Wednesday, July 4, 2018

third culture kids and America first

Like most holidays, the Fourth of July is kind of a funny thing to try to celebrate when you are living in a different country. For us in the village, we are the only Americans for a good distance and I’m terrified of fireworks exploding in someone’s face, so my inclination is really to just let the day slip on by. I think I’m giving it greater consideration this year only because our oldest has recently become more aware of her American-ness and honestly, it has made our whole family pause a bit.

These are turbulent times in the Colvin house, to be frank. I don’t know why I expected smooth sailing forever. I mean, we are raising third culture kids, famous for their angst and exhaustive search for belonging. Wishful thinking maybe?

For six years, Bronwyn believed she was actually, ethnically, Zambian. Everything about her life would have told her so. After all, she has spent roughly 2,153 days doing typical Zam-kid things like eating nshima, climbing trees, dipping un-ripe mangos in salt and digging for rats after the fires go through. She’s never heard the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star Spangled Banner but she can sing the Zambian National Anthem flawlessly – Zambian accent and all! And what always made us chuckle is that, until recently, if you told her she wasn’t Zambian, she’d fight you. (She gets her feistiness from her father, obviously.)

I think my bio kids have always known they are a bit “different.” They get teased, laughed at, stared at, stroked – every form of unwanted attention possible. They get pulled into pictures with people they don’t know, asked to “perform” at random times, and get reminded often that their Bemba is noticeably a second language.

Their otherwise beautiful Zam-life – up in the trees, making banana stalk babies and rolling in the dirt – has always outweighed any sense of “other-ness.” They’ve always attributed negative experiences to the indiscretions of those who cause them… but never to their being American.

Until recently.
posing at the Chief's palace

Our family did a thing earlier this year where we sent mom to America for two months which apparently un-caged a multi-cultural bird that has desperately been waiting to fly. America has existed for our kids only as a figment of their imagination. Out of all of them, Bronwyn has spent the most time in that country – a whopping eleven months, actually, which transpired for her between the age of two and three – a time when a child’s memory is totally accurate, of course.

And so our beloved six year old’s recollection of her parent’s birthplace is basically Grandma and all of the benefits of living in her house, which includes, but is not limited to:

No set bedtime
The absence of the word ‘no’
Presents just because its Wednesday so why not
Bathing in an oversized tub under 18 inches of bubbles
Eating whipped cream out of the palm of her hand at 7 o’clock in the morning
Watching Micky Mouse for six hours a day while being served fruit and cheese on a tray
Etc., Etc., Etc.

And so when mom boarded that plane and went off to gallivant around the United States, it clicked for the first time in our eldest’s head that that was a thing. And once a trip to magic grandma-land was within the realm of possibility, it was a short jump in logic to start begging the question, Well then why in the name of all that is good and right in this world are we not all going there?

Because America is, in her unformed mind, a place of perfect and utter happiness, going there naturally became the knee jerk response to anything unpleasant.

You are making me eat my vegetables? Fine I’m going to America!
I have to do math? Fine! I’m going to America!
I don’t want to share with Leonie! I’m just going to America!

Not that that her declarations ever materialized for her – I mean, the child still ate her vegetables and did her math and had to share with her sister – all without boarding a 747. But still the magical possibility of escape to never-never land not only stayed alive but also grew in influence.

Feeling out of place in this environment combined with the known possibility of going to a “perfect” one, had the effect of pitting the two countries against one another. America could do no wrong and Zambia became the scape-goat for everything. All those little reminders that she’s “different” – once brushed off as other people’s bad manners – now became a dark spot for a whole nation. All of that third culture kid insecurity now had a perpetrator in her mind. Zambia was the problem; and so it followed that America would be the solution.

She started communicating those feelings in different ways. Boycotting chitenge dresses and refusing to curtsey before her elders and suddenly hating nshima. Her teachers told me that she’s racist because she got “sick” during Bemba period every day. Eventually she gave voice to her internal crisis, telling us directly, “I don’t belong here. I’m too different. I don’t feel like this is my land.” (My land? Who are you, Abraham and Lot?)

