“How are you doing?” my professor asks me as I enter the empty classroom.
“They’re bombing my city” is all I can say.
“Oh no,” they mutter.
They remember where I’m from.
— A portion of a poem by Abigail de Vuyst, age 18, American missionary kid from Ukraine
American missionary kid and college freshman Abigail de Vuyst already missed her lifelong home of Ukraine while figuring out college classes in Michigan. Now she spends her days worrying about her friends. Are they safe in their cellars? Will they be able to get out?
“It’s hard just sitting and watching everything happen,” she said.
Home is a complex concept for missionary kids (MKs)—whose citizenship is in one country and whose upbringing is in another. The MK’s world, even in the best of circumstances, is “shifting sand,” said MK advocate and author Michele Phoenix. And now?
“We’re wrecked,” said Annie Wiltse, a teacher at the international school in Ukraine that de Vuyst used to attend. She and her students had just 24 hours to pack for their evacuation. “This is … in some cases the only home that they have ever known.”
Records aren’t available for the number of kids living with their missionary parents in other countries, but World Christian Database’s 2020 figures show there were an estimated 6,000 Christian missionaries in Ukraine and 425,000 foreign missionaries around the world.
Some American missionary kids, feeling powerless, are stuck in the United States because of COVID-19 restrictions, others are waiting in Kansas for an unknown amount of time because of kidnappings in Haiti, and many kids who make the transition to colleges each fall are leaving home countries in turmoil.
MKs grow up traveling the world, enjoying rich cultural experiences, and often staying connected to strong communities of faith. But even for those raised in countries not torn by war, that’s not the whole story, experts say. Many experience losses, identity confusion, faith crises, and neglect.
In fact, latest research indicates the level of trauma missionary kids experience is much higher—nearly double—than that of kids who grow up in the United States. And yet their needs are often overlooked by missions agencies, local church partners, and even their own families on and off the mission field.
“It is a myth that children are naturally resilient,” said author and MK advocate Lauren Wells. “Resiliency has to be built and nurtured and cared for.”
I’m a third-culture military kid myself, a parent of three MKs from our 14 years serving in Indonesia, and a journalist who has also written for an MK audience for the past couple of years since returning to the United States. I thought I understood well the difficulties they face. But my interview with Wells and research about MK trauma and neglect were eye-opening.
Thankfully, there is a growing contingency in the missions community who are finally starting to pay attention to the critical needs of missionary kids. Experts, advocates, and supporters—many of them former MKs themselves—are offering guidance on how to address the unique problems MKs face.
Not only must missions communities be willing to talk about difficult topics, but they must also make plans to provide longer-term intentional care, these experts say. And the global church has an important role to play in that effort.
Too often, missionary families are seen as “super Christians” who are invulnerable to the negative consequences arising from their many sacrifices for the mission of God. And so, while missions agencies have a special responsibility to help MKs, local churches who partner with missionaries must also recognize that these kids are paying a high price for their parents’ commitment to God’s kingdom.
“The church needs to be aware that missionary kids need to be cared for, not put up on a pedestal,” Wells said.
The trauma behind the smiles
Missionary kids are just one type of third culture kid (TCK), a term coined by anthropologists John and Ruth Useem in the 1950s to describe kids who don’t identify fully with the cultures of their parents and of the country where they live, forming instead a “third culture.”
They experience frequent transition and are expected to move to their parents’ country of origin, also termed their “passport country,” to attend university. TCKs are known for the ability to interact well with various cultures and be bridge builders, but one question will stump them: “Where are you from?”
“There are so many different answers to that simple question,” said author Dan Stringer, an MK who grew up in Nepal, Philippines, Democratic Republic of Congo, Canada, and the United States. “Where was I born? Where are my parents from? Where do I know the best? Where do I currently live?”
Such transitions can be traumatic experiences—especially when the losses include not only friends and a city but also a country, language, culture, foods, sounds, and smells. Which is why MKs and TCKs often show signs of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as adults, Wells said.
