When we first decided to serve with EMM, we didn’t expect to spend time in two very different contexts in the course of our three-year term. We started out in a town setting in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where we spent almost two years. It was in our crowded neighborhood where we learned to greet community members on our walks to the local markets, where we asked for cooking tips on local, previously unknown vegetables from vendors. We progressed from a shopkeeper kindly giving me back the correct change (instead of keeping the extra due to my fumbling early Swahili) to being able to proudly introduce visitors from the United States to him as part of the community where we belonged.
Partway into our second year in Zanzibar, we were asked to consider a transition to Nairobi, Kenya, for my husband Stuart to manage Amani Gardens Inn, the EMM-connected guesthouse. Nairobi, while still in East Africa, felt very different from our former small-town setting. Nairobi is fast-paced and cosmopolitan, highly international, and multicultural, while in Zanzibar, we lived intentionally in a Zanzibari neighborhood. I was initially hesitant to move, feeling like we were only just experiencing the benefits of being settled in this cross-cultural setting in Zanzibar. As a family doctor, I had found ways to be useful in helping to deliver babies at a rural community hospital, and moving would mean re-learning how to do medicine again in a new context. Also, since I had our third child back in the U.S. due to a high-risk pregnancy about a year after our arrival in Zanzibar, we had also just transitioned back “home” from our sojourn in our passport country.
But in the end, we decided to make the move. Almost 10 months later, we unexpectedly returned from Nairobi to the U.S. a few months early due to the coronavirus pandemic. The following are some lessons learned in those transitions.
He is there
First, I learned that God is at home wherever we are. When we first arrived in Zanzibar, I felt a bit overwhelmed by a context that was 98 to 99 percent Muslim. As I reflected on this with my spiritual director, I felt like God echoed to me what I heard countless times as I walked down the streets from vendors: “Karibu” (welcome). When I thought about what this meant, I realized that God is already in each place I go; I am not responsible to bring Him there, and He doesn’t leave when I do. He is also already at work in each place, and His work — including the work He does through me — is sustainable and long-lasting. I am not at work by myself, solely responsible for the outcomes. Finally, this place, so new and foreign-feeling to me at the time, is His place. As King, He will bring His full and complete reign here as everywhere on our earth. The end result is already known.
Second, I was amazed by how well our children seemed to weather each transition. My mom (a seasoned mother, grandmother, previous Third Culture Kid/Missionary Kid, and missionary herself) explained to me that for children, at least young children, home is where Mom and Dad are. Thus, if our presence and loving relationship are stable, our children will be more likely to transition smoothly. (This is not, of course, to propose that the corollary is true that every child of missionaries who struggles with transitions reflects a less-than-optimal home life!) This concept has profound significance for our own identity and belonging as Christians. Is our relationship with our Father the grounding and stabilizing influence in our lives? When we struggle with a transition, could it be helpful to go back to that relationship? Can we give the situation some time, allowing God to speak His undergirding love into our hearts so that we move out into life from that place of peace and security? How does it change our interactions with family, country, etc., if our primary home identity is as children of the King?
The beauty of community
Third, I repeatedly experienced the importance and power of discernment in community. I didn’t expect to be making five international transitions in the space of three years, and the accompanying discernment process for three of those transitions lasted months with lots of thought, prayer, investigation, seeking counsel, and conversations with my husband as we sought unity on what God wanted us to do next. Our Missionary Support Team was repeatedly invaluable in those processes as they prayed for us, helped us talk and think through the decisions, shared their insights about their understanding of who we were, and provided emotional and spiritual support. These dear friends were instrumental in our ability to move forward in those decisions with peace and unity in our hearts and marriage.
Fourth and finally, I found that a willingness to move as you discern God leading can be rewarding beyond what you expect. I was hesitant about our move to Nairobi. However, from our first vision trip, we met like-minded believers with whom we and our kids connected instantly. We were amazed by the way God seemed to be orchestrating our steps ahead of us. We were able to form warm, supportive relationships with both nationals and ex-pats nearly immediately after arrival. We furnished our nearly-empty apartment in a few weeks. We both had fulfilling new ways to use our gifts and abilities — Stuart at Amani Gardens Inn as the manager and me in running a discipleship book study group for several couples from church and a Bible study for women.
As you think about moving in your own life — whether moving cross-culturally to another country or into a relationship with someone different from you, whether moving physically to a new location or spiritually to a new stage of life — I hope you find my own lessons helpful. May you find that God welcomes you as you move forward, reminding you of His presence with us always. May you be open to invitations in the newness of your situation to make God your home and to lean on your identity as His dearly-beloved child as the grounding truth out of which you act. May you seek and find a community to help you discern the big decisions ahead of you, grateful He can speak to any and all of us. May you find obedience, even in hard or stressful transitions, rewarding and deeply satisfying beyond what you could have imagined.