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How to Decipher your Cross-Cultural Worker’s Newsletters: What they really mean...

Cross-cultural workers serving overseas and Christians working in high-pressure contexts in their passport country try to be as honest as they can when writing their newsletters, but it’s often hard to express what’s really going on.

The fear of sounding too desperate or complaining can weigh heavily on their minds. Worrying about what supporters might think can bury the more pressing, distressing aspects of ministry under the surface. There, unseen and unheard, they can fester, and resentment can take root.

Heavy feelings are cloaked in euphemism. Take this, for example, from a fictional newsletter about a family leaving to serve abroad for the first time:

  • After a challenging visa application process, we said our goodbyes to friends and family  and moved ten suitcases, our three smallest people and a small offering of creature comforts to the other side of the world.

What does this really mean? If we read between the lines, there’s a lot going on here. Let’s break it down:

  • Challenging visa application process.’

‘Challenging’ is a limp, insidious word so often used in Christian circles, and it can belie a plethora of difficult emotions. What this sentence might really indicate is that they’ve been wading through a bureaucratic quagmire of form-filling frustration, their hands aching from trying to push through the red tape. They’ll have been waiting on tenterhooks for months for a piece of documentation that will open a door they’ve been desperate to push.

  • We said our goodbyes to friends and family…’

So much emotion is tidied up and packed away into these neat, pithy words. The brevity of what’s being said – and what isn’t being said – is astonishing. Was it really as easy as that? Saying goodbye to your loved ones who have carried you through the darkest times and shared the happiest moments? And who won’t be there in person to see you through the next?

  • ‘… and moved ten suitcases, our three smallest people and a small offering of creature comforts to the other side of the world.’

Notice the shift from the general to the specific, enumerated details? Such an exercise could merely be an interesting way to present the more mundane details, or it could be a way to give their supporters an idea of just how life-changing an event this is. They really are taking everything, all their worldly possessions and their most precious worldly treasures – their children – to start a new life, away from all they’ve known and taken for granted. As if that isn’t enough, ‘to the other side of the world’ makes the point unflinchingly clear. They may as well be going into space, such is the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

If you peer even closer, you’ll see the fleeting and seemingly insignificant reference to ‘creature comforts’. Isn’t this just a nod to the sometimes tedious tasks associated with parenting little ones on long-haul flights? Maybe. Or perhaps it’s a way of hinting at a conflicted heart – a heart that will be torn in two and left beating in two places at once.

Now let’s fast forward three months to another newsletter excerpt:

  • We hit the ground running with intensive language lessons. It was challenging, but we were encouraged by the response to our fumbling attempts at communication. It was a humbling experience to be so out of our depth. The transition has left us feeling tired. Please pray that the Lord would give us His strength to endure.

  • In other news, we bought a car, but it’s already been to the local garage and the repair bill is more than what we anticipated and budgeted for. Please pray that the Lord provides.

There’s that word again (‘challenging’)! This family has had a whirlwind transition, which is to be expected in the first few months of living cross-culturally.

  • ‘It was a humbling experience…’

Using the world ‘humbling’ could be a way to put a spiritual spin on some otherwise embarrassing experiences. These initial experiences may lead to feelings of self-doubt. It may knock their confidence and rock their sense of calling. Kind words of encouragement from the discerning supporter could be just what they need to dust themselves off and get back on their feet again.

  • ‘The transition has left us feeling weary and tired.

Read exhausted. This transition is going to be the most enervating, sapping, crazy, meaningful experience they’ve ever been through. If you can imagine their tiredness, triple it and then some.

A well-timed care package would be readily appreciated! But what would be appreciated even more than that is a time of rest to look forward to. Not necessarily back ‘home’, but in country.

Having that conversation early on is important and sends a good message ­– that rest and self-care is important, and God wants us to practise it. It’s something all of us could learn. It can be tempting to pull our superhero capes tightly around us and march on, trying to do it all, forgetting that we’re only human and we can’t do it all in our own strength.

When we do this, we’re telling God that he’s not enough and we don’t need him. Essentially, it means our theology is skewed towards human works rather than God’s grace.

  • ‘Please pray that the Lord provides.’

Now comes the money part. Depending on your cultural mores, talking about money can be one of the most difficult things to do. In British culture, it’s awkward. So when the topic of car troubles surfaces and the cross-cultural worker asks for the Lord to provide, this is not only a prayer request but also a thinly veiled cry for help. Our only form of transport is bust, broken, kaput! Please help! How else are we going to get our family around safely in remote areas?!

You might be thinking, why read into things and dramatize it unnecessarily? They might be doing just fine!

Here’s the thing: you don’t really know that. From where you’re sitting, it’s easy to project your own comfort onto others, especially when you can’t see and hear what they see and hear.

Read between the lines, ask the right questions, and pray about how you might help! Check in with your international workers regularly, because to know that their newsletters are being read means that they feel listened to.

The new MA award in Staff Care and Wellbeing, validated by The Open University and delivered through All Nations Christian College, takes a deeper look at issues in staff care and wellbeing. If you want to reflect on your practice, learn from others in the member care/staff care space, and develop leading research in this exciting, emerging field, this could be the course for you. It can be done full-time one year residential, part-time, completely online over three years, or a mix of it all! Find out more about the programme here.

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