[This article also exists in podcast form. You can listen to it on Pondering Purple, HERE.]
I love being an MK.
Some readers might wonder if that’s true, given the hard issues I tackle in my articles and podcasts, but my deep appreciation for the beauty of MKness is actually what motivates me to turn over the rocks and dig up the hidden dangers of this complicated life—so more of “my people” can thrive in their multi-cultural complexity without being wounded by its unacknowledged hazards.
But…it’s equally important to make room for the rare and wonderful. To excavate the singular joys that so far outweigh the hardships for a majority of the MKs I know.
This, then, is my ode to the blessings of being an MK, a celebration of the gifts we must not overlook, lest we lose sight of the bright elements of our past—the people, places, and memories that can illuminate and inform our future.
It’s also a reminder to any parents reading that by raising your children in this international-ministry space, you have offered them the kind of treasure that can be neither quantified nor stolen.
I’ll admit that it took me a while to realize how fortunate I was to grow up as an MK. The difficulties in my life were so preoccupying, during my early years, that they blurred or eclipsed the beautiful all around me. It seemed normal to me that I grew up running the hallways and exploring the grounds of a 17th century castle.
It housed the Bible school where my parents taught then, and as I would sit gazing at it on a bench in the back acres of the property, eating warm croissants from a butter-stained bag, I never realized that its sandstone towers and wrought-iron balconies were something others only read about in fairytales or saw in picture books.
Speaking French as easily as I spoke English was equally unremarkable to my Third Culture Kid mind.
I’d learned the language by attending kindergarten and playing with my neighbors, without ever opening a book or memorizing vocabulary lists. And sitting at the kitchen table having bilingual conversations with my parents—my brother and I speaking French and them responding in English—seemed so ordinary as to be boring.
I can remember complaining—complaining!—that we “had” to travel just for fun. “Do we have to go to England again??” Not realizing, of course, that there were people around the world who would give anything to be able to experience the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace or the delicate flavors of a Cream Tea served in a drawing room that looked like a faded postcard.
I learned to shape-shift too, without even realizing I was doing it. It’s an MK ability that only those who have been sufficiently embedded in multiple cultures can achieve.
I could adjust not only my language, but my behavior, knowledge base, and communication style to whatever context I was in—shedding some of my Frenchness when I flew back to Canada, getting brighter and more assertive in my interactions in the United States, then reverting again to a more sober European mindset when I crossed the ocean and returned home.
There is so much we’re given as MKs—so many strengths we derive from the decision our families make to serve overseas. They’ve been well documented in books and articles, so I won’t list them all here, but a top-four list would certainly include these:
- We’re world-aware – We haven’t just learned about places around the globe, we’ve experienced them with all of our senses. They aren’t merely a point on a map, they’re a collection of sights, sounds, aromas, savors, textures, traditions, ways of life, and myriad other elements that have to be lived to be fully measured.
- We’re adaptable – We have an innate sense of context that few others possess. Whether we’re walking into a room full of strangers or flying into a country where we are the outsiders, we have an uncanny ability to sit back and observe, to figure out the dynamics and social structures around us, and to find a way to pretzel our identities into a version of ourselves that can mostly fit in.
- We’re open-minded – We have firsthand experience of different ways of doing life. Whether it be religions, philosophies, ethics, art, lifestyles, or practical approaches to everyday tasks, we know that the proverbial cat can indeed be skinned in multiple ways. We have the ability to consider differences—in people and methodologies—and give them a fair shake. We’ll certainly enter into debates, but with less of an obsession with winning and more of a focus on learning.
- Because of the first three strengths mentioned above, we’re natural bridge-builders: We have an instinct for narrowing the gaps between factions that normally would have little to do with each other. We can adjust our approach to achieve minimal friction and use our complex experiential upbringing to harness culture-sensitive influence. We are uniquely equipped to be innovators, peacemakers, and motivators in contexts where diversity (in every sense) might make it difficult for others. This is what I call our “MK Superpower,” and we can wield it throughout our lives, on vast and small stages, in public and more private spaces.
I never thought of thanking my parents for raising me as an MK when I was young. The experiences—the magic—seemed so mundane to me. And there was enough disquiet darkening the corners of my life that I couldn’t always see the glow that cast the shadows I fled. The community that sheltered my maturing. The friendships that harbored my most vulnerable secrets.
I didn’t fully understand the gift of learning Scripture in a tiny, historic church building, where people who hadn’t grown up steeped in Christianity brought a fresh savor to my generations-old faith. I was marked and formed in so many subtle ways by hearing verses interpreted through a different cultural lens and put into practice in un-American ways. By not only witnessing, but taking part in events and outreaches—singing, and reciting, and dancing, and saying the name of Jesus to those who didn’t know him…even at an age when I didn’t either.
