A third culture kid dreams of finding a soul mate who understands where she comes from, but realizes there’s only one ultimate home. Performed live at Poetry Spot Kenya.
Category Archives: Crossing cultures
I live in Kenya, but when the recent presidential election threatened to turn violent, I followed my US Embassy’s advice. I couldn’t participate with an alien card instead of an identity card, so escape was easy. My Kenyan friends joked, “You ran away, didn’t you?” All of them voted. But I didn’t vote in the United States’ election either – I failed to factor in weeks of shipping for an absentee ballot.
All this to say, I’m not a very good citizen of anywhere.
As a third culture kid, I’ve been a foreigner to some degree all my life. It’s hard to feel patriotic when you haven’t hardly lived in a country, but you haven’t lived down its stereotypes either. It’s hard to love a nation knowing immigration could deny you permission to stay.
But it’s also hard to form an identity without a place to belong.
As an alien on earth, I have found home among fellow Christians. I have taken comfort in being a citizen of heaven, a place where my wayfaring will end (see Hebrews 11). Being detached allows me to be more objective about controversial political disputes. I build bridges across cultural and political lines. But it that a cop out?
How do we acknowledge the supremacy of the kingdom of heaven and its claim on our identity, but still bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
Earlier this year, I decided to study Bible characters who we might call third culture kids today (most were also Hebrews 11 citizens of heaven). There was Joseph, the trafficking victim. Moses, the cross-cultural adoptee and fugitive. Daniel, forced to assimilate in captivity. Jesus, God with us in several human cultures. Paul, the diaspora local and foreign citizen.
Each of these people played huge roles in God’s mission. Joseph revealed God’s plan to Pharaoh and saved Israel from starvation. Through Moses, God displayed his power to all nations and led Israel to create a new culture in a new land. Daniel’s interpretation ended up in empire-wide proclamation of God’s reign. Paul communicated the inclusion of the Gentiles to them and to Jewish Christians. And Jesus reconciled God and humanity, of course. It fascinated me that none of these people could have achieved their mission in God’s kingdom had they not identified with their multiple earthly cultures. To be effective, they had to keep identifying with their captors, their betrayers, and their persecuted minority groups.
These Bible characters also all spoke God’s truth to rulers of their day – often the world superpower of the time. Whether through civil service like Joseph and Daniel, confrontation like Moses, or submission to criminal trials and punishment, they demonstrated that God’s kingdom can be proclaimed to the nations through the nations.
This drastically contradicts how Christians have at times withdrawn from society, focusing on personal piety, and pinning our hopes on the afterlife. It’s tempting, especially when our privilege protects us from the effects of the politics of the day. When I left Kenya, I demonstrated more concern for my safety than solidarity with my Kenyan friends. When we escape as Christians, we exclude ourselves from the world God gave us to steward. Don’t we follow the one given all authority on heaven and earth? Yet we tell the world that we’re more concerned for our own survival than their welfare.
We are all citizens of heaven and earth. Our dual citizenship should change our civic engagement. We should be different from other citizens of our country, because we also have allegiances and civic duties from another kingdom. Jesus’ attitude toward taxes demonstrated that God ultimately reigns, but he respected the authority of human religious leaders and kings by doing his civic duty. (Matthew 17:24-27, 22:15-22). The early church struggled with these questions too. On the one hand, they often refused to serve in the Roman army or government to avoid swearing oath to Caesar as Lord, and refused to participate in social events that glorified violence and sexual immorality. Yet they engaged in social issues. They rescued babies abandoned to die. During two major plagues, they stayed to nurse the dying while pagans fled. They wouldn’t pray to the emperor, but they prayed for him.
What does dual citizenship look like for us today? The day the Kenyan election results were announced, the news also featured white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Throughout 2017, the pressure in both countries has threatened to tear them into identity groups and political tribes.
As many parts of the world face divisive times, our dual citizenship means Christians shouldn’t completely blend in with our political tribe, racial group, or ethnic community. We should also find identity and unity as Christians. Biblical values should inform how we together respond to injustice and to earthly authority. How does God’s reign inform our involvement in social issues, politics, and work?
