We are five Christian Americans living in Ecuador. We eat Chinese stir fry, Italian pizzas, Southern pot roast, Spanish paella, Mexican burritos, Ecuadorian salsa de aji, Chilean empanadas, and Venezuelan arepas. We were born in Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Maryland, and Venezuela. We’ve celebrated birthdays in Texas, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Israel, Gaza, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Tennessee, to name a few. We use American Sign Language and English at home. The kids use English and Spanish at school. We use Spanish and Ecuadorian Sign Language at church.
So I ask you, “Where is our identity?”
Does identity lie in our physical location today? Or is identity a part of where we have come from? Do we get to choose where we are from regardless of other factors?
I asked our kids last night, “Where are you from?” Preston, age 12, had the hardest time.
“Umm…I don’t know. North Carolina? I mean, that’s where I was born. I’ve lived in Venezuela and Ecuador, too, but I’m not from those places. Lived in Europe, too. I guess….umm. Why?”
Zachary, age 9, did a little better.
“I’m from Maryland. I was born there, but I’ve never lived there. I’d have to say…Ecuador? Yeah, Ecuador. I’m from here.”
Emily, age 6, was quite certain.
“Caracas, Venezuela. I’m not from the US. And I’m not from Ecuador. I just live here.”
As you may have guessed, or already known, my wife and I are missionaries; our kid are missionary kids (MKs). Part of their struggle as MKs is one of identity. Everywhere you go in this world, people will ask about weather, sports, and where you are from. Part of my struggle is figuring out how to guide my children as they seek to answer that question for themselves. I cannot tell them who they are; they must formulate the answer to that question. I’ve tried to brace them for the assumptions they will face when they get to the US later this year.
“People will ask you,” I said, “how it feels to be home.”
The boys laughed, then sobered up when they realized I was serious. “But….who ever said the US was our home?” they asked. “We’ll just say that as soon as we get back to Ecuador we’ll let ’em know.”
Yeah, that’s gonna go over really, really well with Grandma.
A different side of identity is theology. We are solidly Baptist in our beliefs and thoughts, and yet even within the international Baptist family there are differences. For example, I grew up believing certain things about the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus went to heaven in the story because God loved him in spite of his poverty. Where we attend church here, though, Lazarus is believed to have gone to heaven not in spite of his poverty but because of it. Jesus, the thinking goes, always preferred the poor to the rich. The rich man went to hell not because of his lack of compassion or mercy, but because he was, in fact, rich.
Similarly, I learned as an American that we were blessed by God in material and spiritual ways. Our three-bedroom home was evidence of His provision. In our travels, though, we’ve seen that other Baptists view wealth as evidence of an apparent pursuit of mammon; only the poor can truly claim to serve one master.
Consider the notion of servants and deacons within the church. In our last country, women very often served in ways that Southern Baptists would traditionally leave to (male) deacons. Were they female deacons, or simply untitled church servants who happened to pass out the Lord’s Supper?
My question relates not to who is most correct. Instead, I am wondering who my children will grow up to be; their identities. Are they Caucasian Latinos, white on the outside but certainly not North American in the ways that matter? Will my daughter be frustrated in her attempts to serve in US churches, left out of things that the South American church does not interpret as being gender specific?* Will my sons have a view of money within the church that, being part Ecuadorian, part Venezuelan and part Southern Baptist, does not fit anywhere? What other views are going to creep up along the way?**
The easy answer would be to say, “We are neither American, Ecuadorian, or Venezuelan. We are neither Deaf nor hearing. We are simply children of God.” Sure, but from where?
*Author’s note: the South American churches in question hold to the idea of male pastors. The issue is not clear mandates, but local practices that we place on our understanding of the Scriptures.
**Author’s note: Stacy and I find ourselves being slowly altered, not quite fitting into our North American niches as well as we did previously. Does this change where we are from?