How to Do Life during a Pandemic—Cross-Cultural Workers Can Add to the Discussion [—at A Life Overseas]

March 31, 2020 § Leave a comment

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Lately, my wife and I have been video chatting with two of our sons, their wives, and our four little grandkids. That’s what you do when your children are serving in a faraway land. That’s what you do, too, when your children, like ours, are close by but COVID-19 protocols tell you to stay home.

When we started out overseas, our parents didn’t have computers and Skype hadn’t even been invented yet, but I know how important video conferencing has become for ocean-separated families wanting to stay in touch. And my recent experiences back in the States have got me thinking about what cross-cultural workers (CCWs) can teach the rest of us about life under the cloud of a pandemic. While people all over the world are scrambling to overcome challenges in a matter of days or weeks, CCWs have been tackling similar problems for years.

Now I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’d like to consider the things that CCWs often take for granted that those “at home” can gain from. It’s not too common for senders to seek your input. “What is there to learn from people who do abnormal things because they live in abnormal places?” But as we all get used to a new normal, at least for a while, we all have things to learn.

There’s a lot of dialogue going on now about how to cope under “social distancing,” “sheltering in place,” and “quarantines.” I hope those of you working abroad are invited to give your input. You have a lot to share.

Here are some examples I’m thinking of:

You and your loved ones have dealt with extended separation and have navigated holidays and special events at a distance. You are masters at video chatting online, wrestling into submission Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, and the list goes on. And you’ve developed your own ways of connecting grandkids to Grandpa and Grandma when face-to-face isn’t an option.

Continue reading this post at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “DSC06088,” by Nickolay Romensky, used under a Creative Commons license]

Their Abuse Happened over 25 Years Ago, So Why Were Those MKs Still Talking about It on the Today Show?

March 3, 2019 § 1 Comment

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A group of five women, all daughters of missionaries, recently went on NBC’s Today to share their stories of sexual abuse in New Tribes Mission boarding schools. One dorm father, whom the women from Fanda Missionary School in Senegal name as their abuser, left the school in 1988. Another dorm father, named by the women from a school in Aritao, the Philippines, was removed from his position in 1993.

It’s been more than 25 years since the latest of their abuse took place, yet these women are still bringing it up. Why?

In their interview, Today‘s Kate Snow asks the five to pick a word to answer the question “What’s this about for you?”

“Truth,” they say. “Justice.”

When Snow commends them for their strength in speaking up, Kelly Emory, who is not only a victim but also a daughter of the accused abuser at her school, says,

I’m strong for the little girl that was never able to say anything, and I’m strong for her, and I’m a strong woman. And I’ll do my best to protect anybody who sees this and wants to speak out. You can come and talk to me. Come and talk to me. I will protect you.

Another of the group, Jaasiel Mashek, in an article at NBC News, says, “If we don’t speak up, it’s going to keep happening. And we’re going to pass on that mentality of covering it up to the next generation. It’s got to stop.”

That’s why they’re still talking. They don’t want it to happen again. They don’t want the rest of us to forget. They don’t want us to think that silence is a remedy.

After the interview aired, Larry M. Brown, CEO of Ethnos360 (formerly New Tribes Mission) responded with an apology and a thank you, writing,

We wish to express our deepest gratitude to these women who came forward and others who have raised awareness of abuse. It is because of their willingness to share their painful stories that . . . preventative measures have been put in place, and we want to publicly thank them.

I want to thank them, too. I know I still need to hear their voices. Their stories are not new to me, but I’d already swept them to the corners of my memory, stripped of faces and details, kept where I can know that they exist without having to acknowledge them often. But I need to remember, really remember, because otherwise it’s too easy for me to give in to my tendencies to ignore hard things, to avoid confrontation, to give the benefit of the doubt when faced with suspicious activities, to hope that things will take care of themselves, and to protect the mission. In this I’m not alone.

And sadly, children in New Tribes Mission haven’t been the only ones to suffer abuse—sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, or spiritual abuse—from missionaries. In 2008, the production company Good Hard Working People produced the film All God’s Children, focusing on accounts of abuse that took place from 1950-1970 at Mamou Alliance Academy, a Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) boarding school in Guinea. The film is available online in 10 parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.

In the following video from The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS—now thirtyone:eight), Wess Stafford, president emeritus of Compassion International, tells of his own experiences as a victim of abuse at Mamou:

Beverly Shellrude Thompson, one of several former Mamou students we hear from in All God’s Children, gives another reason for speaking out, saying that “truth-telling is an integral part of my healing, because as a child I didn’t have a voice.” In 1999, she helped launch MK Safety Net to provide a forum for MKs and TCKs to share their stories, to network, and to learn how to bring their concerns to church/mission leadership. Former Fanda students have contributed to a similar site titled Fanda Eagles.