We sat outside one afternoon, Jeremy and I did, pondering if we had blown it all, ruined our first born by asking her to straddle an ocean, something that even we – with fully formed frontal lobes – fail to do perfectly. As we sat and talked, we watched our emotionally entangled child tangle herself up in a tree, chatting away (in Bemba, mind you) with three of her besties, and then come down and ask if they could all stay for dinner. She doesn’t hate this place like she thinks she does, we assured ourselves.

And thus begins a new phase of parenting for us. For the record, this is way more challenging than getting them to sleep through the night or learn to use the potty. This new stage of helping them navigate a world in which they belong everywhere and no where at the same time – light a candle for us.

We want our children to understand that loving one place need not require hating the other. Acknowledging our ties to America does not require rejection of Zambia. A love of nshima is not infidelity to hotdogs. And because the “I’m going to America” line is clearly unproductive, we’re finding new words, – something more healing and less toxic.

We started reciting every single day, sometimes with her teary face resting in between our hands, these truths:

There is hard everywhere.

There is good everywhere.

God loves absolutely every person on this planet the same.

And so we do too.

Go and chase beauty.

Go and be kind.

Every. Single. Day.

We speak the hard words, and she repeats them – less resistant all the time. A rewiring of synapses until her soul agrees with what her mouth obliges to say. And as we go on joy hunts and count our blessings, Zambia regains its good standing.

nshima and lounging with her favorite uncle emmanuel

On the flip side, we continue to deconstruct the well-supported myth that America is the land flowing with milk and honey. She hears us rant about ‘the state of America’ enough that she’s not totally clueless, but really most of it is above her. And yet, as Jeremy and I discuss the drama of our homeland juxtaposed with the drama of our family, the irony is not lost on us.

America as a whole is not entirely unlike my six year old. Both are trying to figure out who they are. Both are guilty of blaming the “other” for discomfort and trouble. Both are fighting to preserve a fictitious image of an America-past where everything is apparently rosy. Both have been convinced that a love of one necessitates a hatred of another. The definitions of culture have become muddled and nationality is a vague construct. The relational strain is more palpable than ever. The good times are gone.

Raising a nation is quite different than raising a child, so I focus on the three littles in my care and pray for the rest. All I know is that in our quest to produce happy, functional, morally responsible human beings, we take a hint from America’s present crisis and we pass the following conviction on to our kids in as many ways a possible:

You are citizens of heaven, and that changes everything.

Human decency demands we think about citizenship through an ethical lens, but our Christianity demands we think about it through a theological one as well. There is no sense in fighting for “our people” and against “their people” when our citizenship is not of this world anyway. There is no reason to love ourselves and hate the other when we are all “other” because heaven is our homeland. There is no logic in building a wall or locking others up and out when our cultural identity is wrapped up in Christ.

This is not about politics. This is about eschatology.

This fourth of July, we in the Colvin home will give a nod to history and heritage and we’ll probably wave like goofballs in the general direction of Grandma’s house. But there will be no celebration of nationalism or patriotism or ethno-centrism, because as long as we have life on this earth, we as a family declare that our home is in heaven. We can meaningfully sing, God bless America and Zambia and any other place we might dwell for a while. We want the best for the people of Mexico and Russia and Pakistan and every location on this glorious globe. Any other attitude belies our faith.

There is no such thing as America first for a people whose anthem is
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be done.

Nothing else can help our third culture kids make sense of their weird experience on this planet until they grasp this beautiful truth. We can belong everywhere and nowhere because the third culture to which we really belong is other-worldly. Home is not Zambia, really, and it’s not America, really; it’s heaven, really, and heaven is forever.

Our existence between here and there is defined by how well we love every nation, tribe and people while we’re en route. C.S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces wrote, “No man can be an exile if he remembers that all the world is one city.” It’s a small extrapolation then to say that you can rightly banish no man when you remember this is his city too.

I imagine God weeping bitterly as our ancestors drew fraudulent lines on a map and as proud men scrambled to claim more of it for themselves. And I imagine Clive Staples rolling over in his grave as his American brothers and sisters fight for the whiteness of their arbitrary territory.

We don’t get that angelic immigration stamp in our passports until the very end, but truly, we become better citizens of any country when we strive to make every place a little more heavenly. Jeremy and I pray that through our actions we preach this for our children again and again. Wherever we are, we welcome in every single person. Wherever we are, we seek peace for every single person. Wherever we are, we do justice to every single person. Wherever we are, we extend mercy to every single person.