On the other hand, we can celebrate and preserve our earthly cultures to make our worship truly heavenly. Eminent African theologian Kwame Bediako said, “In becoming Christian I discovered I was becoming African again. I was recovering my sense of the spirituality of life. I was recovering my sense of the nearness of the living God. I was recovering my African sense of the wholeness of life. I find in becoming Christian, I am being more African than I think I was. I am being more who I am.” There is a way, somehow, for being a Christian to push you to improve your nation without making you nationalistic. There is a way, somehow, to live for God in the state.
As a third culture kid, when people ask, “Where is home?” I can’t choose. Truly dual citizenship allows you to embrace both the present and the future home. Dual citizens revitalize our countries, anticipating the day when we will all sing our mother tongue without conflict or tears. We work in anticipation of the day the nations themselves are redeemed to display the diverse glory of the King.
Now that’s an inauguration to look forward to.
To be honest, there were times I doubted we would ever launch the Africa Study Bible.
A study Bible is the most complex possible type of publishing project. The layout must juggle the Bible text, notes, cross-references and more. You have to print on very thin paper with special printers. And all the notes have to be extremely high quality theologically and grammatically because they’re bound up with the Word of God.
But this was more than a typical study Bible. We designed six different types of unique features to connect the Bible to Africa, so we had to teach our writers to see the Bible differently as they wrote. And no one has ever produced a study Bible with 350 contributors, much less from 50 countries writing notes in 5 languages.
Compared to this task, our resources were tiny. Our small organization had to invent the entire project management infrastructure from scratch for this unprecedented feat. We wanted the top scholars, respected pastors, and influential ministry leaders from Africa involved, so they all did their part on top of their normal busy commitments. When a writer missed a deadline, it could be due to power outages, malaria, or bereavement. We struggled to find writers from some countries because they were facing civil war or religious persecution.
At one point, I was incredibly overwhelmed with a sense of personal responsibility for the project. After a late Skype call with colleagues, I walked home and put my briefcase down on the grass outside my house. I looked up at the stars and cried. “God, I can’t do this. This is your project. You started it. I surrender. You’re the only one in control. If you get this project done, I’m going to give you all the glory, because there’s no way we can do this on our own.”
On days when it looked impossible, I jotted down how God was at work and reminded myself of the end goal. I couldn’t think as abstract as discipling the continent, so I literally pictured the spine of the Africa Study Bible on my bookcase. “This will get done,” I said to myself. “One day, I will be able to hold the finished product in my hands.”
On March 30, the Africa Study Bible was launched to the world!
Church leaders from all the major ecumenical groups, leaders of several Christian ministries, and seminary scholars gathered in a hotel ballroom in Nairobi, Kenya. Guests and ballroom alike were decked out in African colors and patterns. We sang together, “When Jesus came down from heaven, he landed in Israel. When there was trouble, he came down to Africa. So we must praise him – praise him in an African way!”
I rejoiced to meet contributors in person who I had emailed for months. I couldn’t help but notice that the 350 seats in the room represented our 350 contributors. The few empty ones reminded me of so many who had been involved in the project – our French writing coordinator, half of our review team, key editors…. They would attend the Ghana, US, Nigeria or South Africa launches. The little taste made me hungry for our complete reunion in heaven.
As we celebrated the momentous occasion, we remembered where we had come from and where this was going. A youth pastor gave a devotional, highlighting our African Christian heritage from Augustine to his grandma. He reminded us that youth are the Africa of today, not tomorrow – and this Bible roots them in their identity and the word of God. A government minister for education spoke of his vision for using the Africa Study Bible as a key resource as they reform the national curriculum to teach children values. Christians from three generations passed a kerosene lantern along, praying that the Bible would illuminate hearts for years to come.
Then the unveiling. Lights dimmed and pulsed. Young people robed in red Maasai shukas and traditional kanga wraps danced in to a drumbeat. The audience stood and clapped along. The ribbon was cut, the veil was lifted, and the larger-than life Africa Study Bible twirled around like it had jumped into a dance circle. We sang a Nigerian song with hands and hearts lifted, “Imela! Imela!” Thank you, my king!
After all the celebrations, my US and Kenya coworkers went out for a relieved and grateful dinner. Laughing around the table, I realized these people have become my people, almost family. Yet we might never all eat together again until the kingdom of God comes again. We sang a hymn before we departed: Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
When I got home, I put my briefcase down on that eventful spot of grass and took off my shoes. Hands up and teary eyed, “You did it, God!” I jumped and spun, dancing under the stars. “Hallelujah!”
