Growing Up in the Middle

Growing Up in the Middle

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The children of this missionary family are growing up between two cultures—equipping them to serve the church anywhere.

Sometimes missionary kids stand out. Not necessarily just because of how they dress or act. You would struggle to pick our children, Macy, 9, and Connor, 7, out of a group of their American peers. With a little probing, though, you would know straight away that these kids are growing up someplace other than the United States.

They’re MKs in Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo. Truthfully, they’re neither 100 percent American nor 100 percent Congolese. They’re in the middle— actually a place it can be good to be in.

Between cultures

Recently while stateside our daughter was peering into the fridge with a puzzled look on her face. “What are these funny shaped holes on the top shelf,” Macy asked.

“Those are for eggs,” my wife replied.

“That’s funny. Who would ever put their eggs in the refrigerator?” Macy said.

In the DRC, as well as with many other places in Africa, eggs are never refrigerated from the moment they are laid, right up until they are on your plate. From the time that she could remember, she has never seen eggs in the fridge.

Our son is an extremely picky eater, refusing to eat many foods that American children enjoy. But it is nothing to watch him eat a fish whole – scales, head, and all.

Simple statements such as “Open the lights” or “What day are we” are also bound to spread doubt about our children’s origins. These are just two examples of how their young minds translate French expressions in a unique way into English.

However, in the DRC our children also stand out right away. It’s natural when people ask them things like, “Why does your family like electricity so much?” Or “Why is your hair a different color from your parents?”

Our house has computers, a refrigerator, a microwave, a stove, and other devices that require electricity. People where we live have not grown up with these things, and as the power cuts are frequent, they never learned to rely on them as we do. They can’t understand why we would spend money on fuel to run a generator when they almost never need electricity to get through their day. In addition, most people in the DRC only have one color of hair and are perplexed by our ability to have multiple hair colors within our small family.

Learning flexibility

Our children are used to feeling strange in the U.S., as they live so differently from the way American children do. At the same time, they stand out in Congo both in culture and appearances, and therefore have learned to adapt to wherever they are.

One of the biggest ways that our kids have learned to adapt involves church and school. They are pros at five-hour church services where dozens of people sing and dance in cramped spaces unconcerned with the stifling heat. Our church buildings are small and made of brick with metal roofs, which trap heat and give us all a sweaty glow as we worship the Lord together. As a young person I remember complaining if my church service went over the one and a half hour mark while I sat comfortably in an air-conditioned sanctuary on my cushioned chair.

I also remember my church as a place that reached out to me and felt obliged to offer me services, such as childcare and youth activities to keep me involved. In the DRC, our children are learning what it means to belong to a Congolese Christian community, which involves more subtle efforts to encourage fellowship— and usually involve food.

My children’s school experiences also stand in stark contrast to my own. One obvious difference is that I studied in English while my children study in French. But their overall culture of education is very different. They memorize poems and songs and study European history; they must write in cursive and are required to use calligraphy pens. And the hardest part is the perfectionism. One mistake and they are publically shamed or receive some varying form of punishment. I can’t claim to recall perfectly my grade school days, but I am certain that I was a lot more carefree—never obsessing over my homework for fear of my teacher’s reaction the next day.

Another difference is that while we walked to school, here the school is located too far away for that. Besides, our children stand out in our neighborhood and are usually mobbed by those around them. There also is no running a few blocks over to a friend’s house or riding all throughout the neighborhood on their bikes as we did (most roads are unpaved and make difficult training grounds for new riders).

Organized sports and hobbies are also rather hard to come by here. Yet what we might call a lack of opportunities for extracurricular activities, we might rename as simplicity.

It’s amazing what power outages and the like can do for family time and expectations of what life should be. We play games, read, and talk together regularly. We don’t struggle to find time for family devotions or prayer. It is a blessing to be serving the church as a family on the mission field.

Bigger worldview

It has helped our children to have a worldview that is more interesting and far bigger than mine ever was.

Yes, they have seen poverty and village life, but it is more than that. They’re exposed to multiple languages, they interpret diverse cultural concepts, and they are aware of subtleties that I had to go to college to even know existed.

In other words, growing up on the mission field is turning our children into adaptable, informed members of the body of Christ at a very young age. Our children are made more flexible. As they are exposed to multiple languages and are shaped by two vastly different lifestyles, they become bridges between two worlds.

It can be hard for our children in feeling that they don’t quite fit in wherever they go. They sacrifice time with extended family and may always feel like strangers to their home culture, but we know that the Lord is doing an amazing work in them. We have faith that they will play a valuable part in advocating for both of their cultures and in so doing, will enrich the cross-cultural fellowship of the church.

Gavin Fothergill and his wife, Jillian, are missionaries serving the Church of the Nazarene in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Images courtesy of the Fothergill family. 

Holiness Today, March/April 2017