“It’s a loss of a universe every time,” said Phoenix.
Now advocates have the research to educate parents and organizations. Preliminary findings from TCK Training show that TCKs’ adverse childhood experience (ACE) scores are higher than what American kids experience, said Wells, CEO of the organization, who led the research with Tanya Crossman. About 20 percent of adult TCKs report experiencing four or more ACE factors—compared to about 12.5 percent of the general US population.
The differences are particularly surprising considering that most higher ACE scores from the States often come from a lower socioeconomic status, Wells said. Yet many TCKs grow up with comparative privilege.
“Just because things look really great does not mean they’re not exposed to an even higher level of developmental trauma,” Wells said.
The study, which will be published later this year, shows unsurprisingly that TCKs see a lot of death and poverty, Wells reported. But some of the traumas are unexpected. For instance, if they’ve been left with a nanny who doesn’t speak their language—a common practice seen as an opportunity for the language immersion it provides—some TCKs may experience it as emotional neglect.
“From the child’s perspective, the person who’s supposed to be caring for my needs can’t understand anything I’m saying and there isn’t anybody around who I can ask for that from,” Wells said. “Sometimes we can mitigate these traumas by educating on things like that.”
Family neglect was also measured in the study. About 32 percent of TCKs believed their parents didn’t think they were special or important, while 24 percent felt that their families didn’t support each other, Wells reported.
In the recent past, various missions organizations required parents to send their children to boarding schools from age six on, and some parents still opt to do so for the quality of education. But for some TCKs, that can feel like abandonment by both their parents and God, advocates say.
This problem is not limited to the United States. In fact, missionary kids are increasingly nonwhite and non-American, experts say. The Global South now collectively sends out more missionaries than the United States does, according to the World Christian Database’s 2020 estimates.
Brazil is the second-largest sending country after the United States, with an estimated 40,000 outgoing missionaries. Brazilians often join an English-speaking team in other countries. Their kids may attend English-speaking international schools, which adds an additional language they must learn, said Alicia Macedo, who is the MK coordinator for the Brazilian Association of Cross-Cultural Missions.
Regardless of where these kids are from, however, the problems they face are largely universal.
When God is your employer
For missionary kids, the answer to the question of who sent them overseas is much clearer: God did. That adds complexity—and sometimes pain—to the MK experience.
Many missionary kids have grown up in a culture in which negative feelings are dismissed. They feel lost in the bigger purpose of God’s mission, and their grief gets hidden away. God is not seen as a safe place for some, said Wells.
“The faith piece for MKs makes them unique because God is the instigator of all the greatness and all the painful parts of growing up cross-culturally in ministry,” Phoenix said. “Everything in their life is faith-related.”
I first talked to Phoenix when she was presenting at an education conference in Thailand. I was a homeschooling mom of MKs living in Borneo, trying to figure out how to better teach my struggling reader. She opened my eyes to some of these deeper struggles.
Even when MKs report more positive faith and family experiences, advocates say, they still need the freedom to examine their beliefs.
“I’ve been doing that from the beginning because I’ve been making comparisons,” said Rachel Kuo, an American MK who grew up in Hong Kong and Taiwan but made visits to the States. “I would be baffled at the American church and wonder, Why is it so prosperous? Why does it meet in such big buildings?”
Some MKs have used their own processing as an invitation to the American church to see a bigger picture. Stringer, who wrote Struggling with Evangelicalism: Why I Want to Leave and What It Takes to Stay, uses the diversity of his Christian experiences to encourage American Christians in their faith.
“I’ve experienced how much faith varies by geography, by race,” he said. “I know that we’re just one place on a big map. It helps me sift through what are the essential things that any Christian would value and what are the things that are unique to America.”
Many MKs who wrestle with trauma or abuse in missions, their sexuality or mental health, end up desconstructing their faith, Phoenix said.
