Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Longest Friends


Last week was mid-term break (it's not called "Fall Break" around here; we don't have "Fall") and we went to our favorite beach for four days with our friends Tim, Emily, Caleb, and Imani. For all six of us Medinas, they are some of our longest friends in Tanzania.

We met Tim and Emily in 2002, just a few months after Gil and I had arrived in Tanzania. But what really brought us together was that Tim and Emily adopted Caleb just months before we adopted Grace. Then, Tim and Emily adopted Imani just months before we adopted Josiah. Caleb and Imani were Grace and Josiah's first friends, and now, their longest friends.

Tim and Emily don't live in Dar es Salaam, so we don't see them often--usually just a couple of times a year. They live in a remote part of Tanzania doing incredibly cool things. But for many years, whenever they were in town, they would stay with us, which meant that their kids and our kids did a lot of life together. In fact, for a few years, Caleb and Imani would join our kids at HOPAC whenever they visited.

Getting my children together with Caleb and Imani is always an amazing delight. Their personalities mesh perfectly; they enjoy each other; they bring out the best in each other. And their shared life stories make their relationships particularly special. And of course, Gil and I think their parents are pretty awesome too.

So last week was a magical four days with perfect weather, moonlit games of Capture the Flag, beach bonfires, giant succulent fish dinners, and laughter. Oh, so much laughter. It was Tim and Emily who first introduced us to this perfect beach many years ago, so it was fitting that we got to spend these days with them there--during what might be our last trip to this beach.








Reading Stronger Than Death





And since I'm feeling pretty nostalgic these days, knowing that these kind of times are coming to an end for us, I'll take you on a trip down Memory Lane with the Medina kids' friendship with Caleb and Imani.























Thursday, October 17, 2019

Yes, the Kids Know


Do the kids know? What do they think? That seems to be everyone's first question when they hear we are relocating to America.  

Yes, they know. We talked about it with them hypothetically for a long time, and they were the first people Gil and I told when we made the decision. 

Michele Phoenix, who has written extensively on the impact of transition on missionary kids, wrote: "Those who repatriate to their “home” country aren’t just moving from one state or province to another. They aren’t just losing a measurable number of people, places and 'sacred objects.' It’s the intangibles that exacerbate their grief and intensify their response to it. Missionaries’ Kids who are enduring transition have lost the languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, security, familiarity and belonging that have been their life—an integral part of who they are and how they view the world. When they leave their heart-home, it feels as if they’re surrendering their identity too.

Moving back is more than a transition for many MKs—it’s a foundational dislocation and reinvention that can take years to define and process."

I read this and nod, Yes. I experienced all of this myself, when I moved back to America at age 14, after spending much of my childhood in Africa. It was hard. I grieved a lot. I struggled with belonging and identity. Yet for me, my passport matches with my country of birth. I left a house in San Jose, went and experienced life in Africa for six years, and then returned to that house in San Jose. I had a sense of place in America. My children do not.

America is, quite literally, a foreign country to them. Though they are the children of missionaries, they won't be returning "home," they will be immigrants moving to a new land. They will be leaving their home--possibly forever.

We told the kids the news in June, just a few weeks before we went to the States for the summer. That trip was a good gift. It helped them to process the idea of leaving while they were visiting America, yet knowing that they still would be able to return to Tanzania for another year.

A lot of big emotions came out this summer. On a walk through my parents' neighborhood one evening, one child (who doesn't often get angry) expressed a mountain of anger about what is ahead. You are taking me away from my country! Anger at us. At circumstances. Let it out, I said. It's okay to be angry

Another night, I heard a different child's muffled sobs late in the night. I sat on the floor next to the sleeping bag and just listened. I don't want to leave my friends! I'm not going to know anybody in America! I'm not going to have any friends! I could relate to that, so I cried too. I don't want to leave my friends either, I said.

My biggest girl spent all summer doodling, I am a TCK on every piece of paper her pencil met.

In the past, they've always been excited to visit the States. McDonald's, Disneyland, Target: The Promised Land of Shopping and High Fructose Corn Syrup makes everybody giddy. But when we told them we would be moving there? No excitement. At all. Just tears. And a resigned acceptance. I recently asked Grace if there is anything she is looking forward to in America. Well, my family is there, she said dully. I'll be happy to be closer to them. That was all.