This is not hardship, it’s the gospel.

Our children may always wrestle with place, identity, and the inherent awkwardness of being a third culture kid. When you eat nshima and pay in kwacha but read Beatrix Potter and watch the Lego movie you accept that all TCKs are a little eccentric. And through all the ups and downs, I pray they learn: the only way to live happily as a third-culture kid is to check the weight we give to our passports as we remember where we really, truly belong. 

Happy Fourth of July.

Friday, June 15, 2018

the women we don't know what to do with

When I was a little girl, I attended a church that supported a dozen or so missionaries. These missionary families would visit every so often and when they went up front to share, it was a pretty standard gig. The husband stood on the stage and his wife stood four inches to his left and and two inches behind him. He held the microphone. She wore either a denim jumper or floral skirt, because the 80s were the holiest decade. He finished talking and then half-started to hand her the mic while asking, “do you want to say anything?” And she would giggle and wave her hands ‘no’ and the congregation would giggle right back because shy women are so cute.

I’m sure it happened in other ways too, but this is what I remember. From my 16 years in that church, that was the defining memory I had of missionary couples, and in particular, missionary wives.

A few years later, in college, I was majoring in a foreign language and this thing they called “government” because I liked words and leadership and wanted to dabble in both. The summer after my freshman year, I was invited by my then pastor to attend the Global Leadership Summit. I was the only student invited and one of only a few females. I had no idea why I was there, really. Our church wasn’t small, so, why not invite someone important? During one of our breaks, out in the parking lot as we waited for the rest of our carpool, that pastor turned to me and out of the blue asked, “Do you think you have a speaking gift?”

He might have said more to me after that. I might have responded. I think I was pushing gravel around with my flip flop. I don’t remember. My brain was too busy trying not only to answer the question but also to sort through the ramifications. Do I have a speaking gift? Maybe? So what if I do? Will I ever get to use it? I mean, do women ever get handed the mic? Had I ever seen that happen? How do I develop a gift if I can’t practice it?

Good question. You join the Peace Corps, that’s how.

I spent two years talking, learning another language. Practicing cross-cultural communication. Overcoming fears of rejection and looking stupid in front of people. Trying new things. Making mistakes. Reading and writing and thinking. A lot. I taught things. To men! And no heads exploded! It was incredible!

Fast forward a few years. Newly married, back on the field with my strapping husband. Ready to go be amazing. And I had a complete and utter meltdown. We called another pastor friend and told him I had lost my mind and he said, “Mmm, no, I think you’re just having an identity crisis.”

Is that even a real thing? It must be, because I lived it. I came to realize through time and soul searching that in the transition to wifedom, I had lost myself. Quite suddenly, I wasn’t just a person, I was a missionary wife and I had a very narrow picture of what that meant. I had never really seen any missionary wives do anything other than look cute. The flashbacks from my childhood told me that the husband did all of the important work and she, well, she giggled and said she didn’t want the mic – and everything that implied.

I didn’t even own a jean jumper! What on earth was I doing with myself? The thought of tending the hearth and darning the socks and nourishing my dear husband to strengthen him for daring expeditions into the bush made me feel more purposeless than I’d ever felt.

Thankfully my husband is more of a feminist than I am and he had fallen in love with the Peace Corps/courageous/“of course I can do anything,” version of me, so in his loving leadership, he basically shoved me out the door. 

You are good at organizational management. The school should be yours. No one relates to women like you do. All maternal/child stuff should be yours too. You write better than I do. I feel like you should do all of the newsletters.

He wasn’t asking me if I had some gifts, he was telling me frankly that I did, and that I needed to use them. I said to him what I hadn’t said years earlier at the Leadership Summit: “Do I really get to do that?” And Jeremy’s loving and blunt answer back was simply – “Well, why not?” (His theology is more robust than that, but accountants are also really good at cutting to the chase.)

I stammered to answer his rhetorical question. Well… well… because I thought I was just supposed to wear ill-fitting clothing and cook and stand behind you?

God bless my patient husband.

We figured it out together. He pushed me to write more and speak more and lead more and I began believing that that was ok. Even for a “missionary wife.” For Jeremy, it was never about “man’s work” or “woman’s work,” nor was it some gender-based affirmative action. It was about what needed to get done and who was best gifted for the job. Period.

