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My Life as a Missionary Kid Part One

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What follows is part one of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).

Part 1: The Introduction where I talk about myself and Missionary Kids

Section 1

Regular and former church-goers might remember these people. They were part of your church but never physically there; opting, instead, to live on the other side of the world as missionaries. Every three or four years they would return and report to the congregation (either taking up a Sunday service or maybe doing the rounds to all the various weekly home groups). They often required someone to dust off an old slide projector so everyone could see their pictures (until the merciful advent of power point).

Maybe you enjoyed these reports, maybe you found them dull or, just maybe, you have no idea what I am talking about. Whatever your perspective please read on if you are interested in finding out more about Christian missionary work (with a specific focus on protestant and evangelical missions).

Before I continue it would be rude of me not to introduce myself. I was not a missionary but the child of missionaries. In 1983, just shy of my 3rd birthday, my parents left the socialist democracy of New Zealand to work as missionaries in the right-wing dictatorship of the Philippines. I and my younger came with them. I grew up immersed in the proselytizing wing of Christianity and, while I am now an unbeliever, for most of my life I was a committed believer. I am, and I always will be, a Missionary Kid (MK).

Hopefully that puts some of what I will discuss in perspective. I am planning on writing about that world; the “frontline” of Christianity (at least that is how the missionaries see it). Obviously this won’t be a “pro-mission” series of writings, but it not intended to be an exposé either; more a personal perspective. For my first entry I am going to introduce the idea of Third Culture Kids.

Section 2

Any discussion about MKs needs at least make mention of Third Culture Kids. The Wikipedia page provides some decent information if you want to read further but, for now, I am going to provide my own definition of a TCK and how it may have shaped some of my perspectives on life.

Firstly; what is a TCK? Well the best way to answer is to compare it to most people’s own experiences. For the majority of human beings their formative years are spent in the culture of their parents. They are formally educated in their country’s education system and their peers are the children of their parent’s peers. They share the same common history, enjoy the same cultural touchstones and learn the same values. The odds are high that you, reading this, fit into that category. If so then you were or are, depending on your age, a First Culture Kid. You were raised in the culture of your parents and, whether you realize it or not, have and affinity and implicit understanding of its traditions, taboos, and its sense of humor.

The next category is the Second Culture Kids. Unlike the First Culture Kids; these are children who spent their formative years in a culture different to their parents which they were expected to join. The most obvious example, and the only one I can think of, is the children of immigrants. While their perspective on life is shaped by the culture they were raised in their parents still retain the “old” attitudes and values. If you fit into this category you are likely to have experienced some unique conflicts with your parents over the “right way” of doing something. Often what your parent’s value may seem incongruous to what you believe is truly important out of life. This can be over the big issues like acceptable career paths and life-partners or over small issues like wearing jewelry or enjoying certain entertainments. You grow up in a culture different from that of your birth and, as a result, identify more with the new than the old.

That brings us to the group I belong to; TCKs. Like the Second Culture Kids we are raised in a culture different to our home or passport country (as we often call it). We are people who, despite being raised in a different country, are ultimately expected to return and integrate to our passport country’s culture. TCKs come from three main sources as the children of government workers, expatriate business people, or missionaries. It is the MKs that, on average, spend the most time in a single “host” country while the other categories of TCKs move around between more countries and spend less time overseas in total. As a result; MKs often have the hardest time integrating back into their passport country upon their return.

Section 3

While I did interact with other types of TCKs growing up (my parents were friends with some expatriate workers) the majority of people I grew up with in the Philippines were either Filipinos (of the same Christian denomination as my parents) or other MKs. In other words; while it could be said that I identified with both Filipino and a New Zealand culture it was still through the lens of Christian culture. This meant I was unaware about a lot of Filipino cultural practices – particularly their social gatherings. Like Christians in many other countries the Filipinos my parents worked with had replaced the more “worldly” activities available to them with Christian alternatives. They especially avoided things with alcohol and dancing.

When our family would return to New Zealand on a four-year cycle for a year before going back to the Philippines I had a very similar experience. The people I interacted with the most were family or church people. Again; it was a very Christian-heavy environment. There was, however, one key difference; I always attended the local public schools when I was back. I’ll talk about the specifics of my MK education at another point but the public schooling was interesting to me. Every time I started afresh the other kids always seemed so godless (which they were).

I didn’t stop me wanting to socialize. Not only did I manage to make friends each four-year cycle but I got the added bonus of feeling smug on the inside because of the things I, as a good Christian, refrained from doing. When I was younger not swearing was my main spiritual differentiator but, on subsequent returns to New Zealand, I graduated to avoiding smoking which lead to avoiding drinking, not having sex and deciding not to experiment with drugs. In that regard I was similar to many Christian kids who defined their religious practice by the things they didn’t do.

None of this builds a case for MKs having trouble re-integrating back into the passport country. But I was lucky. I am naturally extroverted and enjoy new experiences so every-time I came back I saw it as an adventure. I also had the good fortune of having long-standing friends from the church that commissioned my parents. At the age of 18 I returned to New Zealand to start University I had a group of friends already and quickly made new ones. I had Uni friends during the week and church friends during the weekend with a slight overlap as a couple of them went to both. For me, unlike many of my former MK classmates and my own siblings, re-integration was relatively easy.

