Moving into the Village
When you go through training before serving overseas, you are told many things. Two of the most important are: be flexible and be an observer first. We are told these things because when entering a new system in a new country things are not going to go the way you think they should or run as efficiently as you think they should. Things change so constantly that change soon becomes one of the only things you can depend on.
It is very easy for someone to enter another culture and quickly decide that they know all the ways the situation can be improved upon! This can be in small, day to day things like how to line up (queue) for something but also in more serious situations like how to resolve conflict in a church community. The well-seasoned missionaries in our orientations are trying to prepare us doe-eyed new-comers as kindly as possible. This is going to shave off some rough edges we did not know we had and force us to slow down and learn that we are not as wise as we think we are. For all their enthusiasm, no new missionary ever quite knows what they are getting into.
Moving in with a family where routines and preferences and family culture are already established is like moving into a cross-cultural community. The one who is moving in does well to remember to be flexible and be an observer first.
Just think about it. No missionary should move into a village expecting that everyone will adapt to accommodate them. When I moved into Gasmalla, simply living and looking around the village made it clear to me that my presence would not and should not affect everyday happenings. I was not that important. This new world that I was experiencing existed long before I arrived and would continue long after I was gone. It seemed clear that the bulk of the adjustments would be mine to make. It was my responsibility to adapt into what they already were as a community. I was the foreigner imposed into their system. Even though my being there was an agreement between the village and SIM, the arrangement was made at our request and so I entered in gently.
You are on their turf and so you do things their way. You adapt, learn the norms and fall in line (even when you don’t agree or understand), and you do your utmost to become someone who they can choose to include. You hope that if you humble yourself, live honestly and transparently, and set aside as many of your comforts and preferences as you can they might allow you the privilege of being an ‘insider.’
The process of becoming an ‘insider’ is actually a sliding scale and is effected over time by a myriad of factors. In the end, I would wager that as a foreigner you can never fully get there but you can move along that scale. You cannot deny what you are but every bit of progress counts when it comes to relationships.
Entering into a new family as a step-parent is very similar. Simply moving in does not make the family feel like yours or make it something you understand or agree with all of the time. Should they all change everything they have been up until now just to make you feel more comfortable? No, you moved into their turf after all.
Usually, entering a family in the West is about bringing two lives together equally. It is an agreement to find new norms together and to create a new safe place that is ‘home’ for both people. From that base, a new family grows. The first trip we took out to Gasmalla to discuss me moving in was much less romantic and way more one-sided than a marriage proposal! James knew that he was helping SIM by allowing me to come and he trusted that in time it would benefit the village. He was allowing us to use the village as a school for me and we were promising them nothing in return other than friendship. In good faith James, the chief, and the village elders all said “yes” to our proposal.
New step-families do not have the luxuries that traditional new families enjoy. There is less freedom of movement for compromise within the already established family. So to serve the stability of the children and family unit, the step-parent entry does look much more like a foreigner in a new environment. This is especially true right off the bat. You hope that if you humble yourself, live honestly and transparently, and set aside as many of your comforts and preferences as you can they might allow you the privilege of moving along that scale towards ‘insider.’
In the end, the risk the Gasmalla community took by letting a stranger into their midst that they would have to protect, share with, and teach paid off in more ways than we knew it would. I was adopted into a village and into a wider people who decided to allow me to belong. By God’s grace alone, over time I proved that I loved them, valued the things that mattered to them, and could be trusted. I demonstrated that I wanted the best for them, that I wanted to serve them, and that I wanted to be with them.
This is exactly what I find myself trying to do all over again.
On a daily basis, over time and by God’s grace alone, I am working to prove that I love Caleb, Sophie, and Sam, that I value the things that matter to them, and that I can be trusted. I am trying to demonstrate that I want the best for them, that I want to serve them, and that I want to be with them.
There are some added challenges this time around. Because I am from Canada this is not a cross-cultural context, which actually makes it harder. In another culture I could more naturally default to my training to be flexible and observe first. I have to fight my inclinations toward how I pictured it would be when I got married and toward the picture of what ‘my kids’ would be like if I had raised them from the start. The reality is that Tyler and I do not get a honeymoon phase to create a marriage with just the two of us and build an agreed-up foundation for our family. I did not raise these kids in my ways from the start. While this is my family now, it existed long before I entered the picture so by nature, this family does not yet reflect much of me at all. These pressures weigh on me and get in the way of our coming together…unless I remember that I am still the foreigner imposing on them and their system. The bulk of the adjustments should be mine to bear. I need to enter gently.
The area of my brain that suffered the shock of being in a new place jumps into action as I talk down my expectations now. The part of me that learned to face the discomfort of people doing things that were strange and made no sense to me wakes up to help me when I feel exasperated. The battle is real. It takes place daily and neither side gets to win every time but as hard and as foreign as this new life feels some days, this process also feels familiar.
Today I sit in a comfortable arm chair and I am thousands of miles away from my village, my Mabaan family, my dog, and from a cook-fire. After a few really rough weeks of fighting within myself, I need to remember that I have done ‘this’ before. I need to remember that God will enable me to do it again. And I find hope in trusting that, like before, the risks we all are taking might pay off in more ways than we expected.
I cannot deny what I am: a newbie, a foreigner, not their birth mother. It is my daily prayer and hope once again, that if I humble myself, live honestly and transparently, and set aside as many of my comforts and preferences as I can they might allow me the privilege of becoming an ‘insider.’ By God’s grace, I pray that they will allow me to become someone who belongs among them, a true family member… a mom.
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One thought on “How 9 Years in South Sudan Prepared Me for Step-Motherhood: Part 3”
Christiane – so very sweet! Surely the Lord will honor and bless, though as with many things, you may not see it as soon as one might wish. And what a sweet and encouraging Mother’s Day note from Sophie! I was thinking about you last weekend, praying for you, and thinking the only way through for you without being hurt would be to not have expectations, that this (and perhaps every) Mother’s Day wasn’t about you but them and God’s glory and work. The way of the cross leads home. Love your heart, Christiane! A blessing to read your posts.