I am convinced—convicted, really—that those early spiritual engagement planted seeds that grew tiny roots that somehow still anchored me when life’s fiercest storms undid me.
My faith was fraught for decades, but I believe the early acquaintance of good people who genuinely believed and gently followed a living, loving God preserved a trace of Him in me.
With the clearer vision of maturity, I can look back now and see the treasures of my international childhood as towering blessings for their rareness and beauty.
They smell like the dark passageways hidden under “my” castle, and speak in a quick, staccato-warm cadence, and sparkle with the sound of French horns at the start of hunting season, and hover like the humid air floating as mist above the freshly cut grass we weren’t allowed to walk on.
In my work with MKs, I’ve frequently asked them what they love the most about the way their lives played out. Their lists are often long, and always recited with equal parts excitement and awe. For those of us born into the world of ministry, our complex and rich upbringing wasn’t a choice—it was a gift. We got to live our otherwise ordinary lives in rare and profound spaces. The miracle of that is seldom lost on us.
Our individual “Litanies of Love” will vary with the details that make our stories unique—with each home country, each family dynamic, each glowing memory, each story of personal suffering, overcoming, and thriving.
- Some MKs longingly remember the sound of monsoon rains on their house’s tin roof.
- Or playing at the palace with the king’s children in Jordan.
- Or eating a meal cooked over smoldering manure.
- Or providing food and shelter for thousands of refugees, streaming haggard and distressed across a border to safety.
- The baptism of dozens of new believers in a muddy river in South Africa.
- Bringing sustainable farming to war-ravaged places.
- Watching a remote village receive its first Bible.
- Seeing a baby who had hours to live being nursed back to life in a tent hospital.
- Witnessing nationals graduate with degrees in theology, music, or ancient languages, to take the reins of ministries in their own countries.
- Digging life-saving wells where water is scarce.
- Speaking truth where lies are proclaimed and embraced.
- Cutting the ribbon on a new church building.
Creating lodging and paving roads and extending bridges in Jesus’ name across gaping divides between places, people, and faiths.
Yes, we face challenges growing up between cultures in the world of ministry. Yes, common struggles might be exacerbated by a lack of belonging and the microscope aimed at us by family, friends, and strangers. Yes, the trauma we sometimes experience will likely take its toll and require some intervention.
Yet in a survey of 1,200 MKs conducted a few years ago, 60% percent said that they wouldn’t give it up for the world and another 30% said that their experience was positive.
That’s 90% who count being MKs a blessing.
So as we tackle the potential pitfalls of this multi-faceted life, it is so important—for the sanity of MKs and for an accurate perspective among parents of MKs—that we also consider the good, even as we address the challenging.
That we remember the luminous. The lasting. The unquantifiable. The irreplaceable. The heart-stirring. The soul-filling. The spirit-nourishing and life-expanding.
Choosing to serve in ministry does not have to mean undue pain and duress for the children who tag along. If stressors, dangers, and blind spots can be identified and managed early and regularly, MKs will thrive and not languish. They will soar and not despair. They will live in deep gratitude for the treasure they’ve been gifted and be able to discern in retrospect their incremental growth, watered as it was by the challenges they overcame.
This is my charge to the MKs I love and to those raising them. Take the time—regularly—to inventory the treasures packed away in your well-traveled existential suitcases. As life throws its wrenches at you—as you endure the challenges unique to our community—carve out the space to itemize the beautiful and wonderful and indescribable that came along with the hardship.
I encourage you to use your five senses if it helps to organize your thoughts. You can do this alone or as a group experience with your friends and family. What savors, textures, sounds, sights, and aromas do you love the most today, and which of them will you miss the most when you’re gone?
These are the conversations and rumination that sublimate memory into life-shaping awe. This is the healthy nostalgia that strengthens our courage and replenishes our reserves of joy.
Being an MK is a hybrid treasure chest where the gold glitters and the loss lingers. Let us tune our eyes and hearts to the shimmering, while we turn our empathy and care to the aching. Only in acknowledging and nurturing both will we find wholeness and, in God’s goodness, healing.
[I’d love for you to say what you love the most about being an MK in the comment boxes below!]
May I tell you about a short book I recently published? Flecks of Gold: Solace in the Shadowlands isn’t specifically MK-related, but it’s a reflection on the nature and impact of suffering, illustrated with my photography of places around the world. It feels very much like a piece of my legacy—an honest look at my prolonged journey through cancer and the beauty I’ve uncovered as I’ve tilled that dark soil for fragments of hope and glimpses of a truly good God.
“Every word in this gorgeous book resonated with me, from Michele’s description of getting her diagnosis to the upheaval and spiritual wrestling that followed. I finished my fist reading with tears in my eyes and fresh hope in my soul. What a gift this book will be to those who ache and those who love them.” Susan Grisby
You can read more about the book and order it here.
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