This post first appeared on Assist News Service in May 2015.
We live in Ukraine. My husband and I are missionaries, and we have four sons (ages 8, 6, 4, and 2) who are growing up here. Three of them were even born here. In some respects, their childhood is unfolding similarly to how it would if we were living in the United States. In other respects, it is very different. I think these differences are enriching, rather than impoverishing, and I want them to recognize that too.
Recently my kids and their American cousins who also live here in Ukraine were playing make-believe. But while some kids play Doctor, and other kids play Cops and Robbers, these kids were playing something quite different. They were in an outdoor amphitheater, and several of them were lined up between two of the benches, waiting behind a badminton racket that they had placed across the benches to block the way. Another child, my 4-year-old nephew, was standing on the other side of one of the benches, talking to the first person in line and very deliberately slapping his hand against the bench. Then he lifted up the badminton racket and allowed the first child, my 6-year-old son, to pass through.
They were playing Border Crossing. The bench-slapping was to signify the stamping of passports.
While most preschoolers in the U.S. don’t even know what a passport is, much less have one, our kids’ first passports all have wrinkly-faced newborn pictures in them, and our children can’t remember a time when they didn’t know about passports, visas, customs control, and border guards. I can imagine one of them jabbering excitedly about such matters to a hypothetical playmate in the U.S. and being met with a blank stare.
The other day I was out walking with my 4-year-old and 2-year-old sons. In our home, we speak English, and we rely on sending our kids to Ukrainian kindergarten and public school to teach them the local language. As a result, neither of these boys has had much exposure to the Ukrainian language yet.
Another mom was walking toward us on the same path with her son, a slightly older boy who looked like he might be a special needs child. His face lit up when he saw my 2-year-old, and as he passed us, he reached out to touch my youngest son’s hair. His mother, exasperated, snapped in Ukrainian, “Scho ty robysh??” I didn’t think too much about it, until a few seconds later when my 4-year-old looked up at me and said, “Mommy, she said, ‘What are you doing?’ to him—is that right?” His eyes were sparkling with happy wonder as he discovered that he could decipher the Ukrainian syllables of a passerby. For my part, I was amazed by how my little boy is already understanding so much of the language of our adopted home.
Our kids don’t seem to think there’s anything unusual about all the languages swirling around them. At home they speak English with Daddy and Mommy and each other, and outside the home they speak Ukrainian with everyone else. Mommy speaks French with their littlest brother and any Francophone foreign students we come across, and a few of our friends speak Russian. It is a rich and textured linguistic environment, but they don’t grasp that yet. To them, it’s just normal.
To them, a lot of things seem normal that would be completely outside the experience of their U.S.-based peers. We frequently use public transport, and one of their favorite things to do is ride on a trolleybus. They were aghast when I told them there are no trolleybusses in the United States. I have since learned that a few U.S. cities use them, but in case you have never seen one, trolleybusses are electric busses powered by cables suspended above the street, but that’s not the only thing that makes them special. Here many of them are about twice the length of a standard bus and have a joint in the middle to facilitate turning. My 6-year-old particularly loves to ride in this jointed section,watching in excitement as the accordion-folds of the fabric walls of the jointed portion of the bus bend and heave each time we turn a corner.
Recently we visited Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and our kids got to ride on the subway. That experience will probably turn out to be one of the highlights of their year! Their eyes get wide as they talk about the insanely long escalators going down into the huge subterranean chambers that were intended to double as bomb shelters during the Cold War Era, and then their voices get louder and faster as they talk about the speed of the subway trains coming into the station. If we lived in the U.S., they would have missed out on this riveting adventure.
Children naturally approach the world with a sense of wonder and the belief that adventure is waiting around every bend, but somehow we adults lose this way of seeing things, becoming jaded and cynical. If we’re not careful, we can pass this attitude on to our children. This is especially easy for missionary parents.
Living on the mission field is a huge adventure, but it can feel overwhelming and intimidating, sometimes even frightening. This has been true for me, and over the years, I’ve developed emotional hangups around certain aspects of life here. It was almost a year ago that I realized if I wasn’t careful, I was going to pass this negativity on to my kids, so I began a season of prayer and soul-searching over how to overcome my cultural problems.
During this process, two words stood out to me: gratitude and privilege. First, there are so many things about my life here, even things inherent in the Ukrainian culture, for which I should be thanking God. When I made it a point to look for them, I was amazed to discover how blessed I am to be exactly where God has placed me. Second, it is a privilege to be called by God and to follow that call wherever it leads. For us, it has led to Ukraine, and I don’t ever want to let the challenges we face keep me from experiencing the privilege.
I married into a family with a rich missionary heritage. In the 1950s, John and Marjorie Pemberton, my husband’s maternal grandparents, went as missionaries to what was then Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe). At the beginning, they lived in thatched huts with floors made from packed manure. They hunted for meat and cooked over an open fire in a hole in the ground. Reaching civilization required trekking by jeep through bush country and fording rivers. The journey could take up to two days, depending on the weather, and sometimes was not even possible during the rainy season. Despite the constant hardships they faced, John and Marjorie taught their children that they were the luckiest children in the world. What other kids got to see the things they saw and experience the things they experienced? And because their parents truly believed that they were privileged, their kids did also.
Years later, when John and Marjorie’s only daughter Pamela Markey had a chance to go on the mission field with her husband and eight children, she jumped at the opportunity and passed on to her children the mindset of privilege that she had received from her parents. Today, all of those children are serving God in a variety of countries and cultures all around the world! Looking back at this heritage of which I have become a part, I want to bequeath the same mindset to the next generation.
It is a privilege to be serving God cross-culturally. Relatively few step into this privilege, although I believe God offers it to many. We are privileged because our life as aliens in a foreign land serves as a constant reminder that we are just strangers and pilgrims on this earth, and our real home is in heaven. We are privileged because the weakness that characterizes all our moments and days as we try to operate in a foreign language and culture forces us to rely on God’s inexhaustible strength. We are privileged because, as we rely on God who alone can accomplish all He is calling us to do, we are able to witness His miraculous work in the hearts and lives of the people around us. It is truly a blessed privilege to serve God in extremity, and extremity cannot exist without hardship. So I will embrace the difficulties and thank God for the privilege of being used in weakness so that His strength can flow through my life to touch many others. And I will use every opportunity to let my children see this heavenly paradox at work in me so that maybe they too will come to believe that they are the luckiest kids in the world.
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Photo 1 courtesy of Daubin37, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
Photo 2 courtesy of © AMY, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
Photo 3 public domain via Wikimedia Commons