Section 4

One final word on this topic; I said that I was lucky because of friendships I had to return to and the fact I could easily make new friends. One other aspect is the cultural integration. I wasn’t fully up with the nuances of Kiwi (a term New Zealanders call ourselves) culture but I could fake it until I was. I also was fortunate that I lived in the Philippines where a lot of the population read, speak and understand English. As a result a lot of entertainment (music, tv, film and books) came from North America and the UK – the same place a lot of popular entertainment in New Zealand comes from. When it came to the pop culture of my generation I had very few gaps.

There is a lot to be said for sharing these cultural touchstones. I know some MKs who grew up in remote areas (isolated tribal villages and the like) who found it hard to join in casual conversations when they returned. This was problematic because people in their late teens tend to talk about entertainment a lot and without the shared culture and history to draw upon pop culture can be a powerful way in. In my case I made friends with people who enjoyed similar movies, music, and video games.

Of course I still have moments, although not as often as I used to, where I’m with a group of people. Be it friends or colleagues it is inevitable that the topic will turn to an event reminder of a joke for which I have no point of reference. Many people experience this when moving to a new town or joining a new circle of friends – but try to imagine that on a completely cultural level. A level where you realize that this was something that everyone in the country probably knows. It is this reason that many TCPs seek out each other’s company and the company of immigrants. Regardless of whether or not we have a shared history we all understand the feeling of being a cultural outsider.

Traversing the culture gaps are further complicated by the fact that MKs look like the people of their passport country. Often certain allowances that are made for immigrants are not made for us when it comes to understanding slang words or making social faux pas. This affects MKs differently depending on their personality. While I am the type to laugh at my mistakes I have seen others who retreat very quickly from groups once they have done something they might deem humiliating. It probably doesn’t help that most of the MKs are returning home in their teens to either complete high school or because they have just graduated.

It isn’t all negative though. When I think about my childhood I realize I had an opportunity most people don’t have. I experienced two countries, two cultures and two ways of life which are very different from each other. My experiences were mostly positive and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. When I look at MKs I find that those who take the perspective of both cultures with them and are able to appreciate those unique experiences that those from either one wouldn’t have are the ones who do the best in life. This is regardless of whether they end up living in their host country, their passport country or somewhere else entirely.

I won’t elaborate further as this will start to bleed into some other topics I plan to write about. For those who have found this interesting so far: I am busy but will do my best to write more so if there are any questions that you have feel free to leave them in the comments and I will take them on board when writing future updates. I will give you an indication of some other ideas I already have like the “call” to missions, MK education, Mission agencies, the validity of mission work, and maybe even a look at the Open/Plymouth Brethren.

My Life as a Missionary Kid Part Two

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What follows is part two of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).

Part 2: Where I Provide a Primer on Missionaries and Mission work.

Section 1

If you enjoyed my first post where I discussed Missionary Kids then consider this to be a direct sequel to that. This time I will talk about Missionaries themselves.

You may not know what Missionaries do or you might have a very good idea – either way please appreciate that this is my perspective on the class of activities know as “missions”. I will present three categories which are not prescriptive but, rather, represent the best way to classify these activities. Please bear in mind that lots (possibly the majority) of missionaries do not confine what they do to one single category of work. This should become clear when I explain the categories themselves.

Again; this is my opinion on the matter but, as an insider, my opinion should carry a bit more weight.

Section 2

The categories themselves are easy to understand and break down as follows: Aid, Evangelism and Support. See, that isn’t very hard. Most of you with background in Christianity can probably start categorizing the things you know (or have heard) missionaries get up. You should also be reaching a realization that all the things you can think of fall easily into one of those three groups. But I will elaborate for the sake of everyone else and to prove my point.

Aid work is a no brainer. By that I mean, not the work itself, but the fact that even those with no religious background could probably list what it might entail. These are when doctors and nurses open hospitals and run free clinics in poor or remote places. When food is given to hungry and housing is built for those who need it. Perhaps it involves running an orphanage or setting up a school. Whatever it is these missionaries want to look after the needs of others. Often short-term mission trips (when a missionary goes out for less than 6 months) are in this category as they may have a specific project to work on such as building or providing emergency relief.

Ultimately it is still done for the higher purpose of serving God by either providing this aid to other Christians or using it to create more followers. This is not to say their motives are impure – from my experience these people genuinely want to help others – rather it is to say that it conceptualized as more than just helping people here and now. After all there are numerous charities and aid organizations that have no such “higher purpose” and are able to meet the same needs.

Evangelism also sounds obvious to most people. Unlike Aid work this is the side of missions where the non-religious get a bit wary. At least in New Zealand, where I am from, they do. Proselytizing is not considered positive in my culture as religion is considered something people should keep private. Anyway I will end that tangential point.

