The third and final part of our series of posts on missionary identity by OMF worker Wendy Marshall looks at how the notion of ‘home’ becomes difficult for missionaries. If you missed the other two parts, you can find part 1 and part 2 here.
Most people’s identity is tied up with a particular place. We often ask someone new we meet, ‘So, where are you from?’
On Sunday I attended the memorial service for a Japanese missionary and witnessed an awkward conversation between two missionaries who’d never met before. Both Americans, but serving in two different countries.
The Japan-based one asked, ‘Where are you from?’
There was a pause.
Then tentatively he offered, ‘California.’
The hesitation was because this man had just two days earlier come to Japan for the memorial service for his former colleague. He’d come from the country in which he was serving and wondered if the question meant, ‘Where are you serving now?’
‘Home’ is a difficult word when you live in a different country to your passport. Though my passport is Australian, Japan is where my husband and I have brought up our children. In eighteen years of childrearing, we’ve spent only four-and-a-half of them in Australia. It’s been 17 years since we spent more than a year there. In many ways Japan is home for us. When we’re not in Japan, we miss it and the people we know here. But Australia is also home. There are people we love there, and places and things we miss, though no longer as much as we used to when we first came. So, in many ways we straddle the ocean. We’re no longer completely comfortable in either place. We’ll never be Japanese, nor will we ever be 100% at home in Australia again.
So when someone asks us ‘Where’s home?’ It’s difficult to answer. ‘Where are you from?’ is a little easier, because I can say that I grew up in Queensland, Australia. But it doesn’t tell the full story. I went to a writer’s conference in Australia a couple of years ago and I must have struggled with the application form, because the name tag they gave me when I arrived said ‘Wendy Marshall, Brisbane (or Tokyo)’.
It’s not just how we feel, but as OMF missionary, Karl Dalfred, points out, we’re caught between two countries because no one in either country fully comprehends us either (except those who’ve lived a similar expat lifestyle to us). That’s why missionaries love to get together—because that’s usually whefre we feel most at home, with people who understand why ‘home’ is a difficult concept for us to define.
Next time you meet a missionary, instead of asking ‘Where are you from?’ a better question would be, ‘What have you lived?’
How you can pray:
- Pray missionaries will be at peace with feeling unsettled and out of place.
- Pray for understanding from people in our ‘home’ countries.