We had been in Honduras for a few months, when I decided to wonder off in the crowded San Pedro Sula market to “look for care bears.” I was three years old, but I still remember my mother’s frantic expression, running through the rows of vendors, with my older sister in tow. “Busca mi nina,” she called over and over in her broken Spanish. She was sweating, half-crazed, and crying when she swooped me into her arms, shouting, “never do that again.”
A lost child is every parent’s nightmare. A lost child in a foreign country, in which you don’t know the language, the infrastructure, or the people is doubly frightening. But that was my mom’s life. She made a commitment to raise her children in a strange land. A land where we were frequently lost and confused. A land where we stood in lines for hours, and were always worried about these strange things called “visas.” A land where we were often stared at, teased, or even pinched. And she did all this, made this strange commitment (that very few people in her family understood), because she loved the Lord. And the Lord told her and Dad to go. So, we all went.
My mother’s experience in the mid-eighties in Honduras is not an isolated one. There are mothers throughout the generations who have been bringing their children and families to strange lands going back to the days of Sarah and Abraham. Mothers are doing it still and since this article is posted just in time for Mother’s Day, I simply want to say: I admire you. Raising your children in a cross-cultural context for the sake of Christ is a hard, radical act of love.
Strong words I know, but I am missionary kid and I have been around missionary families my whole life. Currently, my sister is raising my niece and nephew in Malaysia. Furthermore, I had the chance to speak with many missionary mothers, as I wrote and prayed about these words and I heard their struggles. The weird food, the sunburns, the centipedes in the backyard, the strange germs. Constantly getting lost and trying to learn a language. Worrying that your child is the only dark kid, or the only light kid in the room. Worrying that your child is called “gringa,” “khawajah,” “querra,” or “muzungu.” Not having access to things like soccer camp, swim lessons, or the latest toys from Target. Concern that your child is missing their grandparents or the midwestern town with the cul-de-sac. Not to mention, the many people who warned you that raising your child in Ethiopia or Singapore was a completely crazy idea. And of course, there were all the moments you secretly wondered the same thing. What if your child got hurt, would the ambulance come in time? Would you be able to find the specialist you need for their issue? What if your house gets broken into again? The fear, the guilt, that often comes with your unique, wonderful call.
And here, I have one last thought for the missionary mama (and really the missionary family). “Your” call was not yours. It was God’s call on your life and thanks be to God you responded with a willing heart. When we are living God’s will, goodness and love follows. And the many challenges of the cross-cultural life will work together not only for your good, but the good of your children. Take it from St. Paul, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who were called according to his purpose,” (Rom 8:28).
Or, you can take it from me personally. Being a missionary kid was tough, but oh has it blessed my life! It gave me a perspective and experience I wouldn’t change for anything. It made me a life-long lover of language, culture, and the rich beauty and diversity of God’s amazing people. Most of my or my sister’s adult work in some way stems back from being third culture kids. My sister who was repeatedly called “gringa fea” by classmates (because kids can be mean in every culture) now holds a Ph.D in Latin American history and did all her doctoral work in Spanish. Hmm…did God use her third culture experience for ultimate good? I think he did!
And did you know that being the only white kid in the room will bless your child with a call to work for racial justice? And the whole time you were waiting for that visa to come through your child was learning to trust God too? And when you worried about your family’s health or security they saw “mommy praying on her knees,” and learned God was their steadfast help. Those cross-cultural experiences formed you and your child into a more loving, compassionate, and tight-knit family. For God is in the business of constantly turning our greatest weaknesses, fears, and insecurities into strengths.
And just as little side note, soccer and cul-de-sacs are great but so are trips to coast of Mauritius or the historical sites of Cambodia. I mean your kid might get to climb a volcano or see Macho Picchu. How cool is that? Please have your children call me when they grow up so we can discuss how awesome it is to be third culture kids.
Missionary mama – I salute you. You are doing real Gospel work. It’s not easy (it’s downright tough), but from my perspective it’s pretty glorious.
Lord Jesus, thank you for all the families who are committed to this radical call to love all people from all nations. Thank you for the holy sacrifices they make for the call you placed on their life. May you strengthen, protect, fortify, and bless them that they may be a beautiful light to all nations.
Your sister in the faith,
Lilly Sanders Ubbens