Evangelism is more than preachers trying to convert crowds of listeners or the devout handing out tracts to the unsaved. Don’t get me wrong; it is about communication for the purpose of winning souls for Christ – but it involves more than the obvious. Running bible studies for seekers, hosting radio and TV shows, putting together concerts, and translating the bible into a language for the first time are just some of the things that fit in this category. There are even groups of athletes who go organize sport contests and demonstrations as an “in” to get the message in front of them. Many of these people are gifted entertainers and precise communicators. They can draw a crowd or get small groups of people opening up about themselves, depending on their personalities, although many can do both.

The final category, Support, is the least glamorous and understood of the three categories. It is still vital to the missionary cause. Now I need to clarify one thing: I am not using the word “Support” as a substitute for “miscellaneous”. This is not a catch-all category for the left over missionary jobs that I am, somehow, going to force into it. It is a distinct part of missionary work and, it could be argued, allows the other roles to function properly.

Let me explain via an example:

A missionary going to a remote village would require transportation. Often the only way to get there is via an airplane as the roads are non-existent and, due to the mountainous terrain, traveling by foot could take several weeks. These missionaries, Aid Workers or Evangelists, don’t tend be trained pilots or mechanics – so there is a definite need for people with those skills. The same goes for a wide array of other necessary functions. There are teachers for missionary children, accountants who distribute funds among the missionaries, custodians of guest-houses and compounds where missionaries live, and even IT support.

Without this group most missionary work would fall apart very quickly so a good analogy is to see them as the heart supplying life to the rest of the missionary community.

Section 3

I can already anticipate some comments on those categories. So I will try to address them here.

The first is that you can think of missionary work that does not fit into one of them. Before posting; think long and hard as to whether you might be mistaken or if it might actually be a hybrid of two (or all) of the categories. You may be correct but please think carefully before posting because you don’t to suggest something that turns out to be covered already.

I am willing to admit that there might be other categories I have missed entirely. In that case I am more than happy to revise my categories – after all these aren’t sacred truths set down for all time. If you are sure (and I mean; near certain) I have missed something then let me know.

Furthermore Missionaries don’t tend to categorize themselves as I just outlined. This isn’t because they resist categorization but because being an actual missionary isn’t that neat and tidy. Hopefully no one thinks that there is a checklist of neatly sorted jobs available so that, for example, those wanting to do aid work only look at the aid work jobs to the exclusion of everything else. Of course you don’t, that would be silly.

Usually a missionary hears about a need and feels called/”prompted by the Holy Spirit” to go and fill that need (or the other way around; they feel the prompting so they see what needs are out there). However, and this is the key, they almost never end up doing just that one thing. Instead they perform multiple jobs that don’t always fall into the same category.

The reason is simple; they embark on their missionary work with a plan that doesn’t take into account the sheer volume of additional needs. Missionaries tend to be similar to others in Christian ministry who believe that, as they are called to do God’s work, they need to work as hard as they can. When they get to their destination and realize there is more work than there are workers they try to take on as many additional tasks as they can handle.

My own parents, for example, started off doing church planting but ended up doing so much more; training church planting teams, providing theological education, assisting new missionaries with settling in, volunteering around the large missionary kid school, preaching, leading study groups and counseling fellow missionaries. That list is far from exhaustive. It is very common to hear of preachers becoming mechanics, pilots becoming interpreters and teachers being youth pastors – all without stopping their other ministries.

Section 4

Hopefully that wasn’t too dry a read and you got something out of it. I want to make the point that this was intended to be descriptive and, hopefully, it avoided making judgments about mission work. I definitely want to address the positives and negatives of Christian missions (how it impacts the missionaries, their families and the places they go to minister) in the future. However this is not one of those moments. Thank you, once again, for your time.

My Life as a Missionary Kid Part Three

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What follows is part three of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).

Part 3: My Early Education

Section 1

I don’t have many early memories of my first couple of years in the Philippines (let alone my life prior to being there). Even those that I do have are vague and, possibly, based more on stories told to me by my parents and their friends than they are genuine recollections of my past. This is nothing unique to me but rather a way of explaining why I won’t even try to tackle the topic of my “first impressions” when I arrived in the Philippines. Instead I want to talk about something I do remember; my first years of schooling.

I won’t just talk about myself but also the range of options missionaries have (or don’t have) when it come to educating their kids and, where possible, the rationales they use. I also want to emphasize this point from the outset; a lot of missionary kids (and I am one of them) return to their passport country once they have finished high school even though their parents may be staying on. It not only marks the end of our schooling but also the end of our life as an MK. Whether we care to admit it or not our education is a big deal to a lot of us because it tracks the time from our most vivid MK memories to the end of the road.

I hope that last part didn’t come across as too melodramatic or get anyone worried that it foreshadows some overly nostalgic writing. I promise this will not be case so feel safe to proceed.

Section 2

The education options for MKs are contingent on location. Families in remote locations tend to rely of home-schooling or distant learning (often via ham radio) unless they send their kids to a boarding school. If the family is in a city there are far more options of local, international and, in some cases, missionary schools. My parents began their work in a town of around 80 thousand people where I could either go to a local school or be home schooled. They opted for the latter.

