Back before I had a life overseas, I attended a missions conference during which the speaker stood on the stage and told us to anticipate three profound keys to making a difference in a person’s life, a region, and the world. His three points were, (1) Relationship, (2) Relationship, and (3) Relationship. When I joined the Peace Corps, we were forbidden from doing any “work” for three full months with our one and only job being to build relationships. Recently, I had a conversation with a local counterpart about how to remedy a sticky situation and over the course of our thirty-minute discussion, I heard the word relationship at least seven times.
Relationship, it seems, is crucial, not just because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy but because relational connection is essential to effecting change. That sing-song phrase – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care – it’s annoyingly overused because it’s true. In the realm of community development, progress comes hard, and often, not at all, unless whole people are engaged, hearts are connected and friendships are born.
We spend time regularly taking our relational temperature within our community. And spoiler alert, it has nothing to do with dollars spent. We understand that how much we do for people is altogether separate from how well we connect with them. For this reason, we routinely ask for feedback on how well we are loving people. Recently, a friend told us that some of our habits are culturally awkward. “Stop having people over for dinner,” he said. “It’s American and it’s weird. Just go sit with them in the afternoons. Watch football. Shoot the breeze. Love your neighbors the way they love each other.” It’s awkward to be awkward, but we learn. We adjust. If we want to make a difference, this love thing is a non-negotiable. Sometimes I walk around and hum to myself, (especially if I’m hitting a brick wall in a particular area)… All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.
I’m thankful for the lessons community development has taught me. My pre-kid life gave me lots of practice in the realm of behavior change and connecting across a divide, which are PHD level skills in mommyhood. After all, we are charged with transforming tantrum throwers with no frontal lobe who can’t even wipe their own bottoms into productive members of society. No small task. I’ve noticed how the relational compass we’ve adopted for the village has also done a good work in guiding our home. I often gaze down at my kiddos while they sleep – all still and for once not talking, and as I pray over their delicate selves, my most constant request is that they would know how much I love them.
There is a common fear amongst ex-pat and missionary parents – we are neurotic about not screwing our kids up. We know too many TCK’s and MK’s who have gone off the deep end, and it’s terrifying. I have googled all the articles, read all the blogs, searching for answers, wondering what I need to do to assure that my children turn out globally-awesome and not wholly-dysfunctional. I’ve made it my duty to ask this question of every parent I know who has raised their children overseas. The data for this topic in my head is fathoms deep and all the answers basically say the same thing: kids need to know that they are loved. Who would have guessed?
It makes sense that loving my kids would look different than loving the lady next door, and thankfully, many wise people have contributed to fleshing out what this special brand of third-culture-love looks like. There are many ways to do this well, but a common theme that arises over and over focuses on this: making sure our kiddos know that they are more important than the work. They need the security to know that they are not second to the mission. They are not extra luggage. They are loved more than all the other things. They are not missionary kids they are Colvin kids. Family comes first because these precious short people matter.
The other day I was playing “phone” with Bronwyn. It’s a good chance to work on her conversational skills, and for me to quiz her on details. What’s your name? (Bronwyn Colvin Bupe) How old are you? (4) Where do you live? (Center Zambia) What are your parents names? (Bashi Winnie Jeremy Colvin and Bana Winnie Bethany Colvin) Who are your siblings? (Beauty, Michael, Timo and Leonie.) (Beauty, Michael and Timo are not her siblings, but I let it go because it’s too cute to argue with.) I held my breath a little when she answered my last question – a stretch for her, I knew. What do your parents do for a living? I asked, and waited while she thought. Her answer went like this:
“Well, you cook my supper… and read me all the books… and walk me to preschool… and… do whatever I ask you!”
My first two thoughts were, (1) remind me to never make her the key-note speaker at a Choshen fundraiser, and, (2) good grief, I sound whipped.
But in the same heartbeat I registered, she thinks my job is to meet her needs… I love that. Maybe it’s my uncompromising, attachment-parent self that is amplifying my ex-pat mom anxieties… but that my daughter identifies that my job is to be responsive is the highest compliment.
Truth is, team Jeremy and Bethany works its collective tush off to be productive human beings, using our gifts and talents for the good of humanity while at the same time raising little people in the knowledge and security that they are more important than all the good things we could ever do. For Bronwyn, that means all the physical affection and book time on the couch that her little soul can handle. For Leonie, it means on-demand nursing and a strict “if she cries bring her to me” policy. It means limited use of the words “I’m busy,” and if I truly am busy, it means communicating how soon my attention will be freed up. It will surely mean different things as they grow older, but it will always imply, “you are the most important thing in my world.”
I can consider it a gold star to hear that my kids don’t know how much “work” I do – not because I don’t work hard but because my hard work is clearly not in competition with my demonstration of love for them.
All you need is love?