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.



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 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.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Why I'm Still an Evangelical

Sometimes I sit inside my head and contemplate how miraculous it is that I exist.

My own consciousness is the most real thing in the universe to me. How utterly extraordinary. I, Amy Medina, didn't exist before the spring of 1976, and then suddenly, I existed. Inside this assortment of blood and bones is a consciousness, an individual person who can think and feel and evaluate.

The more I marvel at my own soul's existence, the more certain I am of God's existence. Something as astonishing as my own consciousness could not have just happened by raw chance. It would only be possible if there was a larger, more powerful, more all-knowing consciousness who existed long before me and separately from me: God.

That's settled for me. But.....who is this God? Can we know him?  Some say no, and are content to live with the unknowing. That's never been me.

Since I was a teenager, I've had an insatiable desire to know. Not just feel, not just assume, but to know. I've never been able to ignore the hard questions, no matter how much they scare me or shake me or make me uncomfortable. Why do you believe what you believe? Is it just because you were raised this way? Is it just because you want to please people? Is is just because you've made a name for yourself in this belief system and you would lose too much to leave it?

Sometimes I wish I didn't think so much, that my mind would just let me rest. Yet I must have answers. And those questions aren't the kind that I answer once and then move on with life. I'm friends with some who are convinced of very different belief systems, and that's unsettling. I hear about leaders abandoning the faith that I have held fast to. I see those who claim to share my beliefs but also are capable of despicable things. I encounter unspeakable evil and suffering. And once again, I question. Who is this God? Can I know him? Does he care?

An evangelical, by common definition, is a Christian who reads the Bible as if it's actually true. This doesn't mean that all evangelicals agree on everything the Bible says, but it does mean that we use it as our foundation of Truth. It's a way of seeing and understanding the world: A worldview.

Unfortunately the term "evangelical" in America has been covered with the muck of politics, which is, actually, unbiblical, since Jesus made it clear that Christians' first allegiance is to the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of man. Also unfortunately, there are always a number of very public "evangelicals" who drag the name through the mud with repulsive acts. (Which, actually, shouldn't surprise us, since as evangelicals, we understand the heinousness of sin.) As a result, many who once called themselves evangelical are abandoning the description. Sometimes they are just dropping the name; sometimes they're dropping the entire belief system.

But I'm sticking with it. Because for now, there's no better way to describe what I believe.

Back to my question: Can we know this God? The Bible says Yes. This doesn't mean, of course, that the Bible is without complications. Some parts of it are really hard to understand. Some parts are downright disturbing. But when taken as a big picture, the Bible is a comprehensive narrative of the history of the universe. The story of reality. It answers all of life's biggest questions, the ones we all must grapple with: Where did we come from? Why is everything so broken? And what hope is there of fixing it?

The longer I live, the more I experience of life, the more I study this extraordinary book, the more it makes sense. The more it resonates with what I actually see in the world. That doesn't mean that I don't still have doubts. It doesn't mean that I'm still not disturbed by some of what I read or see. But if this life is a jigsaw puzzle of disjointed and often contradictory pieces of information, the Bible has helped me to sort them out, lay them in lines, and fit them together. And the further I walk down this road, the more pieces snap into place.

There is no real beauty, joy, or love if there is no Creator.
There is no inherent value in human life if we were not created in the image of God.
There is no moral system that governs our lives--no right or wrong--if there is no authority of Scripture.
There is no purpose of existence without the overarching story of a sovereign God.
There is no hope of redemption without the cross of Christ.

In the book of John, chapter 6, there's a turning point in Jesus' ministry. He talked about how following him meant a complete, wholehearted, dependence on him for life and salvation--as dependent as we are on food. Many of his followers were offended. "On hearing this, many of his disciples said, 'This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"

And then: "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 'You do not want to leave too, do you?' Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

I see myself there, grumbling: Why should I trust you, God? Why should I submit myself to Christ's authority? I can't comprehend why you let that happen, why you put that passage in the Bible, why you allow so much suffering, why you won't answer this prayer, why that person walked away.