Since we returned to Tanzania in August, life returned to normal. Our days are full and we want to live fully without the weight of leaving over our heads. Besides, though a year is short for me, it is long for a child. There will be time for grief later. But I know it's coming. 

I struggle to find a category to put my children into. They are not typical missionary kids, since they belong to Tanzania more than Gil and I do. We didn't bring them here; they already were here. Moving them to America is probably similar to adopting older children internationally, except not quite. Traditionally adopted kids are leaving an orphanage--something sad--and joining a new family--something redemptive. But my kids won't be a leaving a sad situation. Grace is middle school president this year, and got bumped up to the high school varsity soccer team--as an 8th grader. Josiah is the fastest kid in his class. They'll be leaving a life that they love--a perfect life in many ways--surrounded by kids just like them, kids they've known since they were babies.

One of my kids asked, Can I go to a non-bullying school in America? I can't promise them that. I can't tell them everything will be okay. I can't tell them it won't hurt. I can't guarantee to myself that this will all turn out right in the end, that this is the right choice, that I won't have any regrets. So I worry, What have I done to my children?

The hardest year in my childhood was the year I turned 14. Liberia was torn away from me, my family was relocated to Niger, but before we could get there, we were relocated to Ethiopia. I found myself in a new country with no friends, no familiarity. I was grieving Liberia deeply. There was no high school for me, so I sat day after day in the elementary school library, by myself, trying to teach myself French and Physics through correspondence classes. By December, I was begging to go to boarding school, so in January, I relocated to another country again, transitioned again, grieved again--this time I had friends, but not family. And then at the end of that school year, my family was evacuated from Ethiopia and we began life in the States....again.

My parents' plans had been for me to spend all my high school years in Liberia, in stability and sameness. Transitioning through three countries and two schooling systems in the course of one year was not part of that plan, and all of us shed a lot of tears and endured a lot of stress. But you know what? I look back on that year as crucially important in helping me become who I am now. I grew up that year. My faith in Jesus became my own. The people I met and the things I experienced, even though it was a short time, indelibly impacted my "becoming."

I cling to this memory as I look towards taking my children through the biggest transition of their lives. I can't make it easy on them, and that crushes this mama's heart. But easy isn't always best.

Just last night I read this quote from one of the wisest women I know--Elisabeth Elliot:
And we parents, I'm sure, suffer sometimes a hundred times more than our children suffer. Although we think that the situation is worse than it is, what we can never visualize is the way the grace of God goes to work in the person who needs it. 


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Leaving.



We will be leaving Tanzania in July. Leaving and moving back to America.

Yeah, I'm kind of freaking out by seeing that in writing.

From the very beginning, way back in 2001, when people asked Gil and I how long we would stay on the mission field, the answer was always "indefinitely." We always knew we were in it for the long haul. We wanted to be overseas missionaries. Period. That was our life goal. There was no end in sight.

Of course, that's not to say we never wanted to leave. Anyone who has read this blog for a number of years knows that there were plenty of times I pined away for a different life. But we were long-haulers. And God always gave us good reasons to stay.

But as the years went by and we made more and more of a life for ourselves here, growing deep friendships and millions of memories and seeing the fruit of long-term ministry, the desire to leave disappeared.

Gil and I had decided, long ago, that when our eldest, Grace, started college, we would relocate back to the States. That always seemed so far in the future that we didn't really give it much thought. But then our kids started growing up. And we realized, that as wonderful as their lives are here, that we are setting them up for some serious identity issues. They are Tanzanian-born and raised, yet they are culturally American. Well, sort of. More like, culturally international. Being at Haven of Peace Academy is a perfect environment for them--they are surrounded by kids who also have mixed-up cultural identities, taught by teachers from multiple countries, living in a sort of pseudo-world of people just like them. It's awesome. But it's a bubble that will eventually pop....and then what?