And when I went inside, I opened the pages of my very own copy of the Africa Study Bible.
Last month, I moved into a new associate acquisitions editor position at Oasis International. Over the weekend, I realized that God has been preparing me for this for twenty years!
I moved to Tanzania as a two-year-old and grew up there as a missionary kid. When I was four – exactly twenty years ago this weekend – I decided to follow Jesus. I don’t remember it, but my dad recently unearthed his old journal and came across the night I became a Christian. Earlier this year I noticed the file on my computer, realized this would be twenty years, and decided to celebrate my “re-birthday.” So I read over what my dad had written:
October 22, 1996 Hannah is 4
I want to write this now for you to read later so you can remember what happened tonight. Tonight at bed time you wanted to read your Swahili book and they you wanted to read a book that your Sunday school teacher at the PEFA church next door gave you awhile back. (We had never read it before.) It was in English even though he only speaks Swahili. It was about heaven and hell and a little African boy named Mutu having salvation explained to him. You and I had talked about heaven and that Jesus died for us and what that means.
My dad writes that he explained the gospel in four-year-old terms and we prayed for my salvation.
I shared this story with a friend, who noticed, “Books have been part of your story from the beginning.”
“Wow, I never thought about that. This was even before I was reading on my own. But I guess they have!”
And as I thought about it more, I realized that it wasn’t just any book. It was a Christian book written in English, contextualized for Africa, distributed to me through a local pastor. It was exactly the literature that Oasis creates and distributes! Jesus saved this little American-African missionary kid through the same work that I do now!
From there, God weaved the rest of the story together: The second-grade teacher who told me I’d become a writer. The pastoring grandparents who always gave me Christian books for my birthday. The many childhood visits to village churches. My preteen years on a seminary campus where my friends biked to the bookstore for candy, browsed the shelves, and made our faith our own. The last-minute English major in college and the unexpected call to ministry. An Oasis job opening after graduation asking me to move back home to Kenya – literally to my parents’ house. Getting sick of Pulitzer winners and discovering African fiction. Multiple people randomly telling me last summer that I should go into acquisitions editing.
How does God do it? Not only saving me and continuing to affirm our relationship as I grew up, but designing the way I was saved to chart my destiny? I’m so in awe. I felt like I stumbled into this path, but what a comfort that God has known all along where we’re going!
So all I do is echo Ephesians 3:20: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
Proverbs 31 isn’t primarily for women. If anything it instructs young adults in how to lead a successful life! I rediscovered Proverbs 31 and it blew my mind. This chapter of the Bible is an insanely clever poem encouraging us to seek God’s kingdom first. It weaves into the salvation story & Jesus’ heritage. Watch my full sermon on YouTube here (props, Kenyan accent, family tales and all)!
Siku hizi you’re growing on me.
I grew up next door in Mwanza, Tanzania
so we’d always been family friends
waving at the dentist, guest house, summer camp.
But I thought you were a Western wanna-be.
When you met me at the airport when I was 16,
You said, “Jambo! Karibu!” and I corrected you with, “Sijambo.”
I didn’t want to like you
couldn’t betray Mwanza by forgetting farewells.
The “Mzungu!” unspoken on the streets still chanted in my head
my closet still clothed me in ankle length skirts on Sundays
and Sukuma was a tribe or a verb, not a vegetable.
But this small world gave us a second chance.
This time I listened to your story, learned to name your plants and people.
I trained my reflexes to respond to your roads
and my mouth to greet with the slang Sasa? instead of Shikamoo.
I styled up with polished work shoes and MPESA.
Yet maybe I was not so much settling
as discovering a soul mate
who dances to Swahili songs in church but speaks English
who eats passion fruit, yogurt, kimbap, chapatis, and burritos
who listens to the BBC and Christian hip-hop on the radio.
We’ve got a lot in common.
I can run with you all year ‘round.
We both enjoy poetry slams.
You accept me as a Pentecostal and a professional woman.
We buy books at coffee shops and haggle at used clothes markets together.
You can relate to
my British education, Indian classmates, and missionary worship nights.
I guess we’ve had a similar identity crisis!
My family knows you
and my old friends are always coming from out of town to visit you.
I know you have your secrets and regrets
but we’ve grown in the same direction.
Siku hizi you’ve grown on me.