In God’s goodness to me, we started connecting with churches in our region of Zambia who stretched me all the more. We started getting invited to do a lot of speaking and when we confirmed what exactly they wanted, the response was always, “Both of you. We want both of you. We need to hear from Bethany too. She has something to say to us.”

She has something to say to us.

She has something to say to us.

She has something to say to us.

My soundtrack started changing and each time I stood up to speak, a new picture filled my head. Slowly; repetition will always do its work. Bless you Zambia for giving to me what my childhood memories did not.  

It’s remarkable how the pictures we see – or don’t see – in our youth shape what we think we’re capable of when we are older. In some circles they call it mirroring – the idea that we need to see our future selves in the adults around us. The key principle is this: we don’t become what we don’t see. I didn’t grow up seeing Christian women lead and teach outside of children’s and women’s ministry. My struggle to accept myself in co-ed speaking/teaching/leading roles was a struggle precisely because I had no picture of that in my mind.  

Stepping into water known to have the sharks of disapproval is basically terrifying. I went back to the states this spring for the sole purpose of public speaking; that thing I had never seen a missionary wife do. Every state-trip before this, Jeremy and I had always done our presenting together, and somehow his presence always seemed to make mine more acceptable. Flying solo was a whole other deal. I started out with my knees knocking.

The number of times I was asked, “So why isn’t Jeremy the one doing this?” – approximately 563 million.

The number of times Jeremy was asked, “So why aren’t you the one going?” – approximately 974 billion.

At first I made excuses – a lot of them. Oh, well, he had conferences to run and I had a wedding to attend and this and that and the other (all of which were true,) … But after the 800th time, I borrowed Jeremy’s confidence and script and just said, “Well, why not?”

Why did I come instead of my husband? “Why shouldn’t it have been me?”

The struggle is real. While my experience is not at all universal, I know it’s also not unique. In a hundred subtle ways it gets communicated that missionary wives are background decoration. From the missions articles women aren’t featured in and the mission conferences women aren’t speaking at. From the classes women aren’t leading and the policy they aren’t making. From the gatekeepers who say that wouldn’t be appropriate anyway.

The lack of affirmation translates as condemnation and creates a setting in which every feminine move feels controversial. I have sisters who have accidentally breached boundaries and have been questioned why they feel the need to do this or say that and in those places. And if they answered, “Well, why not?” they were branded “contentious.”  

It took me eight weeks of presenting to really find my voice – to feel like I was joyfully sharing my gift and not timidly auditioning on behalf of women everywhere. The churches along the way that were clearly used to working with women were inspirational. She has something to say to us! The Zambian soundtrack had followed me across the ocean and I stood up a little straighter because of it – only to be taken down a notch when later someone would say, “Wait, they let you speak?!?!”

When a woman feels called to be a wife and mother and has a heart’s desire to serve quietly in the church nursery, this is easy – for everyone. But when a woman feels called to lead or teach or preach, and is actually gifted to do so, it is real work for her to figure out the right spaces to do that. And the question plagues me, and so many others – should it really be hard at all?

Indispensible people with essential gifts are being tragically neglected as whole swaths of the American church can’t seem to figure out what to do with these women. Too often, the action plan is to have them serve children and other women – basically keep them busy – but heaven forbid they might actually have influence!

And all the little girls are taking notice.

they are watching. and who they see matters.

Those girls will grow up, you know, and some will end up following husbands to the far reaches of the earth. This is my story, and my experience is this: global missions is hindered when 50% of the population doesn’t even know what they are good at.

We met a fellow missionary couple some time back and in the course of getting to know them and sharing about our respective ministries, Jeremy and I and the other man all talked about our areas of expertise after which the other woman just stared at us blankly and then finally said, “I don’t know what my expertise is. I guess cooking.” And then she did that shy giggle thing.

Maybe she’s following her heart’s desire. Maybe she’s meeting others’ expectations. Or maybe she just never had an picture of anything else. Now that I’ve been spoiled, all I can think is, Where are all the Jeremys???

