The Influence of Missionary Parents

By the time I had lived through elementary school I was emotionally disconnected from my parents. It was necessary, since I only got to see them four months out of the year, and had by then weathered many, many trials without their help. Those of you who were sent to boarding school at the age of six know what I am talking about. We still love and respect our parents, but the emotional dependence of normal kids was severed when we flew away on that plane in September. (Some kids went home to parents who were abusive, and that is a whole other conversation.)

One thing all of our missionary parents have in common is that they are dedicated, determined and disciplined. In fact they are formidable people, who left their homes and traveled to Africa at a time when travel wasn’t easy, often by themselves, to embark on a life that was dangerous and uncertain. I think we all grew up with a lot of respect for our parents, if not actual fear. They set a high mark for us to follow. These are larger-than-life people who did some miraculous things, but we lost the chance to have a close relationship with them when they sent us away at such a young age.

Fast forward to the present day, and many MKs are stuck in a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. We long for a bond that can never be put back together, and we are careful not to do anything to upset what is there. We don’t want to get our parents in hot water with SIM by talking about abuse, especially if they are a resident at an SIM Retirement Home. We certainly don’t want to go into that dark place of grief with our parents, because it is like a chasm that will swallow us both up. We know now about the pain of separation from our own children, we can guess at how our parents suffered when they sent us away, and nobody wants to relive those emotions.

Some MKs have only begun to speak out about abuse after their parents passed away. My own father passed away before I started gathering information for this blog. It seems their passing opens a door that compels us or allows us to grab onto childhood experiences. Some MKs whose parents are still alive will only speak anonymously about abuse, or flat out deny having any issues with boarding school. We MKs are a very independent bunch, so why do our parents still have so much influence on this conversation?


I recently had a chance to read An Open Letter to Missionary Parents, by Rachel Steffen. Rachel is an MK who went on to the mission field and so also has the perspective of a parent. Rachel and her husband served for 27 years on the mission field with New Tribes, where they raised four children. This is not easy reading for an MK, and I imagine it is not easy for parents to read either, but I believe what she says is necessary, important and true.

SIM Missionaries, many of you have children who were abused or abandoned. Do you even know what happened to your children while they were at boarding school? Do you dare to ask? Perhaps you can give your children permission to take the steps that lead to healing. You can be advocates for your children with SIM, and you can ask SIM to investigate abuse and provide care for their wounded MKs. You can let your children know you support them. Please read An Open Letter to Missionary Parents, written by another missionary parent to YOU.

If you are an MK who was abused on the mission field, how do your parents influence whether or not you speak out?


7 thoughts on “The Influence of Missionary Parents

  1. I just found this blog, so I’m struggling with a lot of emotions right now. I thought I was much more alone than I apparently am.
    I was not removed from our home, but even in that situation I still understood that I was prioritized well below “god’s calling”, so the same silencing happened with the daily decisions to not tell them all sorts of things so that I wouldn’t take their focus from their “holy work”. That being said, I was not subjected to more harassment from other people than I might have back home in the US, and none of it was from mission-associated people with the exception of some boys whose family attended our church. And yes, even at the age of 9 I was fully capable of understanding the political and emotional ramifications should I have chosen to tell anyone, I knew I was not important enough to protect, so I never said anything.

    Regarding my parents: As he’s gotten older, my father has looked back on a lot of things in life in regards to his children and there have been a surprising number of apologies, almost all unasked for but rather because he started looking at the big picture and putting pieces together. The one time I brought something up to my mother she responded with something so shockingly hurtful and re-victimizing that I can barely look at her over a year later. So yeah, would think that bringing it up is absolutely a very risky thing to do, for them, but also us. The strange thing, I guess, is that it can be really hard to predict how our parents will individually react, as most people would have guessed that my mother would have reacted as my father did and vice versa. Most of us have that attachment problem with them, we really know them less so it can be hard to know how they might react. It’s sometimes easier to deal with not telling them and holding on to a slight comfort feeling of “Well, if they had known they would have protected me,” than to face a cold reality that maybe they wouldn’t have, maybe they still wouldn’t be sorry (which obviously did happen to me).

    So in making the decision, it’s not just about thinking of our parents, it’s continuing to protect ourselves from our parents. It’s a shockingly cold truth to face sometimes, but it just is… 😦

  2. My parents are both dead now so talking to them about what occurred at school is not something that can really occur. However, it often occurs in my mind as I think about what happened. Most of the time I try to ignore what occurred and not to think about it as it disturbs my peace of mind much less that way.