Maybe one day we’ll make a home together.
I believe that the voice of the church in Africa deserves to be heard.
We don’t need imported sermon illustrations about “Prayer is not like a vending machine” – what’s a vending machine anyway?
Pastors and teachers from 50 countries have written 2200 notes like the one I mentioned as part of the Africa Study Bible. On the page next to the Bible text, notes and essays connect Scripture to African contexts to help people live out their faith without rejecting their whole culture.
This is not your typical study Bible, written by about 50 American scholars. 345 people wrote notes, edited pieces and reviewed the theology and relevance of each piece.
These writers were dedicated. Some authors were dealing with civil war, persecution as Christians, malaria, or family funerals. All of them wrote alongside their normal work in churches, theological schools or businesses. Nearly all wrote in their second language – either English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili.
But as I managed the first half of the editorial process, I saw their commitment firsthand. They believed this was crucial work for God’s kingdom. As contributor Dr. Issiakia Coulibaly from West Africa Alliance Theological Seminary (FATEAC) said, “Like Philip explaining the Scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:31), so will the Africa Study Bible be to thousands and thousands of African Christians today.”
The writing is done, and the editing is nearly complete. The church in Africa is ready to speak – we just need to give them a platform.
If you want the voice of the church in Africa to be heard, this week is your chance! Invest here through Kickstarter. Your giving enables the writers to give everyone their “rich resource for the church in Africa and the world” (in the words of contributor Bishop Dr. Isaiah Majok Dau from South Sudan).
Instead of me telling you any more about the Africa Study Bible, listen to a Kenyan World Christianity scholar. Dr. Wanjiru Maggie Gitau shares how the Africa Study Bible reflects the exciting things God is doing in Africa today. Or, check out this sneak peek of the book of Genesis, where the authors’ notes speak for themselves!
Let’s hear what the church in Africa has to say to us.
The first page of God Bless the Children of Tanzania, a memoir I am considering writing:
When people ask “What was it like to grow up in Africa?”, I want to tell them about the sun.
They are usually our family and friends from Minnesota, so they will think I am talking about the weather. I never understood how the weather could provide conversation material until I went to college in Minnesota. In Mwanza, Tanzania, the sun was an assumption. You depended on it waking you up just before the BBC news on the radio at breakfast. Its predictable leave was accompanied by the buzz of a mosquito and the scent of Queen of the Night.
Sometimes, provoked by the sun’s long harsh reign, the sky would throw a party with a strobe light and a thumping beat on the tin roof. My sister and I would run outside to join the downpour dance. Or when I was little, my siblings and I would jump up and down on our beds and build blanket forts for our stuffed animals, snuggling and giggling. In comparison to the power of thunder-lightning, the drizzle in America feels like someone spitting in my face. So if I say “rainy day” they will think I mean something sad.
But here I am being dragged into a discussion of the weather. I want to describe the sun. I want to describe opening my eyes on Saturday under a mosquito net shot through with sunlit dust. Only then, they will think my childhood was magical. It is tempting to be lulled into nostalgia.
If that were the whole truth, I would not be coming to talk to you.
I pour myself a cup of chai – by which I mean regular tea with milk, not the lattes with Pumpkin Pie Spice – and stir in a spoon of (cane) sugar. I settle into one of the wicker chairs with my back to the reception desk. The books on the display shelf are to do with Christian marriages, raising cross-cultural kids, and grieving. Outside the windows is a vibrant garden, bursting with the life of this Green City under the Sun, Nairobi, Kenya.
Yes, the sun was bright. But there was also darkness in the daytime that I am afraid to look at alone. I am waiting for you to examine my sunburn.
I want to be an integrated and whole person.My life can feel fragmented: Tanzania, Kenya, the USA. Christian and secular environments. Extended family, family friends, peers. I could be a different person to everyone and probably get away with it. Online, everyone now has access to impression management simply by choosing who can see each facebook post. But I’ve found over and over that it’s a small world. I’ve seen hypocrisy hollow out foundations as effectively as termites. If I cut myself up into compartments I might not know who I am.
Like a building with structural integrity, an integrated person has a grounded sense of self to build a life on. If you have integrity, people trust you because you have consistently good character. To be the same person to all people, you need to integrate the various parts of your life. Shalom is Hebrew for wholeness and deep peace. I feel like becoming whole involves making peace from the pieces: the positive and the negative experiences, conflicting worldviews and different cultural environments.