Yet over and over again, I come back to Peter's response. Where else would I go? And it's not because this was how I was raised, or I am afraid of what people will think, or this is what is comfortable. I believe because there is no where else to go. Again and again, I explore other belief systems. Again and again, I ask myself the hard questions. And again I am convinced: This is the Truth. What the Bible teaches is Truer Truth than any other belief system I have encountered.

I don't say this arrogantly, because my faith has wavered more times than I care to admit. I'm like the father who cried, "I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" while begging God to show up. But I say it as one whose life has been transformed by the truth found in the Bible, and I encourage others to consider it. I am simply a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.*

*Originally attributed to D.T. Niles

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Should We Have Waited Until We Were Older?

Gil and I met at 21 years old, married at 23, and were living in Tanzania by 24. We had been married all of nine months before we moved overseas. We had gotten to know each other as co-leaders of a cross-cultural ministry in California, and our desire to be missionaries was one of the main factors that brought us together. Our mission organization had vetted us, interviewed us, and sent us to two weeks of training. I had spent half of my childhood as an MK, and both of us had spent several years in ministry during college. As far as we were concerned, we were ready.


That didn’t keep us from crashing and burning. We were too outspoken about our culturally-insensitive opinions and therefore offended local friends. We over-committed ourselves to ministries that kept us apart from each other too much of the time, which strained our relationship. We naively expected too much change too quickly in new believers’ lives, which led to disappointment and disillusionment. After two years, we were depressed and demoralized.
Many times over the past twenty years, we’ve seen many new missionaries arrive on the field who were older and more experienced than we were, and they didn’t seem to struggle nearly as much as we did. I’ve asked myself, “Should we have waited until we were older?” Would another couple of years of married life in the States have spared us from heartache? Would more maturity have kept us from making so many naive mistakes? Would we have known how to set better boundaries?
Of course, there is no “perfect” age to move overseas for the first time, and there are certainly pros and cons to relocating at each stage of life. But if you are young, pursuing missions, and asking yourself, “Should I wait until I am older?” or if you are a parent or a church leader of someone who is asking that question, here are my thoughts.
Consider the advantages:
Our energy and passion gave us perseverance. I remember the first time I went roller skating when I was eight. I must have fallen a few dozen times, but I just kept getting right back up again. These days? I think just one fall would send me to the sidelines for good. There’s a God-given quality of youthful idealism that keeps us going when things get tough. Yes, Gil and I fell hard. Our most difficult years in Tanzania were definitely those first two years. If I had experienced them at an older age, I might have given up. But our youth gave us perseverance, and taught us and toughened us for the years ahead.
We were more willing to be adventurous, try new things, and put up with hard conditions. Twelve-hour bus trip? No problem. All-night youth lock-in that included 30 hours of fasting? Sure! Back then we thrived on new experiences, crazy outings, and busy schedules. We didn’t have kids and had the freedom to follow every opportunity. Those first two years, my schedule involved getting up at 4:45 every morning and coming home 12 hours later. These days, I get tired just thinking about the stuff we did in those younger years. But now that I’m older, I love having young people on my team for their willingness and ability to do whatever needs to get done.
We built our family while we were already living overseas. It can be tough for women with young children to start their experience overseas as a stay-at-home-mom. Learning language and getting into the culture is a challenge with kids at home. And as an MK educator, I’ve seen the agony of parents relocating their children overseas. Gil and I were able to avoid that by building our family after we had already adapted to life in Tanzania, and I had several years to settle into life and be in ministry full time before I needed to devote more time to my family.
Minimize the disadvantages:
Prepare, prepare, prepare. Get a degree in an area that God can use to open doors for foreign visas–or at least pave the way for relationships. Get some Bible training–either at a college or through rigorous discipleship. Take a Perspectives course. Read books. Learn to manage your finances, cook, and communicate well verbally and in writing. And most importantly–serve. Serve in your local church and serve in your community. All of this can happen even in high school–so start now!
Don’t go without a mentor, and be humble enough to listen and change. This should be standard advice for any cross-cultural worker, but the younger you are, the more important it is. This doesn’t mean that everyone older than you is more right than you. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have any ideas to contribute–because I hope you do! But remember that experience usually builds wisdom. Slow down, listen, be a learner. Change takes time. Be patient.
Be open to staying at least five years. Here’s where things get radical. In an era where two weeks is the standard commitment to missions, a year or two sounds positively eternal. Anything longer than that sounds crazy. For us, the first two years were like boot camp, so it would have been a shame to get through it and not stay longer. The longer we stayed, our impact increased exponentially. Life got easier and our mistakes were fewer. What started as an experience became life. Most mission fields desperately need long-term workers. Why can’t that be you? 
This article first appeared at A Life Overseas.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

I am a False Prophet

Worriers are false prophets.