Where are the brothers serving as cheerleaders for their sisters saying:

You have a gift of compassion – you should be running this outreach.
You are an amazing teacher – you should lead a co-ed class (because the men need to hear this too.)
You lead brilliantly – take this seat at the table and share your views with us.

Where are all of the men saying on repeat, ‘you have something to say to us’?

We have a job to do, and there is no logic in marginalizing half of our best talent.

I know that there are young girls who are growing up with amazing examples. Those who see women up front every Sunday. Who hear them preach and watch them lead. Who see ladies on boards and serving in a variety of places outside of the nursery and I am so excited for their future. These girls are actively developing their gifts while they are still young because they can see themselves using those gifts when they’re grown. And when they go out? They are going to hit the ground running and will have no need for identity crisis because they’ve known all along what things would look like. And they will gift us with Christ in them, without explanation or hesitation.

And the world will be blessed.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

the missionaries you should actually support

There are two types of missionaries in this world: those that enjoy raising support, and those that absolutely hate it. I fall into the second group. In fact, even though I know hundreds of missionaries, I’ve only ever met a handful of people in the first group – those who can actually say, “YAY! FUNDRAISING!” without being completely cheeky.

I just spent two months in the States doing this thing called raising support – a really important task of connecting God’s people with the work He’s doing around the world. It’s a privilege. It’s humbling. It’s encouraging. And somehow very stressful.

It’s a reminder that everything belongs to God, and this work of ours is actually His.

I shared with a friend over lunch one day that I was not at all worried about reaching my goals because I know that the money is out there. Our father owns the cattle on a thousand hills, I said. My measly $210,000 to build a school and dig wells and run camps is pocket change for our God.

But, I added, I also realize that God has entrusted all His pennies to His children, and I confessed that as I traveled the country and interfaced with affluence, materialism, and keeping up with the Joneses, I was maybe a little bit concerned that the trustees of God’s account might not be so eager to hand it over.

Nevertheless, I persisted and wrapped up my time in the States with over half my goal reached. (And with plenty of faith that God would have a chat with the rest of His kids to bring in the remaining balance…)

Despite the challenges inherent in fundraising (I’m still nursing my introversion back to health), the main benefit is to be on the receiving end of affirmation again and again. Even from dirt-poor grad students I heard the words, “This ministry is amazing! I have no money, but this is amazing!” We praise God! What He’s doing is amazing. I did not talk to a single person who was not overwhelmingly supportive of God’s movement in Zambia. After all, the evidence is clear. People are being cared for, educated, fed. They are being set-free, blessed, changed. The school is an obvious success. Our camp has exploded and outpaced our facilities. We’ve seen a decrease in water-borne illness and a decrease in infant mortality. These are facts and they are compelling.

When people would say, “This is wonderful – we want to be a part of it!” I honestly wanted to blurt out, “Well of course you should!” Now, I’m classy so obviously I said something a bit more refined, like, “Thank you, that would be so helpful.” I did realize though that for the first time in our fundraising journey, we weren’t asking people to fund a what-could-be dream so much as an expansion of and improvement upon what already has proven to be successful; and this meant I could receive their affirmation with less relief and more concurrence.

I saw in the faces of each new member of our support team, a certain amount of discernment. They’ve seen a good thing and they’ve gotten on board, as they should. But in these personal encounters, I also took a few steps back and thought about the days when our presentation was quite different, like when Jeremy was in a tent and had nothing to show for himself. In those early years, there were ideas – hopes, possibilities, faith – but nothing material to offer as proof of future success. And predictably, precious few people enthusiastically got on board. A few did join us in the hope/possibility/faith boat, but the majority offered well wishes – some even coming right out with it: “we’ll support you after you’ve proved yourselves.”

Before Jeremy and I were married, he was subsisting off of $30 a month. It’s probably a good thing that he was under-funded, otherwise I might never have taken pity on him and offered him weekly suppers which never would have turned into nightly suppers which never would have turned into a marriage proposal or a family or a life. And so, we thank the good Lord for those $30 a month days.

When I first met Jeremy, he was more faithful and more faith-filled than any person I had ever known. (I suppose you have to be to live in a tent on a dollar a day.) And as he talked about Grandma Shirley, the one little old church lady who comprised his support “team,” it was obvious that she was  supporting this barefoot kid out in the bush for one reason: she was convinced he was being obedient.

