids. I liked having an extended family to look up to, and not feel responsible to only my “blood-relatives” of whom there were only three.
Mandla: What did I like best about living abroad? Being with my neighbors in Zimbabwe and just hanging out, always able to find something to do or a game to play.
“God made from one blood all the families of earth, the circles of nurture that raise us from birth, companions who join us to work through each stage of childhood and youth and adulthood and age.” (“God Made from One Blood,” #427, The New Century Hymnal, Pilgrim Press)
I will close with a reflection from Katie in which she shares a vivid favorite memory from Indonesia:
“When I was about 7 years old, my brother Sam and our friend Oscar and I were playing in the rice fields across the road from our house. We were quite a distance from the house when we saw the first storm of the season rolling in. We thought it would be fun to race the storm home to see if we could make it without getting wet. As we ran the storm followed us, and as we stepped under the roof of our porch, the rain hit the zinc with a roar, deafening our excitement at having beat the rain. The beginning of rainy season was always my favorite time of year. Hot and humid around the end of November. I was not so excited by it in March though, when everything in my closet went moldy and we all smelled of mildew.”
Let us celebrate the lives of Jenny, Katie, and Mandla and of all the Missionary Kids–past, present, and future–who add such a vibrant dimension to the international work of our church!
Questions for Reflection:
1. Jenny’s favorite Bible verse is Micah 6:8, “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” How is your congregation offering “kids” opportunities to experience “doing justice”?
2. How is your congregation connected to children in international missionary families? Consider how you, as part of their wider family in faith, might learn more about these Missionary Kids, or others, and support and encourage them.
3. Mandla speaks of his “non-tolerance of ignorance that I feel so many people possess about other cultures and lifestyles.” How might/does your congregation enable young members to have opportunities to grow in tolerance, such as cross-cultural experiences?
- for children of Global Ministries missionaries serving around the world.
- for parents helping children straddle two or more cultures
- for church families around the world who welcome children of all shapes, colors, nationalities, sizes, and identities.
1. Jenny Dale, “What is a TCK?”, a paper written for Grinnell College. Quote from David C. Pollock & Ruthy E. Van Reken, The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up Among Worlds, (Yarmouth, MA: Intercultural Press, 1999)