Youth Ministry Reflections: Transition and Culture

Rebecca Giles is a Next Institute Trainer, and the Transition Specialist for the institute’s parent organization, NEXT, aiding missionary families (especially students) in moving between cultures. Apparently, she is also gifted in ducks.

“Anything else we need to know about these kids?”

I was having a quick meeting with counselors at the summer camp where we host our annual Reconnect & Summer Conference for Mission To the World (the Presbyterian Church in America’s international missions arm) missionary families. After our weekend of debriefing, the students move into cabins with American college student counselors. My colleague and I had just met with the counselors to go over our schedule and to share a brief stereotypical profile of “TCKs”, or ‘third-culture kids’ (defined, according to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, as someone who spends a significant part of his or her developmental years accompanying parents into a country that is different from at least one parent’s passport country, due to a parents’ choice of work or advanced training).

“Nah, they’re pretty normal teenagers!”

“Oh wait—you should probably know that one family was supposed to return to their country but doesn’t know when they will actually be able to leave the United States because there is political unrest in their town. And another family thought they were returning for four years after a short furlough, but they found out yesterday that due to their mom’s illness, they will only be going back to their adopted country for a few months to pack and to say good-bye to their home.”

At first, these situations didn’t seem especially noteworthy because these types of transitions can seem so typical in missionary life. Yet, the daily and regular stress that incurs can be absolutely exhausting for them. And at the same time, so many missionaries I know would not trade the life they have been given for anything else.

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In my role with NEXT, I am a “Transition Specialist.” Most of my job responsibilities fall under the Training & Sustaining functions of our team. One of my favorite tools I always carry around with are my rubber ducks that I call my “yay” and “yuck” ducks. These two ducks always swim together even though they’re opposite. This activity introduces the term paradox (from ages 2 year old to adult) and it describes the missionary life incredibly For example, saying good-byes to friends in our home country is sad, and also it means that you have loved well and there is something so good and happy about that. The paradox of transition is “the best of times and the worst of times.” Very frequently if we focus only on the “yays,” the unprocessed grief can lead to years of counseling in later adult years.

Sometimes, I’m not quite sure how my activities and children’s books will impact older teenagers, especially those transitioning to university. Sometimes they think it’s silly, but often it is an avenue for conversation that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. In general, I have learned that asking them about their experiences is a much better approach than telling them that the TCK profile is their experience. We try to give these tools to all of our high school seniors before they enter college (or gap year, or however else they choose to start their post-secondary school years), but because they have already moved so much, they often believe that the college transition will be like any other. As a trainer, it can feel like a grief to know that our help is not always well received at first. But it is usually in the middle of the first semester when I get the messages on Facebook and occasional texts to ask for help as reality sets in. Trying to navigate the university life as a TCK can be tricky. Do I want to pretend that this is not my story and try to fit in as much as possible? Do I want to alienate myself from those from mono-cultural experiences to cling even more tightly to my multi-cultural background? These questions continue into adulthood.

There are a variety of ways that you can pray for TCK students:

1. Pray for them in the midst of their many transitions—across cultures, into adulthood, and into new education systems-- that God would be their rock, their peace, and their stability.

2. Pray for the TCKs to embrace the paradox of their multicultural stories, seeing both the “yay”s and the “yucks.”

3. Pray for NEXT as we attempt to care for our TCKs at a distance who are spread out around the world in many institutions, that we could connect them to support in their local contexts.