Schools like HOPAC work for a lot of missionary kids and third-culture kids, because those kids have a passport country to return to--a place that should, at least a little bit, feel like home. But our kids, though they have U.S. passports, have never really lived in the States. Their childhoods have been peppered with several months here and there of chaotic, wild-ride, living-out-of-a-suitcase visits to America. They have no idea what life there is really like, and it's definitely not home.

We have our issues, America and me. It's not like I'm totally thrilled that I'm handing my children an American identity. But like it or not, it is what it is. And Gil and I are hoping and praying that by starting this transition while our kids are still kids will help them in the long run.

So beginning a couple of years ago, Gil and I had hypothetical conversations about when would be a good time to relocate for the sake of our kids. Then, a year and a half ago, we were caught completely off guard by circumstances that would limit our time in Tanzania. There's a lot I couldn't write about, and I still need to be vague, but you might remember when I started writing about the uncertainty we were facing about our future. In fact, there were times when we wondered if our departure would be imminent.

I recently found this in a school journal Josiah wrote last year. This entry was from a little more than a year ago:



So yeah. There's that. 

Since we were already thinking that we would need to relocate to the States sooner or later, the other issues we've been facing have pushed us to make the decision for sooner. Thankfully, we do still have this school year. We are incredibly grateful that God made a way for us to still be here.

For a while now, Gil and I have talked seriously, but hypothetically, about leaving next July. Let me tell you something--it is much, much easier to talk about a hard decision hypothetically than it is to actually make the decision. But by June, we had finally made the decision. Getting the words out of my mouth was excruciating; it felt like someone else was talking. I cried when we told our ministry partners. I cried when I told my parents. I cried when we told our missions committee. I cried when I told my staff. And now I'm crying as I write this, because now it's in writing. Each time I say it--or write it--it becomes more real. 

Gil and I will have lived in Tanzania for sixteen out of our nineteen years of marriage. I was twenty-four years old when we moved here--twenty-four! I am now almost forty-three. It feels like a lifetime. I don't even recognize that twenty-four-year-old girl who moved here. So how can I possibly know who I will be in America? 

We will be starting over, totally and completely. The two cities where we have ties are some of the most expensive in America, so it's unlikely we will go there. We don't know where we will live; we don't know what we will do. We don't know where our kids will go to school. It is very strange to think about how one year from now (which isn't very long at all), my life will look absolutely, entirely different than it does at this moment.

I have a lot--a lot--of processing to do. Even though we've known since June, I couldn't write about it publicly until the news had gone through all the proper channels first. But despite how difficult it is to write about this, I am relieved to finally be able to. This space is where I process. I'm glad you'll be here too.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

No Worries

There has been a lot in the last several weeks that has not gone right in my world. And that's kind of an understatement.

The school where I serve, Haven of Peace Academy, has been hit with a number of major blindsides. We have suddenly been faced with circumstances that are completely out of our control, yet have huge implications for our school. We delayed the opening of school for two days, then for four days. Finally we opened a week late, thinking that the problems had been resolved, at least temporarily.

Except they weren't totally resolved. And now, as a result, I'm teaching third grade for the next several weeks....while still being principal. 

I was born as a Type-A, high achieving, task-oriented, determined person. Strong Willed should be my middle name. Just ask my parents. If I was told not to call people "stupid," I would look my mom straight in the eye and say, "Stupid." I knew the taste of soap in my mouth from a young age. If they told me not to get out of bed, they would have to hold my door shut until I fell asleep on the floor, exhausted from screaming. James Dobson's Strong-Willed Child didn't work on me. You could say that that being tightly-wound was built into my DNA.

God bless my long-suffering parents, who managed to help me channel that Strong Will into more constructive outlets. But I've always envied those people who have the ability to let things slide off their backs, seeing the bright side and staying optimistic in the most stressful of situations. Some people seem to be born that way (my eldest daughter being one of them), but that has never been me. Anxiety is often a nagging companion, ready to hijack my emotions when the slightest thing deviates from the plan. And if not Anxiety, then Stress stands ready and waiting to take her place. The temptation is there to resign myself: Well, that's the way I was born. I guess I just have to live with it. Or rather, I guess everyone around me has to live with the implications of being around a tightly-wound, stressed out person. 