Now the term “home schooled” conjures up very specific ideas in people’s minds so I need to specify exactly what I’m talking about here. While I was taught at home my education materials, lesson plans and marking were all handled by with the official New Zealand Ministry of Education Correspondence School. At regular intervals we would bundle up my completed assignments and post them off to New Zealand for grading. Technically I can say I was home-schooled but I tend not because correspondence school is more analogous to modern internet based distance learning.

It is easy to see why my parents took this route. My mother was in charge of our education and this meant she only had to teach the lessons and provide help when I didn’t understand something. The time spent marking and creating lessons was all handled by others. Also it meant that I should be keeping up with the current education back in my passport country. When we returned for a one-year break I would, at least in theory, be able to easily fit into the public school system.

That’s the other reason I don’t call myself truly home-schooled; my parents were happy for me to be educated by the state – in fact my years of correspondence school show just how much they valued New Zealand’s education system. There were enough home-schooled MKs in the truer sense, their parents chose the education materials and planned their lessons, for me to know the difference.

Section 3

As with a lot people, Missionaries are not immune from holding snobbish views about the “best” way to educate their children. Most, but by no means all, of the Missionaries my parents worked with and befriended were primarily concerned about getting their kids the best education they could practically provide. There were some who seemed to be just as concerned over how their choices compared to others.

I want to be clear that, in all the examples I will provide the majority of missionaries who opted for these methods were simply exercising their choices and didn’t pass judgment on others for not doing the same. It also seemed that, for every possible educational option a missionary family could exercise, there was at least one person willing to criticize all the missionaries who failed to follow their perfect example. There were two categories, at least in the Philippines, which were easily the most common:

There were the true” homeschoolers who wouldn’t expose their children to state-approved materials. They were all about sheltering their kids from the world and the evils of secularism. At the other end of the spectrum were the missionaries who could not understand why the kids weren’t being sent to a good missionary school. They would extol all the benefits of the education such schools provided when compared to any home-schooling options. Often the missionaries they criticized might not be able to afford the fees (not all missionaries are supported equally) or live too far away to send their kids to such schools. It was a type of insensitivity that still seems baffling to me.

Then there were all the other ways missionaries were doing education “wrong”:

Don’t send your kids to a local school? You are a cultural imperialist. Sending your kids to boarding school? Maybe you don’t love them that much. Homeschool them the whole time? You are depriving them of a social life. Send them to public schools when you return to your passport country? They are going to be contaminated and “worldly”. You really can’t win.

It should not be a surprise that these types of busy-bodies exist in the missionary community. Missionaries can often be very opinionated and are not worried about expressing their views – particularly those who are in the direct evangelism side of things. After all they are people who believe that the best thing to do with their lives is to tell other people to join their religion. Part of that process involves convincing those same people that their way of thinking, acting and, ultimately, living are all wrong and the only solution is to follow Jesus (specifically in the way they prescribe). Offering opinions and being absolutely certain of oneself becomes second nature.

Section 4

To finish off, I will briefly go through those early days systematically:

I was schooled in this way from 1985 to 1986 after which time we went back to NZ (our first four-year term was completed). During our year back in NZ I went to public school and had little trouble making friends or keeping up with other students academically. In that regard I can say my parents were correct in choosing correspondence.

We returned to the Philippines in 1988 where the plan was to begin a church plant in another, bigger town (this time the population was around 180 thousand) and I resumed my correspondence study which was supposed to take me through to 1991. “Supposed” is the key word; after just a year and a half the whole family returned to NZ due to both my parents experiencing health difficulties. That was the end of my experience with correspondence of which I only had 3 and a half years. It would be another 2 and a half years before we returned to the Philippines.

Over-all it is hard to say what impact the mixed up primary education gave me. Certainly I was both “home-schooled” and sent to public school but the curriculum was consistent with NZ educational guidelines all throughout. I can’t even say what I preferred. The correspondence schooling gave me a lot more free time but public schooling provided me with friends to play and socialize with during school hours. The key thing is I got taught the basics that I needed to continue and didn’t lag behind my peers.

In retrospect I was fortunate that my parents were more concerned that their kids had a good education than following a particular ideology. There were some MKs who weren’t as lucky. Their parents, well-intentioned people to be sure, followed the advice of various Christian “educational” gurus selling them the promise of well-behaved godly children. The results for those kids were varied with some lacking the knowledge and social skills expected of people their age. I am grateful I managed to avoid those problems because, as child, I had no ultimate say in my education.

My Life as a Missionary Kid Part Four

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What follows is part three of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).

Part 4: The second part of my education

Section 1

Something I should have made clear in the last part was that this is not just an overview of my education but also of my time as an MK. It is a good way to give the “big picture” of my life before I delve into more specific issues and thoughts.

In my own mind I tend to compartmentalize my MK experience as being in two distinct parts. It is easy to formulate this distinction purely because of the time spent back in New Zealand (2 ½ years) before my family returned again – at which point I was older and have clearer memories.

It goes further than the time elapsed between living there though. The first part of my MK life was spent living in small towns (where my parents were involved in church planting) and being home-schooled. The second part was a very different experience. Nothing was going to be same; not my location, my education or my parent’s ministry.