For instance, when Josh’s family moved to East Asia when he was six, he lost all his friends in the US. (Josh’s last name is being withheld for security reasons because of where his parents still serve.) It took him years to learn the language well enough to make local friends in his new home.
Years later, he moved back to the States for college and struggled to find his place once again. And just as he was trying to adjust to his new life, he lost a close MK friend to suicide. He began struggling with depression and couldn’t find support in the church. He blamed God and walked away from the faith.
“Of all the people who could actually claim to be God’s children, I feel like TCKs should have the best right to that because we’re a nomadic people group, traveling in his name, bringing his word and life to the nations,” he said. “And yet we’re the ones that are seemingly cast aside and not loved and not taken care of by the church body.”
Another MK encouraged him, and he eventually returned to faith and the church. Now he’s preparing to move with his wife to Spain to support MKs in the mission field. Their goal is to help MKs process traumatic experiences as kids before they harden into obstacles that must be overcome as adults.
Hidden immigrants on deep journeys
There are many ways for local churches to come alongside missionary kids in their networks.
For instance, what if every congregation took the time to reach out to the missionary families they partner with—asking specifically how they can support the children? Or what if churches hosted special events for these kids whenever their families returned for furlough or “home assignment”?
It could be as simple as a family with similarly aged kids taking them out to lunch after service or bringing their teenagers to youth group or church camps. And in the age of social media, there are many ways to continue to stay in touch with MKs who are struggling abroad.
As for MKs who return to the States for college and join a nearby church, it may take a different approach—being willing to ask deeper questions and being prepared to hear difficult answers.
“Listening is hospitality,” said Rachel Kuo.
Ask how MKs are truly doing and what has been hard about their experiences, advocates say. But also set aside your differences and listen to people who come from another world of experience, Kuo urged.
Another piece was mentioned by several of the people I interviewed for this story: MKs today are asking, How can missionaries and the churches supporting them reach out to prostitutes in Asia but not welcome well people who think and believe differently into their own lives?
MKs’ journeys aren’t just wide, spanning the globe, but also deep, Kuo said. They’re trying to find themselves when their families sit in the middle of big, complex conversations involving missions and colonialism, institutional racism, and human suffering.
In fact, one of the times when TCKs need the most support from parents and their church communities is when they move to their passport countries, MK advocates say, especially since they often feel resentful about having to leave their home countries.
For instance, these so-called “hidden immigrants” may look like Americans on the outside, but they don’t feel like they belong here, said Josh.
“In foreign countries we’re given grace,” Josh said. “When you come back to the States, everybody treats you like an idiot because ‘How could you not know that?’”
Sometimes even the simplest things can reveal those differences—like not knowing how an American bank or hospital works. Many MKs arrive in the States for college unable to drive.
“We need a lot more help than we’ll ever admit,” Josh said.
In the US, MK Harbor Project is a network for people willing to help MKs with these kinds of practical things. Colleges are figuring out how to do this too.
Some Christian colleges are finding ways to ask questions about international upbringing, said Tammy Sharp, director of MuKappa, which is an MK ministry on 20 college campuses. Some even hold a separate orientation for MK freshmen. Others are connected to ministries that house MKs who want to live with fellow MKs while they attend school.
For her part, Kuo is inviting TCKs who attend the Urbana global missions conference this year to a special TCK lounge “to wrestle with some of the things that are coming up.” But mostly, it’s a place where they can feel like they belong.
“Belonging” may be too much to ask right now for MKs fleeing the war in Ukraine. But Wiltse hopes that giving her students a voice will help them find their way. She wakes up early in Michigan—by 3 a.m.—to teach class to her students in Europe.
She guides them through times of free writing. She brags about their advocacy for Ukraine. And she posts poetry that de Vuyst wrote for all the world to see.
“How are you doing?”
I sigh; I know I am safe with them.
“It’s been a hard day.”
They help me process,
Cry with me and pray with me.
—Abigail de Vuyst
Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist living in Colorado.