I am a false prophet. I am constantly predicting things that don't come true.

I think about my husband dying and how I would possibly be able to raise these children by myself. I think about my children's choices and imagine them on the street or behind bars or in my basement (supposing I have a basement). I think about waking up to my house on fire. I think about the economy failing. The government failing. The airplane failing. Myself failing.

I wake up in the middle of the night and think about how miserable I'll feel the next day if I don't get back to sleep. I think about about whether I will make the wrong decision, about whether I already did make the wrong decision, about whether I said the wrong thing or wrote the wrong thing or offended him or hurt her. 

Contemplating these things isn't necessarily a bad thing, if all I was doing was contemplating. A wise person thinks ahead, after all, and some introspection is good for the soul. 

But I don't just think about these things. I feel the emotion as if they are definitely going to happen, or are already happening. My mind and body react as if the terrible thing I imagine has already come true.

How many false predictions have I made to myself over my lifetime? Millions? Billions? How much adrenaline has been unnecessarily let loose in my body? How many hours of sleep have I lost just by worrying about how many hours of sleep I might lose? How much ibuprofen have I taken for headaches caused by catastrophic situations that never materialized?  

I'm wrong 99% of the time, and yet pathetically, I still continue to make predictions. I play the lottery with my worries. Sure, it didn't happen the last 5000 times, but it just might this time. I'm like the foolish person who shells out $3.99 a minute to have a psychic give another wrong glimpse into the future, just in case this time it's right. 

And what about that one percent? Those very, very few times when the worst does happen, what then? 

Elyse Fitzpatrick wrote, "You know, the problem with fears that exist only in our imagination is that, since they aren't real, we must face them alone. God's grace isn't available to help us overcome imaginary problems that reside only in our mind. He will help us to put these imagined fears to death, but it's only in the real world that His power is effective to uphold us in trouble. It's only when He calls us to go through difficult times that His power is present to protect, comfort, and strengthen us." (Overcoming Fear, Worry, and Anxiety

Oh yeah. There's that.

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Your heavenly Father knows [what you need]. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
~ Jesus

Monday, August 5, 2019

Dear America, You and I Have a Complicated Relationship

Dear America,

You and I have a complicated relationship.

You gave me my citizenship when I was born. In fact, my dad was serving at an army base when I arrived one freezing winter day in New Jersey. My passport is American navy blue. I belong to you, whether I like it or not.

Yet for over half my life, I've lived in other countries. Pieces of those places have latched themselves onto me. I've never wholly and completely been one of your own, which has left me feeling like an outsider. But like the astronauts who have the privilege of seeing our planet as a small blue marble, I've had the privilege of seeing you, for many years, from the outside. A different perspective is always a privilege.

Back when I was younger and much more of a black-and-white thinker, I have to admit that mostly I was just critical of you. I focused only on your negatives, and other countries seemed much more unique and interesting. So even while I reaped enormous benefits from belonging to you, I distanced my identity away from you. But now that I'm older and wiser? Well, how I feel about you is much more complicated.

We're visiting America this summer, and the other night, we were driving up a windy stretch of mountain highway, and the traffic stopped dead. We could tell that just around the bend ahead, a bad accident had happened. But as we sat and waited behind the thousands of other brake lights impatiently twinkling in the night, a looming light appeared in the sky. And we watched, in awe, as a helicopter circled slowly and then landed. It was only fifteen minutes later that it rose into the air again and the traffic started moving.

And I thought, This is why America is amazing. 

Then I thought, That's a new perspective for me. 

I've always been critical of your consumerism and hoarding, your ability to produce so much junk that even developing countries don't want the excess. Yet I also see your capitalism and how it has brought an unprecedented standard of living to millions of people, and I want that for other countries too.