Before I dive into those differences, however, this part of my story will begin with a setup.

Section 2

After my parents both fell ill and needed to return to New Zealand, I found myself in a place I rather liked. My family was living in a semi-rural village on the outskirts of Auckland (the biggest city in NZ) while still being no more than a half hour drive to the CBD (unless there was traffic). My father was a full-time school teacher and my mother a home-maker. I had a lot of friends both locally through my school and further afield (but not by much) through the church we belonged to. I also had both sets of grandparents and a few aunts, uncles and cousins all living in close proximity.

Cue the nostalgia-infected idealized version of childhood.

Life may not have been 100% perfect, but for me, at that time, they seemed to be going great. I saw no reason why this life of mine wouldn’t continue on a predictable trajectory. I saw myself living at the family home until I was an adult and got a job, went to university, or got married (those were the only three reasons I couldn’t imagine leaving home for at the time). I want to make it clear that I was very content and did not expect or want things to change.

So when my parents called a family meeting I was not happy with what was to come. They had been giving it some thought and my father wanted to be involved in Christian ministry again. And they had two options they were considering: 1) Return to the Philippines or 2) Take a Pastoral position in Auckland.

To me it seemed obvious – do the Pastor thing. Then they hit me with the bombshell; the position was on the exact opposite side of the city about a 1 hour drive on a good day. I would have to move house, change school and make a completely new set of friends. While my younger siblings seemed to accept these changes meekly, I was stuck between two terrible options. At 10 years old I felt like my whole world was getting taken away from me and there was nothing I could do.

I pleaded with them to consider option 3: stay where we are and not move anymore. Or option 4: they move away but I move in with my grandparents. I am not sure how my parents felt about their oldest child wanting to emancipate himself from them but, in the end, the decision was made and back to the Philippines it was.

Section 3

My parents were not going to be doing the exact same thing as they did before. My father, along with some Filipino church leaders and missionaries, had come up with a different concept for church planting. They would train a team of Filipinos to be church planters. First they would study (theology, evangelism techniques and the like) and then they would be sent on a mission to plant a church. My father would co-ordinate their education and monitor the team’s progress. Support for these church planters would be raised from overseas (NZ, Australia, Canada and the USA) so that they could devote several years to the endeavor.

As a result my father would need to be based in a central location and the capital city of Manila was selected. This meant I and my two siblings (my sister was born six years prior) would not be home-schooled. We were to go to a Christian International School called Faith Academy.

Founded in 1956 by missionaries from several different organizations and denominations, Faith Academy (to be known as “FA” for the duration of this post) is a K-12 school offering a US-based curriculum as well as GCSEs for British and other commonwealth students. According to Wikipedia, its current enrollment is around 600 students at the Manila campus with a further 150 studying at a smaller mission school in Davao which is in the south of the Philippines. I am too lazy to confirm if these numbers are consistent with my own time there but they seem close enough.

I would be a student at FA for six years in total, which comprised grade six through to my graduation as a senior. Some of you may have noticed that there was a year unaccounted for – I spent grade 10 back in NZ before returning for my final two years. I graduated in 1998 and returned to New Zealand marking the official end of my life as an MK.

Section 4

If the above section seemed brief – don’t worry, I do have a lot to say about FA and its own unique culture in the future. This post is just to give an over-view of life and, hopefully, provide context for future thoughts. I will just deal with a couple of differences between FA and NZ schooling.

New Zealand, being in the southern hemisphere, has its summer break over Christmas. As a result, the new school year begins around the start of February so it actually follows a complete year. When I left NZ I was half-way through the equivalent of sixth grade but started FA at the start of the new school year. Down the line it meant all my age-peers in NZ would finish high school six months earlier than me.

This idea didn’t bother me at all until I returned to NZ for a year and rekindled some of my old friendships. Suddenly the thought that they would be working or starting university six months earlier than me really bothered me. This now seems like such a trivial difference to dwell on but, as a high-school kid, these things really mattered.

Ironically the difference that had a much bigger impact on my life’s trajectory was the one I didn’t think much of at the time. Teachers at FA openly discussed god and their beliefs/theological views in the class-room – regardless of the subject. For someone who had come from a very secular country this felt very refreshing at first. Bible was now a subject we took along with Math, English, History and Science. Our weekly school assemblies were now a chapel time (complete with worship) and I felt my teachers were people I could trust in a way I hadn’t felt before – because they had “God’s truth” in them just like me.

After a while this became mundane and I started taking it for granted. Like others who attended missionary schools (or Christian schools in general) this just became another part of my education. I only realized just how much bible education I had received when the family returned to NZ for a year. Apart from the shock that public high-school brought me (kids and teachers would swear – oh no), I realized that I was far more bible literate at 15 than most of the youth group I attended and even many of the adults in the church.

This year back also brought a change in me personally. I still don’t fully know why, but when I returned to FA for my final years of High School I felt more certain of God and Christianity. Maybe it was a reaction to the secular school system that convinced me that “God’s way” was better. Perhaps it was how welcome I felt by the people in our home-church and the knowledge that I would see them again in a couple of years. It might even have stemmed from an arrogance that had been building inside me – the view that my knowledge and my experiences made me unique and would lead me to do mighty things for God (yes, it’s embarrassing to look back on now).