Except, that source of Truth tells me otherwise:

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.

Seriously? This is possible? People can actually have no worries in a year of drought? This passage, among hundreds of others in Scripture, tells me that finding my confidence in God will bring me peace. Maybe that's true for others, but not high-strung people like me. Right?

Except.

A little over a week ago, as I sat up late at night and wondered what on earth I was going to do with third grade, the thought emerged that I needed to be the one to teach it. There just weren't any other viable options. And remarkably, despite what I would have predicted about my reaction, I was okay with this idea. Not thrilled, but okay. It was so unlike me to not freak out. Weird. 

I thought, I don't know what the heck God is doing, but I know he's got this. And I actually believed it. Like, my emotions believed it. It wasn't just head knowledge, but it was a fully developed belief. I was shocked.

The thing is, I always have known this. In the midst of seasons of Anxiety, I have told myself these things repeatedly, but it was like telling them to a brick wall. And as anyone knows who is in the midst of a Big Emotion, that emotion feels forever. Like it will never change, never back down, impenetrable to reason.

Yet I am fascinated by brain research on the concept of neuroplasticity--the ability of the brain to change. Like, the neurons of our brains can actually be rearranged by how we change our thinking. How utterly astonishing. Being anxious and stressed out might be programmed into my brain, but I can actually re-program it.

And that's what I'm seeing in myself. Whoa. It actually works. Lo and behold, if I tell myself the Truth enough times, even during those times when my emotions yell and scream and overpower that Truth, eventually the Truth starts sinking in. Those overpowering emotions don't have enough leverage to take over. Romans says: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Huh. What do you know? Science and the Bible are actually friends.

I wrote once that my emotions are like untamed horses. Yet those horses can be tamed. Of course, it would be stupid to think that I've arrived, that I'll never fall apart again, that I have become impenetrable. Haven of Peace Academy still is facing huge challenges. Many, many things are uncertain. I don't know how long I'll be trying to do two jobs. I don't know how many more blindsides are coming. But at least for now, my leaves are staying green in drought.

Well, at least green-ish. And that's something new.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Dear Tanzanian Friends, I'm Sorry for Being a Jerk Sometimes



Dear Tanzanian friends,

You know that feature on Facebook that says, "You have memories to look back on today?" I click on that notification hesitatingly, because more often than not, I wince at what I see. Oh my goodness--I used to write the most ridiculous things on Facebook. I guess everybody did, but many of my old posts reveal the ethnocentric, immature attitudes I had in my early years in Tanzania.

Complaining about electricity. Complaining about bugs. Complaining about dust. (Meanwhile, hoping that my friends back at home would realize what I saint I was for putting up with these "hardships.") Having a "white savior" mentality. Poking fun at the "amusing" things I saw in your country, many times arrogantly implying that, given the circumstances, I could do things so much better. Pointing out a lot that was wrong, and not enough that was right.

Ugh. How did you put up with me? Or, now that I know better, I should ask, How do you put up with me? Since I probably haven't changed as much as I think I have.

I was chatting with a Tanzanian co-worker (and friend) the other day, and we got onto the topic of missionaries and money. Even though this friend grew up around missionaries, she was fascinated to hear about how missionaries receive financial support from churches in their home countries. "I think a lot of the Tanzanians at Haven of Peace Academy have just assumed that you were getting paid more than we are," she told me. My jaw dropped to the ground, because HOPAC doesn't pay missionary teachers at all--we get a housing stipend, but not a salary. I immediately felt sick to my stomach. How many of our Tanzanian friends, for how many years, have assumed that we are getting rich off of their country?

Because here, though we live on support from back home, we are rich. Western missionaries in African countries live in this weird place where in our home countries, we are considered poor (like, churches invite us to use their food pantries which are for poor people), but when we are in Africa, we are incredibly privileged. Just the fact that we own a car and a couple of laptops and have the money available to fly back and forth between countries puts us in the top one percent wealthiest people in the world.

We wrestle with this tension all the time. But the truth is, as much as western missionaries come to Tanzania with this idea that we are "sacrificing" to be here, we really are vastly richer (both in money and opportunity) than almost all of the people who live here. So I can't imagine how annoying and condescending it must feel to you when we gripe about insignificant things that you have contentedly lived with your entire life.

