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Missionary kids encouraged to build on multicultural strengths
July 30, 2004
Syracuse, Ind. — “The Bible is full of third-culture kids, people like Moses, Joseph and even Jesus,” said Alicia Horst, one of the leaders of the children’s ministry at this year's mission seminar jointly sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada and Witness Mennonite Mission Network. (See related story, "Mission seminar 2004 celebrates past, prepares for future")
The two church bodies held their annual seminar for international mission workers in Syracuse, Ind., from July 17-23. The seminar served as a time of renewal and policy discussions for missionaries returning to North America after several years of ministry on other continents and as a time of orientation for workers beginning a mission career. Of this year’s 67 participants, 21 were missionary kids (MKs).
“[Third-culture] people with multicultural understandings were caught in the middle of great conflicts but, eventually, became leaders of both the nations they embodied," Horst said.
The term “third-culture kids” describes children who have spent a significant portion of their lives outside their parents’ culture. It includes children of mission workers, diplomats and military personnel.
“All the cultures in which they have lived blend in the lives of third-culture kids," Horst said. “This creates ease in crossing cultures but a sense of belonging to none. However, there is an instant identification of third-culture kids with each other, no matter which country they grew up in.”
Horst co-founded Menno Kameleons with Susanna Gerber Lepley in 2000 to provide support for MKs and help them process re-entry issues when they return to their parents’ homeland, often a country that feels foreign to children who have grown up in another culture.
“We identify with the chameleon, a symbol of flexibility with great powers of observation, and the green color, a mixture of blue and yellow, yet, different from either blue or yellow,” Horst said.
Horst and Gerber Lepley, MKs themselves, met in Harrisonburg, Va., and discovered they had dealt with similar issues when they moved to North America as 13-year-olds. They began to establish a network connecting MKs with each other over meals and during mission worker retreats.
This network has become Menno Kameleons. Three of the seven Menno Kameleons staff people directed MK activity during the Syracuse mission seminar.
Bethany Tobin, a junior studying art and religion at James Madison University, worked with MKs 10 years and under. Steve Horst, Alicia Horst’s brother and a junior at Eastern Mennonite University with a major in music and Bible, led a group of 10- and 11-year-old boys. Alicia Horst facilitated interaction with the young-adult MKs. Currently studying at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, one of her interests is to discern the influence of culture in spiritual formation.
“We don’t see our work as child care, but as a ministry to these kids with their own unique needs,” Steve Horst said.
Steve Horst, who was born in Italy, came to the United States at age 11. He felt ill-prepared to enter middle school in Virginia where his family located. “There was a lack of resources available to missionary families at that time about how to get their kids ready for this kind of transition,” Horst said.
“I felt like I was sticking out. I spoke English with an accent. I didn’t really understand the system of changing classrooms for each subject. I got lost in the halls between classes and had never met a locker before.”
Steve related to a group of five boys at the mission seminar who lived in South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
“I don’t know how much I’ll get them to talk about what’s going on internally,” Horst said, “but I want to give them a heads-up about some of the new things they will encounter in North America. I want to help them connect with other MKs and begin friendships.”
In his ministry, Horst hopes to encourage MKs to process experiences they are going through as they work on crafts. As the boys in Horst’s group enthusiastically fashioned rafts out of Popsicle sticks, Horst spoke of “rafting” goodbyes; “r” symbolized reconciliation, “a” – affirmation, “f” – farewell and “t” – thinking ahead.
“I want to help them appreciate the richness of their situation [of being able to operate in two cultures] and to see the good in whatever culture they are living in. These kids have special strengths that we want to help maximize,” Horst said.
Horst identified these strengths as the ability to identify with diverse people and cultures, being multilingual, and adaptability.
The challenges MKs face include struggles in maintaining deep relationships due to the mobility of their families and identity issues.
“They have questions about, ‘Who am I? Where am I from? How do I fit in this culture?’ Mission families often seem to move during MKs’ pre-adolescence and adolescence because of schooling for their children. This is the most difficult time to [make the] transition because kids are building lifetime relationships at this point in their lives,” Horst said.
Christine Lindell Detweiler, mother of one of the boys in Steve Horst’s group, grew up as an MK in Africa. “Because of my background, I just assume MKs will do fine, but I appreciate how Menno Kameleons are so intentional about getting us to think about ways to help our children feel at home in both cultures.
“In Benin, our kids are so different from the neighbor children, even though they are the best of friends. In this kind of [seminar] setting, there’s a bonding that happens. Unlike most North American kids, these kids understand that the world is much bigger than the community in which they happen to live,” Lindell Detweiler said.
Steve Horst enjoys working with MKs. “It helps me to continue my own process of adapting and coping,” he said.
Menno Kameleons personnel have responded to ministry requests in Canada, Hong Kong, Italy, Thailand and the United States. “We mostly work with MKs but what we have to share would be appropriate for all third-culture kids,” Horst said.