As part of the process of addressing the problem, New Tribes Mission and C&MA have produced public reports detailing the abuse at Fanda and Mamou and examining how the organizations responded. The investigation of Fanda was conducted by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment):

New Tribes Mission

The Christian and Missionary Alliance

Other groups, as well, have created their own reports on the abuse of children on the missions field. These include

The Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE)

The United Methodist Church

The Presbyterian Church (USA)

In calling attention to this information, I want to make it clear that I am not on a vendetta against missionary boarding schools. I know many fine people who serve overseas in such places, selflessly and righteously watching over and educating the children in their care. But while writing this post gives me pause, I am convinced that these accounts still need to be heard.

I understand that not everyone agrees. “Some,” say the writers of the Presbyterian Church report, “strongly believe that the Church would be better served if those who believe they have been abused or are aware of past abuse would keep such information to themselves.”

They then go on to present and dispute three myths:

The current mission of the church will be hurt by revelations of past abuse on mission fields.

The reputations of former missionaries, current staff, or advocates will be damaged by the investigation of allegations against them.

What is in the past is best left alone.

That is why those five women aren’t staying quiet. It’s because the truth needs to be told, and because these myths aren’t true.

(Kate Snow, et. al., “Ungodly Abuse: The Lasting Torment of the New Tribes Missionary Kids,” NBC News, February 7, 2019; Larry M Brown, “NBC Story Follow-Up,” Ethnos360, November 15, 2019; James Evinger, et. al., Final Report of the Independent Abuse Review Panel Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), PCUSA, October 2010)

[photo: “New Gallery Peckham,” by J Mark Dodds, used under a Creative Commons license]

Kate Bowler: Everything Happens. Period.

June 22, 2018 § Leave a comment

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My wife, Karen, has been reading Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. She’d heard about Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, when I showed her some short videos that introduced the author.

Bowler previously wrote Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, but her focus changed when, in 2015, at the age of 35, she was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer.

“Why don’t you put those videos on your blog,” Karen asked me. I reminded her that Clearing Customs is about cross-cultural issues, and though I’ve stretched that definition at times, I need some kind of hook to pull an idea into the boundaries of this site. Bowler hasn’t been a missionary (that I know of), and though cross-cultural workers face struggles and loss, they aren’t usually of the terminal-cancer-diagnosis kind.

But . . . I’ve decided to post the videos anyway. Why? Because Bowler’s message resonates with Karen, a Christian who’s served overseas, who’s dealt with grief, who’s survived cancer, and who’s talked with many former and current cross-cultural workers who need Bowler’s kind of thoughtful encouragement and empathy instead of trite phrases, even those that come “from such a good place.”

So that’s my hook.

And here they are.

Kate Bowler:

I think everything happens. Period. . . . I do think things just happen and some things come apart and some things come together. If I could pick one thing it would be that everyone simmers down on the explanations for other people’s suffering and just step in with love.

I realized . . . that I’m not special. And like, yes, I’m special to my parents and I am a beloved child of God, but like, I’m not—I’m not special insofar as, like, I am not the exception to the rule that sometimes bad things just happen.

. . . the tyranny of prescriptive joy . . .

[photo: “All Tied Up,” by Janet Bland, used under a Creative Commons license]

Naming Your Grief and Finding an Answer [—at A Life Overseas]

January 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Over at A Life Overseas, I’ve taken two of my previous posts, Disenfranchised Grief and the Cross-cultural Worker and Empathy: A Ladder into Dark Places, and adapted them into one. You can start reading the new post below.

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I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase “disenfranchised grief” before I came back from living overseas. Maybe it was during debriefing that it came up. Or maybe it was later, when I attended a series of grief-support meetings offered by a local hospice. Everyone else in the group had experienced the recent death of a loved one. I came because of the losses I’d had from my return.

Regardless, I didn’t immediately have a label for what I was feeling—sadness that was difficult to accept or express, sadness that easily led to shame and anger. But being able to name it is important. Kenneth Doka, who came up with the term “disenfranchised grief,” and who, in 1989, wrote the book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, says in an interview with Spring Publishing,

This concept has really resonated with people. And people constantly write and say, “You’ve named my grief. I never really recognized my grief until you talked about it in that way.”

Doka defines disenfranchised grief as “grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Grief is disenfranchised when losses are not typical to the population at large, so others often discount those losses or don’t understand them. It is difficult to have compassion for people when you don’t recognize why they are sad.