We must seem pretty wimpy.

But that's not all. We came to your country with our own ideas about what you needed, not bothering (for a while, at least), to even ask you what you did need. We assumed that you needed us, without considering that we actually needed you even more. We had strategy meetings where we didn't include you; we wasted time and resources because we didn't ask for your help. While we were still figuring that out, you loved us anyway.

One Sunday at our African church, the pastor preached a message on the importance of missions. We were technically the only "missionaries" in the room, though I understood the message as a call to the whole congregation to be involved in mission work. Nevertheless, after the service, an African woman who I didn't know came up to me with an envelope of money. "God bless you for your service," she told me. I was speechless. It remains one of the most humbling moments of my life.

Then there's the problem that missionaries can be cliquish. Missionaries tend to gravitate towards each other, to friendships that are familiar and easy. A Tanzanian once told me, "The missionary community is hard to break into." I don't blame you for being hurt or offended by that. It shouldn't be that way. And yet, you chose to be my friend anyway.

I'm sure there are some of you reading this who would want to remind me of the good things missionaries have done in your country. You tend to be incredibly gracious. I'm not writing today to make a case for burning down missions. I'm not saying that my time here--or that of my fellow missionaries--is a waste. But there does tend to be an aura of sainthood that surrounds missionaries--both here and in our home countries, and I've had enough of that.

We are weak. Sometimes we are idiots. Sometimes we are downright arrogant and ethnocentric. Coming to that realization is really good for us, and should make us more effective.

We love your country, and we love you. Thanks for loving us, being patient with us while we learn, and gently helping us to see things from your perspective. We are so thankful for God's grace and your grace as we live out the privilege of being missionaries in your country.

Sincerely,

Amy


P.S. I write for A Life Overseas, which reaches thousands of missionaries and expat workers all around the globe. I would love to write a piece that contains insight and constructive criticism from locals in communities that have received missionaries. If that's you, would you consider writing to me at everyoneneedsalittlegrace@gmail.com with answers to these questions? I won't use any names, so feel free to be completely honest.

In what ways have foreign missionaries been the most helpful and harmful to your community? 
What are some of the biggest mistakes you've seen missionaries make, and how could they avoid those mistakes? 

Or, if you are a writer and want to submit your own post to A Life Overseas, ask me how to do that too!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Raising Kids Means More Than Just Being a Good Parent

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is a most delightful book that our whole family enjoyed, but the best part came here:

"Papa cleared his throat. 'Please, may I give a toast?...I have always believed that raising kids means more than just being a good parent and trying to do the right things,' Papa went on, his voice beginning to wobble. 'It means surrounding your kids with amazing people who can bring science experiments and jam cookies, laughter and joy, and beautiful experiences into their lives. From every part of my being, I want to thank you for giving me and my family the gifts of friendship and love."

My voice started to wobble as I read that part to my kids, because I feel the same way about our Haven of Peace Academy community.

They don't just teach my kids science, math, history, art, literature, and music.

They write them notes for their first day of school and leave cookies on their desks. They encourage them to run for Student Council. They turn our campus into a beautiful garden. They come to their soccer games and cheer them on. They recommend good library books and teach them to swim. They pray with my kids and for them, and passionately live a life of love in front of them. They take them into the community on service projects and into the rainforest. They deal patiently with my children's weaknesses, some of which can be pretty exhausting. They dry tears, and then shed some themselves when they see my children succeed.

At Haven of Peace Academy, my kids are surrounded by amazing people who bring beautiful experiences into their lives. And from every part of my being, I want to thank this staff for giving me and my family the gifts of friendship and love.

Haven of Peace Academy Staff, 2019-2020 



Yes, it really is this beautiful.

Ricky (interim director), me, Grace (middle school principal, who delivered her baby four days after this picture was taken (!), and Matt (high school principal)






First day!




Johnny, second grade

Taking his job seriously to show the new girl around

Lily, fifth grade



They're actually not supposed to run on the sidewalk, but it was the first day. Still working on that.