    With one exception Mother and I never talked about what happened but I am convinced that she understood that a great number of bad things had happened. She did tell me that my elementary teacher in grades 1 through 4 told them that I was stupid, would never amount to anything and would not graduate from high school. The first time mother told me about this was shortly after I had won a university tuition scholarship. We talked about it again not long before mother died and she expressed real anger over the occurrence. Mother had also intended to keep me with them in Bonga and home school me for grade 1. Unfortunately my asthma got really bad when we moved into the house next to the school building. The mold in recently poured concrete is a known serious allergen for many asthmatics. I can still remember long interminable nights sitting on a folding lounge chair on the front porch of our home in Bonga. Sending me off to boarding school was the only solution to an intolerable situation. Eight months or so later at the end of grade 1 they asked me how school was and said that it was fine except that I could not read. Even though mother was teaching full time in the Bonga government school, during the Bingham vacation mother taught me to read and just prior to leaving for school in late March or early April I read Ben Hur to myself. Amazing what a good teacher who cares can accomplish!

    One of the issues of Roots (the SIM USA AMK newsletter) concentrated on Bingham Academy and had pictures of most of the staff. My dad insisted on showing me the pictures. Upon the second or third instance of trying to show me the pictures I said that I considered some of the people evil, did not want to view their pictures and walked out. Later that evening I sat my father down and took him through what had occurred. He expressed anger at what they had been told by my elementary school teacher. Also he was concerned with whether or not the sexual abuse that I experienced involved a member of the mission or not. (Gowan’s Home was partially staffed by non missionaries.) He expressed relief when I indicated that the sexual abuse was not from a member of the mission. Other than that there was no response to what I was saying, either immediately or the next day. My brother expressed approval at what I had said since he felt that he had not been believed when he told dad of the conditions.

    So how would my parents react if like Rachel Steffen they had separately attended a conference for MK abuse survivors? Of course I can’t know for sure. My strong intuition is that mother would have been appalled and overcome with guilt and grief. I doubt that my father would have reacted in any helpful way and possibly his main reaction would have been concern over the revelations impact on SIM’s and his own reputation and ministry.


    ps I hold some even many of the school staff in high regard and realize that they often did the best they could in very difficult conditions brought about by higher authorities in the mission and the ethos (as I perceived it) that the children did not matter when doing the Lord’s work.

  3. I was 5 and my brother was 3 when we were first left at Gowan’s Home (or Gowan’s abuse facility as I think of it). Thus I would correct your assumption that only school age children were left at SIM facilities.

    Before we came home for furlough I had expected that we would live together as a family for the furlough year. I was bitterly disappointed when both my parents left for months at a time on deputation work and my brother and I stayed with my grandparents. At that point I began to realize that we would never be a “normal” family. Years later I realized how disconnected I was from my parental family. Friends of my wife and I became very busy with school and work and simply stopped seeing their friends for the interim. I realized that when I became busy or stressed the first thing I cut back on was relationships with my parental family and that the last thing I would cut out was friends. I saw my friends at school for 9 months at a time and then saw my parents for 3, naturally friends became more important.

  4. My parents have never admitted (and I have my doubt they ever will) that they made mistakes with their kids. I can see them burdened in so many other ways about their decisions that led to great mistakes (burnout, illness, kids in boarding school, kids in college in the US far away from their siblings) and yet they don’t seem to realize that there could have been something wrong with their decisions. It has often felt like these were acceptable sacrifices in the name of their work. There were four of us kids, and perhaps mistakes the first time around are understandable-you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into sometimes, and you make the best decisions you can, but I cannot imagine finding it acceptable to leave your eldest in college and then going back overseas, tearing their family away from them and then later wondering why your kids don’t get along and rarely call or see each other. I knew kids that were abused in dorms, at home. I saw blatant favoritism, unfair and unusual punishments, and so many kids just quietly shut down so they wouldn’t be the reason their parents had to leave “god’s calling.”
    Thank you for writing this…

  5. Elizabeth, I loved your synopsis and I appreciated the Open Letter to Missionary Parents. I tried to post a comment, but for some reason it was not allowed. thanks for continueing to work in this arena 🙂 love you, debbie

  6. I feel I have a pretty good relationship with my parents, and was not abused at school, but it is still hard to talk about anything negative related to boarding school, or MK life in general. They get very upset, even when I pick something I think is pretty small, and have expressed they had no idea I felt that way, or things were like that. They’ve also apologized and said they were wrong to send us away so young (me 8, my brother 7). I think it’s really hard to kick that habit of keeping quiet and protecting your parents, though. I feel I’m not sure they can deal with hearing bad things, and seeing their pain hurts me. It’s a short step to other issues I’m not sure I want to go into with them, too, like being angry at them for not putting us kids first. I guess the good relationship we have now has taken a lot of effort, and is precious, and it can seem not worth the risk of making it harder. Now that I have it, I don’t want to spoil it.

    That letter is amazing. And thanks for writing this, I think you described the whole situation very well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s