My family was lucky when we moved abroad: Chef Boyardee’s employer sent us to Singapore for a look-see visit, provided cross-cultural training and Mandarin lessons for the entire family, and arranged settling-in services once we’d arrived. It was wonderful.
When we returned home, however, the silence was deafening.
When Missionary Kids come home
My friend Heather, an adult MK (Missionary Kid), tells me that this is not the case in her ministry. Over fifteen years ago, the Assemblies of God realized that returning missionary families were sorely in need of guidance as they struggled to readjust to American life. They set up a fabulous programme (two actually: one for adults, another for children) to address that need.
For the past five years, Heather has been serving as one of the Re-Entry Youth Coordinators for returning MKs. The children descend on AOG’s Missouri headquarters for a three-day session, and… well, I’ll let Heather tell you the rest:
“We talk about leaving, transition, and entering: going from being settled, to chaos, to that place where the new normal starts to happen and you’re settled again. We let them know that whatever emotions they’re feeling — anger, arguing with parents, bursting into tears for no reason — it’s all normal.
The first day we talk about leaving: what is home, the RAFT cycle, that sort of thing. Days two and three are transition and entering, respectively. We talk about our memories by doing an exercise with backpacks. When you unpack your bags, what do you find: trash or treasure? Do you refill it, recycle it, or do you repack it?
We split them into small groups of 3-5 kids with a counsellor*. That’s really key. It gives them a safe space to express themselves, to vent if they need to. And we talk about expectations constantly, because it’s so important for a good re-entry. We do an exercise with elastic bands to illustrate that the further expectations are from reality, the more it hurts when reality snaps. I know it sounds awful [she laughs as she says this] but making it concrete like that really helps them get it.”
It’s all about the kids
Doesn’t that sound freakin’ awesome? Every aspect of the program is tailored to the ages of the children, with great care taken to use language and examples they understand — including Bible stories. “Ruth left everything she knew to go away with Naomi,” Heather says. “What was Ruth feeling? What was she thinking? The kids need to realize they’re not alone in this.”
Some of the children Heather works with have been in the field so long they don’t remember much about their homeland. For the ones who have been living in developing areas, the busy, hyper-commercialized society they return to is an assault on the senses. “The US is a foreign culture for them, so that’s the way we treat it,” she says. “We take them to an all-you-can-eat buffet, for example. There’s so much food, it’s overwhelming — especially for kids who’ve been living in places where food isn’t as abundant. They ask interesting questions: “Is the buffet timed? Is there a plate limit?” Most of them walk around in a daze — it’s a huge culture shock for them, and it’s fascinating to watch them process it.”
Paying it forward
Heather has a lot of empathy for these children, because she’s been there herself. She was a teenager living in Austria when repatriation turned her happy world upside down. Especially disturbing for her was the speed with which it all happened: her family was given just six weeks notice. “I was in the middle of my tenth grade year, and it was traumatic,” she says. “I wish I’d been able to go through a program like this. It would have been helpful to have those tools. That’s why I think it means so much to me to work with these kids, because I had such a difficult re-entry.”
The great reward for Heather is seeing her young charges give themselves over to the process and come out the other side whole and well-adjusted. Because she keeps in touch with many of them on Facebook, she’s able to watch their re-entry experiences unfold in real time. Last summer, she read something by a former attendee that made her day:
“I’m happy in both places, but of course I can’t live in two places at one time. No matter where I go, I’ll be happy, but I know I’ll never be 100% happy.”
“She’s accepted that weird dichotomy of wanting to be in the host country and the home country at the same time,” Heather says. “She’s made her peace with it. That’s why programs like this are so important.”
Like I said: Wouldn’t it be nice?
Heather introduced me to this rap video, made by and about MKs (and PKs: Preachers’ Kids). Enjoy!
* Note from Heather: Most of the counsellors are MKs themselves. It is truly a special place to be and be a part of!
* Note from Maria: For more information on the programme, check out the website of the International Society of Missionary Kids.