I despair over your debauchery--you fuel a massive, perverse online industry that exploits women and children, college campuses that are nothing but one big party, and sexuality that has hijacked how we define identity. Yet I see your freedom--to own property, to start churches, to send your daughters to college, even to publicly criticize your president--freedom that most in the world don't even dream of. And I realize that this freedom is inextricably connected to allowing people to make bad choices.

I hate that I have to tell my 11-year-old African son that when he is in America, he can't put up his hoodie in public. I hate that I have to explain to him why. Yet, I love that I could take my daughter (who happens to be an American immigrant) to the brilliant musical Hamilton and she could see a stage full of actors portraying the Founding Fathers--and who share her skin tone.

I love how you are one nation made up of people from many nations, a country founded on ideals, not ethnic groups. Yet sometimes it remains an ideal, not a reality, as fear and complacency keep neighborhoods and churches in their own separate corners. But other times, it doesn't, and that gives me hope.

I used to view your suburbs with disdain, with their soul-sucking uniformity and monotony. Now I see how those neat little lines of houses represent a miracle in human history--millions of ordinary people living with plumbing, electricity, security, independence. How easy it is for me to forget how I benefited from that "ordinary" life--riding bikes around my parents' cozy cul-de-sac without any worry that I might not eat that night, or that soldiers might come and burn it all down.

It's easy to crave adventure and uniqueness from within the safe confines of that blue American passport. Yes, I love living overseas, and it is a privilege. But you know what I've realized? It's even more of a privilege to enjoy the benefits of being American while living overseas.

And that humbles me. It makes me less critical and more thankful.

You, my country, are complicated. But so is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a fallen world.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

You Were Right, Dad

I picked up our Round Table pizza last night, and I thought about Frank.

The summer I was sixteen, my dad declared that I would be getting a summer job. He helped me write a resume, and one Saturday morning, drove me around to local businesses, stopped the car, and forced me to get out and introduce myself to managers. I was not an outgoing person, but my dad believed in throwing me in the deep end.

One of those places was Copy Plus, a small store owned by Frank, which was just a few blocks away from my home in California. I got the job that same week. (It was either that or the candy store at the mall. Given these options, I figured a copy store was going to be better than any mall job. I was right.)

Frank was my first boss. He was from Philly, and he often told me the story of the gunshot wound on his elbow. One of my first lessons from him was that if anyone ever came into the store with a gun, I should open the cash register and back away. My wide-eyed little sixteen-year-old suburban self wondered what I had gotten myself into. After all, this was my neighborhood shopping center, not the ghetto.

Frank had a big laugh and an even bigger heart. He looked after me like a daughter, and he shared his business and his life with me. Every morning, he would tell me how much money we made the day before. We weren't Kinko's, he would tell me, but Copy Plus always went the extra mile.

It was just making copies, I thought--but with Frank, it wasn't just making copies. Frank taught me how to run and service his giant, high speed copy machines, and I learned the thrill of getting them all working at the same time. The rhythmic chanting of those machines were the background noise as he taught me how to make our customers happy. I learned how to smile at strangers, how to solve people's problems, how to meet deadlines. I experienced the exhilaration of handing a satisfied customer a nice, neat box of a job well done.

Frank showed me what good business looks like. What a good boss looks like.

Now that I think about it, I learned a lot about life at Copy Plus. Parts of Frank are indelibly a part of who I am.

Over the next several years, I quit that job four times--to go back to high school, to go to college, to be a camp counselor, to be a student teacher. Whenever I visited home, I would visit Frank, and every time, he asked me if I wanted my job back. He hired me back--four times. Copy Plus became a part of my history.

Round Table Pizza was just two doors down from Copy Plus. Round Table is still there, but there's a UPS store where Copy Plus used to be. My parents have lived in the same house since I was two years old (minus the years in Africa), so when we visit, we order our pizza from the same Round Table. Last night, picking up the pizza, I lingered in front of that UPS store, and I remembered Frank. And I remembered that day my dad forced me out of that car with my resume. He told me that one day when I was older, I would thank him for it. He was right.