I married that barefoot kid for his obedient faith, and have never regretted it. It was obedient faith that led us through our years as newlyweds, and through the various trials that come with pioneer missions. I remember our first fundraising trip back to the states, sitting down ahead of time and thinking about what we were going to say in the days of “we’re still trying to get things going,” – hoping to sound more impressive than we actually were, and then coming back to Zambia feeling a little deflated and praying that there were still Grandma Shirley’s out there who would sense the faithfulness and be generous for that reason alone.

And now fast-forward a decade. Our presentation sounds totally different. (You can actually watch me present here if you want!) We not only have a handle on what we are doing, but why we are doing it and why it’s important in the grand scheme of things. We love what we do and we believe in it fully, and this makes it pretty easy to talk about. It also makes me insanely thankful for the people who supported us before there was anything impressive at all.

Track with me for sixty seconds, because I think this is really important. I think given the modern, interconnected landscape, and an age of “asks,” where people have to sift through a few thousand good giving opportunities per year, we have fine-tuned our “worthy-cause-o-meter” so much so that we can pick out a sustainable, strategic, high-impact operation from a mile away. It has become a game of sorts, and missionaries have learned what it takes to win. These servants of the Lord have become part-time marketing professionals specializing in social media and Bono-esque jargon. Of course, the use of facebook get spun in a more “holy” light, but still, the landscape of missions is changing, and perhaps not for the better, as it’s the ones who play the game the best that get funded – not necessarily those who are being the most obedient.

We know a few hundred missionaries personally and, thanks to internet, can keep tabs on a few thousand more. The spectrum is impressive, ya’ll.

We know missionaries who accomplish little to nothing, but their instragram feed is so exotic that people throw cash at them.

We know others who secretly hate their life abroad, but out of fear, stay in it and raise thousands off of the pity of how much they are suffering for Christ. 

We know those who for their own business savvy have weaseled their way to something quite impressive, but in reality have just build their own kingdom.

We know those whose actual mission is an abomination, but whose public speaking style is so inspirational, they could convince a crowd to fund seafaring boats in the desert.

But then I think about that young man with ribs all sticking out, not complaining once about walking to town eighteen miles away because he had no gas for the vehicle, just happy – called that walk to town a “prayer walk”  – waiting on the Lord in all the literal senses… and now, in retrospect, all I can think is, “that kid had a clue.”

This I now know to be true: Obedience is absolutely the most undervalued indicator on the “who to support” rubric. Impressive work done disobediently is of no value, whereas even ordinary work carried out with obedience is of immeasurable worth.

The 21st century fundraising game is depressing, and watching it from the inside, all the more so. What we see too often is that it’s the unassuming ones – the ones who spend their time in ministry and not marketing, who are better at doing stuff than photographing it, the ones who fear God more than man and therefore walk an unimpressive, but obedient path they are the ones who take a hit financially.

God’s will, done God’s way will never lack God’s supply – needle point that on all the pillows, ye weary, faithful missionaries lacking funds tonight.

But, to be fair, looking at the other half of the equation, we must also reconcile this: As much as God blesses obedience in serving, He also blesses obedience in giving. While God will always provide eventually, disobedience in giving has its own earthly consequences. As resources get diverted to White Savior Barbie and the guy who probably should have just been on Shark Tank… the obedient ones plod along and wait for God to provide in other ways.

As frustrating as lost time and wheel-spinning are, the true pity however is what is forfeited when the flashy, smooth-talking, insta-everything folks get pushed to the forefront – namely, that the donors miss out on being a part of something truly of God – something that will last forever, something that matters beyond a short season of hustle.

We need to be smart about where our limited resources go. If you are introduced to someone or something that looks inherently unsustainable, disrespectful of the host country, un-integrated, too-much-too-soon – just run the other way.

But here is my simple plea. Add “obedience” to the check-list of requirements. And not only that, put it at the top. Make it a matter of honest prayer. And if you feel like the barefoot kid sleeping in a tent with nothing to show for himself is being obedient? Back him. Back him with everything you can afford because ten years from now, you’ll be a part of something really amazing and you’ll have the added blessing of having been there from the beginning.

Thank you, Grandma Shirley, for valuing the obedience. May a whole generation of givers follow your lead.