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

(Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Living with Grief: Loss in Later Life, Kenneth Doka, ed., Hospice Foundation of America, 2002; Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Springer Publishing Company, YouTube, October 4, 2013)

[photo: “Hiding,” by Kristin Schmit, used under a Creative Commons license]

When Your Parents Wish You Weren’t Far Away: An Interview with Diane Stortz [—at A Life Overseas]

May 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Diane Stortz knows firsthand what it’s like to have children serving overseas, to want them to follow God’s calling, but also to want them close by. In 2008, she, along with Cheryl Savageau, wrote Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally (InterVarsity Press). Since joining the ranks of parents of missionaries (POMs), she has ministered to and heard from hundreds of parents walking the same path.

Tell us a little about your personal story as a parent of a missionary.

My husband and I never expected to be parents of a missionary, and becoming POMs was hard. Our daughter and son-in-law married while still in college. She was training as a vocalist, and he planned to be a youth minister. But they spent their first anniversary as missionary interns in Bosnia. Over the next two years, they made the decision to serve as missionaries after graduation. Our heads and hearts were reeling! We really hadn’t been prepared to “lose” our daughter to marriage so soon . . . and now we felt we were losing her all over again.

Making it feel worse, our church was their sending organization, they would be joining a team already in place, and our congregation was excited and thrilled. We heard “You must be so proud” a lot. Yes, we were proud and very supportive, but we were also hurting.

Book person that I am, I went looking for something to read to help me adjust, and found nothing. About the same time, Cheryl Savageau (counseling director at our church) and Judy Johnson (missions minister) were talking about ways to help us and the other POMs in the congregation (all of us were struggling). That’s how our ministry to POMs eventually was born. Cheryl and I wrote a book and, for about ten years, we led groups and workshops for POMs and for college students and missions recruits too.

Head over to A Life Overseas for the rest of this interview.


[photo: “Atardecer en el Palmar” by Carlos Calamar, used under a Creative Commons license]

When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back [—at A Life Overseas]

April 26, 2017 § 3 Comments

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

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This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed. . . .

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

Hard Rain A-Fallin’: Singing, and Struggling, before the King

February 3, 2017 § 2 Comments

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In my last post, I talked about imagining God, the father, the king, singing to us.

This post is about someone singing to a king—not the heavenly king, mind you, but Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, and Queen Silvia and Crown Princess Victoria, as well. Turns out that’s not easy, even for a musical superstar.

As organizers planned last year’s Nobel Prize awards ceremony, they asked Patty Smith to perform at the event. Then, when it was announced that her friend Bob Dylan had been named the Nobel laureate in literature, she chose to sing his “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

You’ve probably heard how she faltered during her performance and had to stop singing. She writes in The New Yorker that she was struck with an “overwhelming case of nerves.” It wasn’t that she’d forgotten the words, she says (though who could blame her, there are so many words in that song), she just couldn’t “draw them out.”

“I’m sorry,” she said meekly to the crowd as the orchestra softly played behind her. “Sorry.” She looked at the conductor, standing close by. “I’m sorry. Could we start that section?” And then to the audience, “I apologize. I’m so nervous.” The people responded with applause.

On the video of her performance, you can hear the announcer narrating the restart sotto voce, sounding as if he were calling a golf tournament. Smith gathered herself and completed the song, overcoming another, smaller lapse on the way.

Smith writes:

It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words “I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains,” and ends with the line “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics.

My guess is that Smith spent the night replaying her mistakes over and over in her mind. How could she fail on such a grand, international stage? But that wasn’t the end of it.

When I arose the next morning, it was snowing. In the breakfast room, I was greeted by many of the Nobel scientists. They showed appreciation for my very public struggle. They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles.

There’s another phrase in the last stanza of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that grabs my attention. It’s “Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’.” I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that Dylan, who is fond of biblical imagery, had the apostle Peter in mind when he wrote that. It was Peter who stepped out of the boat to meet Jesus, who was walking on the water. It was Peter who saw the waves and began to sink. It was Peter who then called out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” And it was Jesus who reached out and caught him.

An artist lip syncing a song in a pre-packaged, flawless performance. How many times do we see that and move on, quickly letting it slide from our memory? Someone stepping out into the rain and waves, and struggling publicly, struggling beautifully, showing that struggles aren’t the same as failures. That I’ll remember for a long time.

(Patti Smith, “How Does It Feel,” The New Yorker, December 14, 2016)

[photo: “Puddles & Flip Flops,” by Phil Roeder, used under a Creative Commons license]

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