Missionary Kid: How I Learned to Say Goodbye by John Haines

“You see, dear reader, the past is never far from any of us. Its presence has a way of growing as more and more time goes by. Like a continuous but imperceptible whisper, the past is always there. ”

In his book Missionary Kid: How I Learned to Say Goodbye, John Haines gives a humorous and heartfelt account of his early life and adult journey as a hobo jetsetter, also known as a missionary kid. I found it to be so entertaining, filled with dry wit and humorous descriptions, as well as some photographs and John’s original sketches. At the same time John poignantly captures the sorrows, regrets and longings that we have all experienced.

John’s parents served with North Africa Mission. Today this organization has incorporated two other missions – Southern Morocco Mission and Algiers Mission Band – changed their name to Arab World Ministry and joined with Pioneers. He was born in Morocco, moved to Marseilles for most of his childhood, and eventually attended Black Forest Academy, the international Christian boarding school in Germany.

After high school John was steered towards a Christian college, as is the tradition for many missionary kids. During his journey as a young adult he learned to question his beliefs, and constantly felt the urge to move on, from a couple of Bible colleges, to a State University in Minnesota, to graduate school in Toronto, with several stints of employment along the way. The sadness of the goodbye is described so eloquently in this passage:

“Have you ever had to say goodbye to a house or country, to a lover or friend whom you knew you would not see in a long time, possibly ever again? If you have, then you know that this goodbye is the hardest goodbye in the world, because when you come back, if you ever come back, this person or place will have changed beyond recognition. You too will have changed. And so, whether you know it or not, this goodbye is the last goodbye.”

And yet, like other MKs, John uprooted himself by choice many times during his adult life, moving like a nomad between schools and jobs, states and countries. After a childhood of being uprooted and forced to leave people that we love, you might think an MK wants nothing more than to settle down and live in one place, but for many of us the reality is very different. The constant urge to move on creates more necessary goodbyes, which seems to create a vicious cycle.

The book is addressed to three groups of people: Believers, Unbelievers and Innocent Ones. If you feel like you definitely don’t fit into any of those categories, you are probably a member of a fourth option, the Missionary Kid.

You will recognize many common features of missionary life, no matter which country you grew up in. The housekeeper and babysitter, whether man or woman, who would be a luxury to an American family, was commonplace among African missionaries. The prayer letter, which as John explains had a primary goal of fund-raising, was how missionaries kept in touch with their supporters, family and friends before the days of facebook, email and blogs. On a personal note, the prayer letter had a secondary function of documenting every awkward and unphotogenic moment of our childhood and adolescence, which would then be mailed far and wide to all the people we would meet when we came home on furlough.

We all participated in plenty of sword drills, and who among us cannot speak fluent “King James?”

I can relate to the stigma of the “missionary kid” label, and having to explain to people that our lives were not like “The Poisonwood Bible.” John does not buy the definition of third culture kids, but maintains that we are not defined by some mythical third country, but by the lack of a country. A missionary kid is missing a home.

There is an undercurrent of sadness in this story that will also feel familiar. Longing for someone that you were torn away from at a young age, like John’s beloved ‘ummy. The sorrow of not knowing your grandparents. The disconnect that missionaries and their kids feel when they return to their home country. The realization that the country which held so many promises is not what you expected.

Although this is not a story of abuse, the theme of the past being always present in your memory, and the needs to finally grapple with it, is relevant to many readers of this blog.

“It may fade, but it never disappears. Wherever we are, wherever we go, no matter how long we ignore it and no matter how hard we try to shake it, the past has been waiting, patiently waiting. Lying quiet and breathing still, it has been waiting for that moment when, finally, we give in and embrace it with all of its fury and affection.”

This is a circular story – it tells of lives that have traveled around many paths only to wind up in a starting place. John finally settles in Canada, the beloved home of his maternal grandparents. He ends with a story of “coming home” to Morocco at the age of fifty, for a visit. An encounter with some children on the street, the very sort of children that his parents ministered to for all those years, ignites a spark. “I looked into their eyes and felt the love of God,” another full circle for a missionary kid who bounced from evangelical to apostate and back again.

This book will both entertain you and tug at your heartstrings. You can find it on Amazon.com.