Whatever it was, when I graduated I was certain of God, His word and my faith. I had strong convictions that I was certain were right. I knew that whatever I did and wherever I went I would do so by God’s grace and following his lead. If 18-year-old-me knew that I would end up with a radically different perspective he would have been upset and, very likely, scared for his future.

My Life as a Missionary Kid Part Five

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What follows is part three of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).

(Please note that this post will provide some hand-holding for those with little to no understanding of Christianity)

Part 5: The Missionary Calling

Stories usually require introductions and this one begins with two things; the first is attraction. Two teenagers going to the same youth-group decide get together for the reasons most teenagers do; they liked each other. Being good Christian types they had vowed to stay “pure” which, in their church, meant no sex; hand-holding, hugging and kissing were all acceptable activities just as long as they didn’t take it too far.  After they both finished high-school they got engaged and a wedding soon followed.

So far this is a pretty stock-standard stuff however there was one thing about these two that made them a bit, well, different. They both felt called by God to be missionaries. Separately they had decided that any person they would marry had to also feel the same “calling” so, after going out for a few months, they were both delighted to discover that they shared the same viewpoint. At the time this served to validate the idea that they were meant for each other; as if God himself had ordained their union. Whether God really did bring them together or not I am grateful for one of its by-products – my own birth.

Yes my parents each had “want to be a missionary” as criteria for a spouse. It may not be the weirdest thing someone looks for in a partner but it isn’t normal either. They also both felt called to be missionaries and that is the part I want to examine here. I am cognizant that some readers know what is meant my “missions” – especially if you have read earlier posts. For those familiar with the concept please proceed onto the next section

Section 2

I will now take the time to give a short bible lesson from Matthew 28:18-20. Known as the Great Commission, this passage is said to record one of the few teachings of Jesus after he has been resurrected from death:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

If it isn’t already obvious this is a key teaching, not just for evangelicals, but Christianity in general. Not only is it (allegedly) one of the final things Jesus directly imparted to his first followers but it is also one the clearest and least ambiguous commands Jesus gives in the gospels. If anyone has ever wondered why Christians are so big on proselytizing– well it’s because Jesus told them to. And Jesus is kind of a big deal for them.

My parents took this verse very seriously indeed. So once they completed high-school they started university. Marriage followed during which time I was born. Understand that this was 1970s New Zealand so education was free and students received a weekly allowance from the government. Juggling study and having a family, while certainly not easy, wasn’t the big struggle it might have been in other countries. Throughout all of this their ultimate desire to become missionaries remained.

In 1983, with the financial backing of their Open Brethren Assembly, they decided to transplant their family from the socialist-democracy of New Zealand and into the right-wing dictatorship of the Philippines to become missionaries. They had no problem moving two young boys, I was now almost three years old and my brother almost one, from a relatively safe and clean environment into one where hygiene standards and disease control was not as high on the government’s agenda. Placing their family in a dangerous environment and moving them away from doting grandparents, who had no other grandchildren at the time, was a secondary consideration to the glory of the gospel.

If this sounds a bit dismissive of their choices be assured my intention is not to denigrate them but to explain what they did from my current perspective. When I grew up as a child of missionaries their decisions seemed normal and, because it was for God’s glory, righteous.  It is only all these years later that I see how crazy their life-choices can seem to others – particularly those who don’t think in a religious frame-work. To my parents, however, there was no real choice being made – Jesus gave the command and the Holy Spirit convicted them, specifically, to help carry it out.  Their only decision was whether to follow the calling or ignore it.

Anyone who is or has been a devout member of any faith will realize that is no real choice at all. To do anything less than comply would be disobedience. The flip-side is that, because these feelings of conviction are strong desires, this conviction is actually what the faithful follower really wants to do. At a mundane level it is simply people pursuing their goals only with the added belief that these goals are given to them by God. In other words my parent’s got to do what they wanted while also being able to feel like they were sacrificing for the greater good; the epitome of having your cake and eating it too.

Section 3

So that relates to my parents specifically and it might leave you wondering: What about all the other missionaries? Do they have similar stories and reasons for doing what they do?

Well that is a good point and I don’t have a definitive answer as I haven’t found data on the main reasons missionaries go and do what they do. However I have heard many a missionary give a testimony and preach a sermon where they do reveal their reasons. Add the fact that I knew many missionaries and listened in on their conversations with my parents – I have a pretty good idea why they tend to do what they do.

In most cases it is the same reason I outlined above. They feel the conviction and off they go. Now the reasons they go where they go and do their specific missionary work can differ quite a bit. But the belief that this is what God wants them to do is pretty consistent throughout the missionaries I knew. Obviously, as with my parents, I can’t say if they really felt God convicting them. Perhaps they were zealous and idealistic young people who thought being a missionary sounded important or fun or, even, exciting. I will never know.

