They were speaking a language I didn’t know, laughing and high-fiving, beaming with the assurance that comes with complete peer-approval. Meanwhile, I stared down at my plate of beans and rice, looking up only a few times to fake laughter at jokes that I didn’t understand. It’s hard to join in on the entertainment when your best Swahili sentence takes five painful minutes to say and involves only mango prices.
Then, all of a sudden the ground shook, the lights dimmed, and with a poof of smoke and crack of lightning, 90’s music began to play. My bangs permed, acne flared, and I found myself holding a caboodle, alto saxophone, and trapper keeper. I was back in middle school—7th grade, to be exact. It felt so real; I could almost smell the hairspray and cool-water cologne of my peers. I was back in the glory days.
In junior high, I switched from a private Christian school to public school where I only wanted three things: (1) supreme popularity, (2) not to be in the band (mom crushed that one hard with an alto sax and wooden reeds to spare), and (3) to look like and act like everyone else. Okay, fine, there were four things: I also really, really wanted to be “asked out” by a boy, but I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that beautiful girls went “out,” and it all sounded so intriguing and exotic. I didn’t know where “out” was, but I desperately wanted the invitation. I needed to find my way to “out”!
My 7th-grade English class was the first of many classrooms down a long, pastel hallway. It was a place where the academic opportunities were brighter than the streaky blonde highlights donning every one of the sweaty, adolescent male classmates who didn’t know that I existed.
It was a locale of neatly aligned desks, binders with crass writings on the covers (whose meanings I pretended to be disgusted by but in reality didn’t understand), loads of braces, and the fragrant blending of post P.E. body odor and Bath and Body Works Warm Vanilla Sugar body spray.
There was loads of Abercrombie and Fitch, and Adidas shoes—perfect, crisp, coveted Adidas sneakers. Since my family wasn’t nearly as affluent as most of my peers’ families, I immediately noticed the stark difference between my shoes and theirs. I compared the three beautiful black stripes stitched over the milky Adidas white leather on their shoes with my old beige-ish sneakers from Walmart, which had “bonjour” written across the side.
Inside that very classroom was the first time I realized that trying to fit in (#3 on my middle school wish list) could make me a complete fool. Coming from private school posed a threat to my assimilation endeavors because I was far ahead in every subject. But because I so desperately wanted to be like my peers, when the teacher asked me to stand and read aloud, I intentionally labored my reading. I didn’t just take my reading level down just a couple of levels—that would have been too normal. I twitched around, forcing furrowed eyebrows, with slurred and incoherent speech, pretending to be confused at even the simplest of words. Rather than simulating my peers’ reading level, I greatly overachieved and looked like a complete idiot. From that day on, my English teacher treated me as “slow,” and I had to live that lie all year long.
Landing in a foreign mission field brings even the most qualified and competent men and women into this kind of crazy! Trust me. No one escapes it.
From the moment we landed in East Africa, I knew that if I tried hard enough and gave more effort than anyone else around me, I could break the barriers of being an American foreigner and find my way deep into people’s hearts. I just knew that if I mastered the language, learned the music, the dances, the fashion, understood the inside jokes, comprehended the values, and even used slang, I would fit in.
All the missions training on living cross-culturally, serving among people who are different, helping without hurting, and immersing yourself in culture, only made me more confident. I believed that my job as a missionary was twofold: first, learn how to fit in and then, and only then, could I have the opportunity to share the gospel and make a difference. I planned on following God in obedience—to be a stranger and exile on this earth, but I figured that the “stranger” part would only last as long as it would take me to fit into my new culture. I was wrong.
Take another journey with me from the language school cafeteria, the horrifying middle school flashbacks, and the same struggling girl, eight years after her move abroad.
What happens when that bonjour-sneaker-wearing-girl-turned-missionary is still struggling with the same sin? What happens when she is too pleased with and distracted by her carefully curated cultural aptitude to put God’s glory on display? What happens when, even with that “cultural aptitude” she fought so hard for, she realizes that she will always be a little on the outside. Her kids, no matter how hard they try, will always have a funny accent and a different color. What happens to the girl who felt like belonging was life’s greatest joy? Does she quit? Does she leave? Does her longing turn to judgment and hope turn to despair? Does all that “love for the people” turn to resentment?
Can she finally come to a place where Christ is ultimate, and being liked and valued by others becomes nice…but not needed? Can the same gospel that she proclaims to others bring healing to her own heart and a final escape from her need to find her value in others? Does she truly believe that Christ is enough? Was she ready to suffer and feel alone, or did she think that her journey in missions would be the exception? Was she really prepared to be an exile and a stranger?
She didn’t consider that the stranger and exile thing could be so painful and so permanent here on earth. She thought she could simultaneously achieve her relational desires, all while opening a window to share the good news. Her heart was drenched with pride and an unquenchable thirst to be liked. The great cultural chameleon realized something needed to change. Her love life needed to change. God granted her the gift of repentance. She thanked him for this gift, which revealed to her how quickly her heart turns to worship people, culture, and created things rather than her Creator (Romans 1).
Now, she writes to help those who struggle with a similar people-pleasing propensity, especially those who are drowning in discouragement of ministry and missions. People pleasers like me despair when we fail and relish in pride when we succeed. May we take our eyes off of others and find that rest and our complete satisfaction in him (John 6:35).