The conference ends with the new kids.
Timmy, Luci and I have been at the conference this week for Avant Ministries, a mission agency dedicated to planting churches internationally. Though still very much members of TeachBeyond ourselves, committed to sharing Christ in educational settings, we’ve been asked to host the youth program at the Avant conference this week. And so, with eight days in Germany under our belts, we drive four hours north to a retreat center in the windmill-populated hills of the Rheinland-Pfalz Westerwald.
It has been a week of games and discussion, with many new friendships for us, forged in the family camp atmosphere of the conference. Watching the teenagers this week, I remembered my own summers at Capernwray Harbor family weeks in British Columbia, and my dad’s memories of Mount Herman camp from his childhood. I’m keenly aware of the privilege and stability that these “summer places” represent, and so I’ve been pleased to see it reflected here, among the children of missionaries who so crave long-term relationship and the common denominator of a place to return to, year after year.
For the youth, though, week is more family reunion than family camp. All week we hear stories from these kids, many of whom have spent the majority of their lives planting churches with their parents. I know firsthand the investment that comes with having parents who work in a church, especially a new and small one, and some of these kids have done this many times already on multiple continents. One young woman, ready to start her post-high school life in America, remembers growing up overseas, far from most of her extended family.
“These,” she motions at the long, noisy tables full of missionary families in the dining hall, “These are my uncles and aunts and cousins, really. This is who I’ve grown up with.”
At the end of the conference, after the final songs and thank yous, someone asks the children of the new missionaries to come to the front of the hall. Many of them are young, some even toddlers, and they sit patiently on the steps of the stage while the smiling teenagers line the center aisle that leads out of the room.
The speaker tells them what they already know. Moving to a new country—to Poland, to Spain, to the Czech Republic—can be hard and scary. Some will start at new schools soon, many in new languages.
“But look at these teenagers,” the speaker continues. The teens grin back at him, at each other, knowing looks of shared experiences. “They’ve done it, too.” He points out one young man who’s lived in Japan, Poland and Spain, and a young woman who grew up in Ecuador and France.
“How many of you,” he asks, “Have started school in a classroom where you didn’t speak a word of the language on the first day of school?”
Most of the teenagers raise their hands, nodding dutifully and doubtless remembering those confusing, isolating early days.
“But how many of you learned that language eventually?” he follows up. The same hands go up, this time with proud smiles.
Earlier this week with the youth we discussed the call of Abraham, a tale in which these international kids find themselves easily. They each recall similar moments, relating not always to Abraham himself but to the huge entourage that he took with him out of Ur, a family and household uprooted from a comfortable place by God’s calling. They’re thankful and genial, this particular group, eager to take ownership in their families’ ministries, but I’m struck this morning by the many journeys reflected even in this short demonstration.
I can’t know what the new kids think about this, as I stand in the back with Luci, but it is a powerful moment for me. It’s a reminder of the resilient, adventurous kinds of students that we work with at Black Forest Academy, but it’s also the first time I encounter these kids as a parent myself. I wonder when a baby becomes a missionary kid? When she goes to Kindergarten in a different language? When she understands what goodbye means? When she starts to develop strong opinions or habits around airports? I try to squint ahead and imagine Luci in a few years, wondering what her life will look like, and if she’ll one day identify with these nervous toddlers or confident teenagers.
As usual, this kind of future-squinting uncovers more questions than answers. In the end, I can only pray that if God keeps us overseas for the long haul, if Luci’s childhood is a multilingual, many-miled sojourn, that she’ll greet it with the open hearts and eyes that I’ve had the privilege of meeting this week. They are young people who’ve chosen adventure and obedience, and I am delighted that these are the kinds of students we’re returning to serve at BFA, the people who will surround my daughter in her first years of life.