Of course there were a few missionaries that were there for the “easy ride”. This may sound strange when you consider that the Philippines was not a safe place to live compared to most first world countries – but there were some big advantages living there. Exchange rates mean that the money sent to support missionaries can often go a long way; especially if the church or mission agency sends a lot over. Coupled with the fact that, at least in those days, there was little oversight (Often sending a newsletter home every quarter was sufficient) and it ended up being a sweet deal for some.

These were the people who I, and others, always wondered what they actually did. They ate at nice places, bought the latest gadgets and were often taking vacations to interesting places around the country. I remember when I finally worked out why they continued to “work” over in the Philippines when I read a newsletter from one of them. It made it sound like they were single-handedly converting the entire country. I was amazed at how well they could spin a story. While nothing in this newsletter was an outright lie it was certainly embellished.

Most Missionaries are workaholics, if anything, so don’t get the impression they are all freeloaders. Nor am I saying that missionaries with excellent communication skills are all liars. I also am curious as to how easy it is for today’s missionaries to get away with this. The internet has made communication very easy and also increased the expectation of regular contact and reporting. The slackers might be easier to spot – but only if people are actually motivated to check on them.

Section 4

The final point I want to make about the missionary calling is that there is another step beyond feeling led by God. In the Brethren churches all missionaries must gain commendation from the church elders (the leaders of Brethren assemblies). If this is given they then need to raise the required levels of support. This is important if the local assembly can’t provide 100% of the money needed. In the case of my parents they were supported primarily by their church but also had another, smaller, Brethren group make up the rest. This covered our living expenses. On top of that certain one-off expenses (like our school fees) were provided by generous donors.

While other missionaries follow similar models there are a lot who don’t. Some of the larger organizations have application processes and training that are provided for all prospective missionaries. Support is given, not through individual fund-raising, but by pooled donations that are distributed evenly among their missionaries and programs. They may own property and equipment for their missionaries to use (houses, vehicles, furniture). Still others use a mixed model where accommodation might be supplied by the agency but everything else is self-funded (just as one possible option).

One thing about all these models is that the more a missionary has to self-fund the more autonomy they tend to have. However they tend to have less training and cultural orientation. So there are always trade-offs. Some people will opt to go with a mission agency for other reasons: such as the types of ministry opportunities they want to be involved in. If someone wants to work on bible translation with isolated tribal groups, for example, it would pay to join New Tribes Mission who specialize in these activities.

Section 5

Feeling called  to the mission field (as it is commonly known) is no guarantee someone will be a missionary. Whether sent by their church or joining a mission organization there is still a lot of work ahead of them. Of course I am not convinced the “calling” is anything more than a reflection of their own desires and I believe that some missionaries feel the same way deep down.

The one thing you can never say, regardless of how you end up being sent, is that it’s your own idea. If you think mission works sounds like something you would like to try (and who doesn’t like to travel?) you must convince people that the whole idea was God’s and that you must follow the path he set for you. You don’t have to believe it but it would be a lot easier to convince others if you do.

My Life as a Missionary Kid Part Six

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What follows is part three of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).

Part 6: Faith Academy and the Culture Bubble

Section 1

Living in the Philippines as an MK set me apart from the national culture. I looked different to the people and talked different. I also was there for a finite time – my parents were not immigrating so I was not encouraged to assimilate.  In the early days, though, most of my friends were Filipinos in my neighborhood. There were a couple of expat families and Missionary families in each town we lived in that I had friends among but the majority were not.

That all changed when my family lived in Manila and I went to Faith Academy. Suddenly I was in a school filled with people like me. In New Zealand none of my classmates had gone overseas unless it was for a family holiday and, in those days, it was the UK, North America or Australia – countries with similar cultural backgrounds of British colonization and all speaking the same language. They could not relate to my childhood experiences. My Filipino friends always saw me as the outsider of the group so, again, it was hard to relate.

Going to FA meant I would be with people who, at least in theory, would be able to relate. After all we were all MKs, all transported from our passport countries and living in a country that was not our own. While it didn’t prove to be some MK utopia it was still refreshing to be around people like me.

Section 2

When I tell people I went to a school for missionary kids the question I tend to get asked, if I get asked question at all, is a variant of: How well did you really know the Philippines then?

I used to find this type of question a tad insulting. Obviously I knew the Philippines; I lived there for 11 years, I went to a local Filipino church, I hung out at the same malls, ate out at the same places, traveled on public transport and traveled around the country. What more could I have done?

My perspective on this has changed over time. I now understand why I would be asked that question and, more importantly, wonder about it myself. How well did I really appreciate and understand the Filipino culture while I lived there?

It should be apparent to those who have read my posts so far why that is a fair question. Not just one that applies only to me either. I would guess that most MKs attending FA had more of a cursory knowledge of the surrounding culture than a deep understanding. That is because we were part of, what was known as, the “Faith Academy Bubble”.

Section 3

The term “Faith Academy Bubble” is not a term I invented. I heard it used in the negative by Missionaries who disparaged my parent’s choice in education. I heard it used matter-of-factly by teachers and parents talking about the school to others. Even the students occasionally used it but mostly ironically.

So was it even real and, if so, what was it?

