Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Slipping through the Cracks: Am I an expat or a missionary?

Ever since arriving to the Netherlands, I have been trying to figure out where I fit, especially when it comes to the church.

When I lived in Ukraine, I was both a volunteer for the church and a teacher at KCA - and tried to be more involved at church in each year I was there.  I never wanted to regularly attend or be involved at the English-speaking international church, because, well, why would I attend an "American" style church while living in another country?  I wanted to be fully involved with the local churches and improve my Russian skills, and also have a break from seeing most of my students.  :)

Kids' English lesson at church
Because I had one foot at KCA and one foot in the church, I felt out of place when it came time for missionary gatherings.  I didn't really feel like a "real" missionary who was involved in church planting, pastoral education, or compassionate ministries (though this was the one category I was remotely involved in), because my ministry was to my students.

Party at my house! December 2010
I did receive benefits as an expat -- unlike most of the other teachers at KCA, I got access to the US Commissary because I was hired from abroad.  However, my primary identity was a combination of teacher/missionary.

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Fast forward 18 months as I settle into life in the Netherlands and am trying to make friends.  It's a slow process, especially compared to the dynamics of a mission team and a school full of Third Culture Kids.  What I have recently found difficult is trying to determine what "category" I am, so that I can then find that niche of similar people.  Am I an expat?  Am I a missionary? I know for sure I am not Dutch, and that will take quite some time to be fully involved in life here.

Walking together in Rotterdam, October 2013

Am I an expat?

Yes, by definition - I am someone who lives temporarily or permanently outside of my home country.  However, I have not been sent here for work - though in a way you could say I was sent here because of my husband's work.

One of the things that frustrates me most about the expat community is that it can become a "bubble" of sorts.  Expats only scratch the surface of language learning, and are often disconnected from the people around them, choosing instead to interact with people of their own kind.  Even while in Ukraine, I grew frustrated with those who absolutely had to have their chocolate chips (just use chocolate bars) or shredded cheese (do it yourself).  To me, it felt like people were not so flexible and creative to adapt to a different environment.

My husband and I recently visited a fair at an international school, which gave me a peek into their way of life.  It was odd for me to not know anyone, and to alternate between desiring anonymity (keeping the exhibitors from trying to sell me their products) and connection with others.  We talked later about how teaching full-time in this kind of school meant that I would need to work harder to learn and speak Dutch.

My conclusion?  By definition, I am an expat but don't fit in the expat crowd.

Am I a missionary?

Before I left America, people would ask if I was going to be a missionary in/to the Netherlands.  No, I simply replied.  Though there are countless ministries in Amsterdam to the Red Light District and international travelers, that was too far of a commute for me.  Yet, my husband and I have a passion for missions and mobilizing (Dutch) Christians for short- or long-term missionary service.

In a way, all Christians are missionaries in the sense that we are called to share God's love with those around us.  For me, living outside the US automatically makes everything "cross-cultural," especially as I study Dutch with students from at least 5-8 different countries.  Neither my husband nor I are involved in leading any ministry, though he is on the missions council and we both attend Bible studies from our local church.


A few weeks ago, most of my missionary friends in Europe got together.  These friends are actually ones I have really connected with over the past few years, and became my family and support system while I lived in Ukraine.  They understand what it's like to live in a country not your own, to struggle to learn the language, to make friends, and to balance all that with developing the Church.  I wanted to be there with them, and joked that some of them should adopt us.

Yet I also knew that there would be talks about goals and member care sprinkled in with the encouraging devotional times -- and I knew those don't quite fit us at this present time.  Through the great times of being together, I know I would feel an internal struggle of not fitting in.

My conclusion? We are not missionaries in the traditional sense of the word, though we are involved in missions and ministry.

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Well, what now?

My husband and I had this discussion on Sunday afternoon, and he made a great point.  Because I do not have a specific role, I have the freedom and flexibility to choose how I want to identify -- or to make my own category!

Thus, I am choosing to see myself as an international.  I am not Dutch, but I am surrounded by Dutch people in my everyday life and go to a Dutch church.  I am in a language school with a number of others who have been here for varying amounts of time from countries on each continent.  I am a teacher at heart, but do not currently work in an expat (or national) environment.  My passion is missions, even though I am not on any sort of contract or have membership in the missions council.

~*~

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