“Say it again,” they urged me. I felt like an animal in a cage, surrounded by the watchful eyes of gleeful children who poked at its helpless form with a stick. My fellow college-aged camp counselors hailed mostly from Canada and the Northeastern United States. Much of the kitchen crew came from the United Kingdom. The oddity of my red hair and southern drawl quickly earned me the nickname, “Georgia Ginger,” and now they wanted me to speak on command like a trained parrot.
I hadn’t traveled outside of the Deep South much before and didn’t realize I had a different vocabulary than people from other parts of the United States. When I said I was fixin’ to go somewhere and they laughed, I felt exposed and uncertain of what I’d done that warranted their teasing. I never realized my place in the world unknowingly shaped me in ways that were unlike other people.
Understanding the world
I was young and unaware of how acutely our understanding of ourselves, others, and even God, is formed by the location and people we are born into or by the proximity we allow ourselves to cultures unlike our own. I later learned the word for it in my seminary studies: worldview. James Sire in The Universe Next Door explains a worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart” and says a person’s worldview “provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”(1)
The place, family, religious tradition, and culture in which we grow and learn shapes our understanding of the world and how we will interact with it. Each person has a unique vantage point shaped by our circumstances, background, and life experiences; but we share common beliefs and commitments to those who are like us, who share our place in the world. This is the foundation upon which we build our beliefs about God and the universe God created.
My upbringing in what’s called the “Bible Belt” didn’t just influence the way I speak. The phrases y’all and bless your heart aren’t the only takeaways I gained from growing up in the former Confederacy. As I stepped further outside of the boundaries of the Mason Dixon Line and the Atlantic Ocean, I learned just how much that red clay had been the fertile ground for a particular view of God.
The shock to my body as a young adult who was transplanted into the Western Sahara Desert was nothing compared to the shock to my soul. Wide-eyed and newly married, I sat on the hewn rock pews of the largest church in the Middle East and listened to Arabic sermons next to my new Coptic Orthodox neighbors.
I learned fresh ways of seeing everything I had ever known along with new words for God and the way to understand and explain faith. I must have looked like my camp counselor friends in those early days, mouth agape with shock and delight, “Say it again.” Abouna. Father. Eid. Feast.
There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...
At night these mostly bare walls with fresh paint echo more than they used to, bouncing each memory of the past six years back through my unquiet mind. The crickets and tree frogs sing a melody that is as commonplace to me here as the call to prayer and honking cars was when we lived in the Middle East. I haven’t stopped to notice it in a long time but in these still moments it is blaring in my ears, reminding me of all we are leaving behind.
A long-held dream is possibly just weeks away (the nature of overseas moves is always a little uncertain as we wait on visas and funding and a house to sell). I keep myself busy every waking hour but not just because my list of tasks to accomplish is long. If I sit in the quiet too long, the conflict inside begins to rage.
I see it in my daughter too, her sweet eyes filling up with tears when she asks for another doll accessory and I remind her we have to be selective in what we buy as we’ll only have so much room in the two suitcases each that will carry all our belongings with us to South Asia. We’re giving up a lot of things, sure. But what about the experiences, the people, the opportunities that we are leaving behind? I know the truth—that we will gain as much as we lose. My heart doesn’t always believe it though.
For sixteen years now this dream of living overseas has tumbled around inside of me. Fueled by five international trips in the past three years, fed by the stories we’ve heard from our refugee friends nearby, the dream has only grown. My husband had the seeds planted in his life early too when his parents hosted international workers in their home. The stories of faraway lands seemed otherworldly to an eight-year-old boy but the fire was ignited just the same. We’ve been working towards this for years.
Last month every event seemed to be a last one. We didn’t make a big deal of it to the kids, didn’t want each day to be colored by, “oh, this is your last dance recital and tomorrow is your last Independence Day parade and next week is your last time to that friend’s house!” After a beautiful week with our best friends at the beach house where we have vacationed every summer for eleven years now, we made the long walk to our cars. It’s always hard to say goodbye to them because we live states apart anyway.
The pain didn’t grip me though until the moment I wrapped my arms around my friend to say goodbye. We knew each other when we were just foolish college kids. Life hasn’t turned out like we thought it would. In most ways it is so much better than we imagined though some realities are harder than we dreamed. I kissed her two precious girls goodbye, feeling like I was placing my own children in their car seats. I lingered a moment to whisper “I love you” to the little boy growing in her belly knowing I won’t get to hold him when he’s still tiny. He will be born a month after we leave. The ache claws at the back of my throat and I can’t look at her with the tears burning my eyes, so I quickly turn away...
Have you ever felt a connection to a place without yet visiting it? A kinship with a people you’ve never met?
That’s the way I felt when I first dreamed of going to South Asia. Tiny glimpses of a vibrant culture ignited a fire inside that didn’t make any sense, but wouldn’t let go of me. Friends and family thought it was absurd. I feared they might be right, but I had to see for myself.
For two months I lived in a land I’d only known in my dreams. But the moment the sticky heat of that crowded city hit my skin on the tarmac, I felt connected. It was like a physical weight settled over my body and the presence of a place felt like home even though I had never known it outside of stories and photographs.
Now I find myself back at that strange avenue between worlds again. My family has been working towards moving to South Asia for over a year. When the door to the city we had been planning to move, slammed shut a few months ago, we were left scrambling and asking God what it all meant.
A place was suggested and we resisted at first. But then the power of a story entered in, that mysterious feeling of belonging tugging at our hearts. We watched a video of a woman who had been a child-bride. She had complications in childbirth that had stripped her of her child, her husband and her dignity. She received the care she needed and training in a skill. She had a hope and a future again and her face beamed. Her joy crossed the miles between us and drew me to a sister I might never meet but who is changing the destiny of my entire family with her story.
We watched video after video, read stories and talked to people who live there. We made the decision to move to a city we have never visited, a country that is foreign to us. Ridiculous? Maybe.
Sure? We couldn’t be more certain.
When we tell people we want to move to a developing nation, we get those looks...
The holidays have always been a time of togetherness and feasting for my family. When crispness enters the air, bringing relief from the stifling Georgia summer, my mind turns to standing in my mom’s kitchen and making noodles or pound cake, pulling out the card table to make room for everyone in the kitchen.
The year my husband and I found ourselves living in a land that was still new to us when the holidays rolled around, we had none of the familiar traditions to anchor us to the season of feasting and family.
Our family was celebrating together over 6,000 miles away. Fall for us in the Middle East was marked by one uncommon rainfall, not falling leaves. We spent Thanksgiving with a group of internationals, eating turkey alongside stuffed grape leaves, the familiar next to the new. There was food and laughter, but it didn’t feel like a feast.
Homesickness settled in over my soul in the middle of the holiday season, pictures from home brought reminders of all I was missing out on. The poinsettia and little Charlie Brown tree in the corner were the only evidence of an approaching Christmas until an amazing thing happened.
Twinkling lights started adorning the buildings next to us and lanterns were strung between balconies. Candies and dates piled up in the produce section of the little grocery store and makeshift stables were erected in the streets outside our flat.
The Muslim holidays occur at different times each year following the lunar Islamic calendar. Eid-al-Adha, the cause of all of the decorations and excitement, happened to fall only a few days before our Christmas that year...