Yes it was real (although I didn’t see it at the time) and, while I think the term is quite self-explanatory, I will do my best to orientate everyone.

When immigrants come to a new country they are at a disadvantage. They don’t understand a lot of the culture they are joining and may have to learn a new language. It is quite common for them to make friends with any people from their homeland they might encounter. And it makes sense. They are likely to share the same values, have similar points of reference, and, due to a shared language, find it easy to communicate. If they are large enough number they often live nearby or even create enclaves within the wider culture they have immigrated to.

Please note that I don’t want to discuss ideas about whether they should try harder to integrate or if enclaves are harmful or anything like that. Instead I want to note that there is a strong parallel to MKs. When we get together we often experience a similar phenomenon. The shared points of reference, similar values, and, yes, ease of communication. We like hanging out together.

FA was a school for MKs. Presumably that meant we should all be comfortable with each other while holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Well not quite. There were still the groups, the cliques, the in-groups, the group, but mostly different friend groups with shared interests or similar personalities. It was still a school after all. But all these things occurred within a shared cultural perspective. We were all MKs and FA was our enclave.

Section 4

If I am truly honest (and I will try to be) I had no problem with this at the time. It was where my friends were, which meant that, in an age when mobile phones and internet usage wasn’t widespread, it was where a lot my social life was organized. It felt comfortable; we had our own slang, followed our own internal cultural cues and, it could be argued, spoke with our own accent*. With the daily bible class, weekly chapel and regular special speakers and spiritual emphasis weeks the school was also my church and my youth group.

I even had a set of rules to follow—a code of conduct I had to sign before attending (although I believe this is no longer the case). I can’t remember the exact wording but it involved a list of things we promised not to do. Smoking, drinking alcohol and taking illegal drugs were all part of it but so was dancing (my parents found that a bit odd), watching “inappropriate” movies (a vague enough term that could exclude whatever you watched) and several other, seemingly innocuous, activities. I was well into High School before I realized that some of these stranger rules were made to appeal to the most conservative missionary families.

Now it makes sense that the school would want to enforce behavior around on-campus or school-related activity behavior. However these rules applied to off-campus socializing, home life, private time over the weekends—all of it. As a result a lot of my behavior was dictated not by the country I lived in and its cultural values but by the school I went to (and, to be fair, my parents also had a say). Kids definitely rebelled but that just reinforced the fact they were also part of this bubble—they weren’t rebelling against mainstream Filipino society but the rules and culture of the school they went to. In the end, whether it was met with compliance or disobedience, the students of FA had the school’s rules of behavior whether they were at school or not.

This FA culture bubble became a self-reinforcing system. For example: I didn’t need to speak Tagalog (the main Filipino language in Manila) at school, but by not speaking it my comprehension dwindled and, with it, my connection to the wider Philippine culture. Yet my friends were all foreigners like me so it didn’t matter that I only spoke English. Of course this ensured that making friends who weren’t at my school would be near impossible. This just further enforced our sense of being separate from the country we lived in.

This separation from our host nation combined with the separation from our various passport countries often led so a feeling of cultural superiority. We would often look down on the aspects of Filipino culture that annoyed us or we found ignorant. Embarrassingly, I remember mocking or judging any trend, activity or attitude that, in my mind, was inferior to the “proper” way of doing things. At the same time we were more than happy to judge those back in our home countries as ignorant and backwards for, once again, not doing things in the “proper” way.

Of course we learned to keep these views to ourselves—it turns out people don’t like hearing why their culture isn’t all it can be from whiny kids. My parents, like most missionaries, certainly didn’t encourage these attitudes either. Also, who were we to judge what the proper and right ways of doing things were? In most instances they were just the things that bothered or annoyed us.

In reality the only difference between us and any other kid is that we genuinely believed we had a superior perspective. After all we weren’t mono-cultured, untraveled, narrow-minded people. We were in a unique position to see further and discern better. We weren’t shackled to a single culture. We had special insight. Our hubris prevented us from realizing that, like all outsider groups, we had merely joined another mono-culture albeit a smaller one.

Section 5

Before I conclude I should stress that section 4 represents a huge generalization and is based on my perception of situation at the time. If you happen to be a former (or current) FA student and feel that you are unfairly labelled as being part of this enclave that is totally fine. Some kids were very in touch with the people and culture of the Philippines and you might have been one of them. Some kids had almost no contact with anything Filipino, where even a lot of the food they ate was sourced from their home country. My take on all of this is based on how different my MK experience became once I started attending FA.

While there were positives of being with others like us we were also prone to hold an “us vs them” mentality when it came to the other cultures we interacted with. For some kids this caused problems when they tried to fit in back in their home countries since they never felt as connected with people as they had back in school. I know some of them personally. Others were never satisfied where they lived. While they were in the Philippines they couldn’t wait to leave and once they had left they couldn’t wait to return. It is this sense of not being at ease that encouraged the FA culture and the FA culture, in turn, exacerbated the feelings of unease.

*A non-distinct American accent that could not be attributed to any region or state. Some former students might disagree with me on this point but I doubt they are reading this post, so feel free to assume my assertion is 100% correct.