But it’s impossible – and unwise – to be exactly the same to everyone. In some situations you should wear jeans, in others you should eat with your hands. The challenge is adapt to others’ expectations while retaining your essence. For instance, successful communication results in people understanding each other. So I adjust my vocabulary and accent to match the person I’m talking to. I avoid proper nouns that are unknown to my listener so that I don’t alienate them by exotic name dropping. But being a good chameleon can make it hard for people to see you. If people don’t read me in context, if I censor myself and translate my existence – will people understand who I am?Another meaning of shalom offers a potential solution. It is used as a Hebrew greeting and farewell. Amidst transition between so many worlds, saying hello and goodbye is a way of recognizing and welcoming each other. Just like one greeting prompts another, hospitality fosters more shalom. I invite people into one of my homes, introduce them to loved ones, let my guests taste my food and hear my music. When I feel welcomed, I add a Christian perspective to a sociology assignment and then bring the finished product to a family reunion. And in this small world, sometimes an old acquaintance speaks my mother tongue with all the proper nouns. Or a best friend and I stretch a string across the ocean and listen as good and bad rattles in our tin cans. Affirming the many parts of my life makes me feel whole.
When I make connections, I feel alive. I am a third culture kid, born into the in-between of a globalized world. It can be hard to hold two things together, especially in a polarized society. As my pastor once said, bridges get walked on. Social network theorists say that middlemen who connect two otherwise unrelated groups can benefit from bridging structural holes. I hope that integrating myself and my worlds brings peace to myself and others.
I’ve talked about integrating good and bad to make something beautiful in recent posts. Next, I’ll write about temptation’s threat to integrity and perhaps ways that my prayer for shalom has been answered so far. I’d like to hear from you too.
What are your perspectives on shalom and/or integrity?
This time, I earned the view. I walked.
I walked through a rainforest thunderstorm, over bridges lined with Seuss-like cacti, through a cloud in the artic desert. I walked in wet clothes, with aching muscles, warding off the equator’s sun with a hot pink sunhat. I clambered over rocks in the freezing moonlight.
“The path is made by walking.” In the hours of hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro, I told myself to focus on the moment, not the distance ahead.
My hike gave me perspective on the Africa Study Bible project. As far as we know, no one has ever created a study Bible with 250 different contributors, and certainly not with writers from over fifty countries speaking different languages. If you stare at the mountain ahead, it can seem insurmountable.
I doubted that I would make it to the top of Kilimanjaro. I’ve never climbed more than a hill—could I really climb the tallest freestanding mountain in the world? To my surprise, my upbringing prepared me. Living in Nairobi the past few months helped me deal with the altitude. My college years in “Minne-snow-ta” helped me differentiate between slippery and soft snow along the crater’s edge.
The day my friends and I summited Mount Kilimanjaro, we walked a full day through clouds to the last hut. After two hours of sleep, we began the steepest part of the hike. My teammate in front of me wore a headlamp, but I walked by the light of the nearly full moon. I recalled the Swahili version of “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.” One verse in that translation says, “If my path is long, he gives me salvation. If the clouds hit me, his strength is my light.”
The complexity and scope of the Africa Study Bible project have produced challenges and delays. But although the Africa Study Bible work seems like unknown traversed terrain, I recall what God says in Isaiah 42:16: “I will lead blind Israel down a new path, guiding them along an unfamiliar way. I will brighten the darkness before them and smooth out the road ahead of them. Yes, I will indeed do these things; I will not forsake them.”
The summit of the Africa Study Bible project is still months away, but as we grow closer, the trail is also growing steeper. I believe God is at work in the Africa Study Bible project. If we could accomplish it easily on our own, where would his glory be? But as we trust God with every step in the process, we blaze a new trail.
At the highest peak in Africa, I saw the sun rise in splendor, brighten tiny farms and towns out to the horizon, blind in brilliance off of pale blue glaciers and a snow covered crater.
With the Africa Study Bible, we are going to see Africa at its height. We will see the landscape from the heavens’ perspective. We will see that what God creates is magnificent.
So all of us—the hundreds of writers, partners, designers, and editors scattered across the continents and across languages—continue to make our path by walking, one step at a time.
~Originally published January 16th, 2015 on Oasis International’s blog.