During their Orientation last fall, mission-bound lay missioners Anna and Kyle Johnson asked me over the dinner table what it was like to be the child of missioners. Their interest was obvious since they were preparing to start their mission in Tanzania with their three children, ages 12, 10 and 8. Charlotte, their youngest, was only one year older than I was when my parents took me and my siblings to Mexico.
Their particular interest aside, it was a good question — and one that briefly made me the center of attention at a dinner table shared with far more remarkable and accomplished missioners than myself. It is a question I have asked myself often.
In my cover letter to Maryknoll’s Office for Global Concerns, I wrote: “I was only 7 years old when my parents took my siblings and me to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a three-year-long service as Maryknoll lay missioners. That experience left an indelible impression on me, manifesting in innumerable ways. Overall, it gave me an appreciation for the wide range of human experience, and a sense of duty and purpose.”
Upon my return to the United States, throughout high school and college, I learned that I had a special interest in, and capacity for, seeing people who break the mold, and making them feel not quite as alone. My memory of being an outsider coming upon a world I might never have known existed has given me a special empathy for others who also find themselves out of place.
A happy byproduct of this disposition is that I meet a lot of newcomers here in the United States who are willing to share their cultures with me. The Spanish-speaking migrants I encounter are surprised that I am able to pronounce their names, or show even a modicum of interest or familiarity with their backgrounds. Until you have encountered the world outside of the United States, it is hard to fathom the depths of how provincial the world’s superpower can be.
It is a cherished gift to receive, especially at a young age. But it was not a gift to easily receive. As soon as I arrived in Oaxaca, I began the countdown for our return. To a 7-year-old, three years sound like an eternity. I missed the New York greenery and my grandparents, with whom I was so close (literally and figuratively).
I spoke no Spanish when we arrived, yet was enrolled in an all-Spanish language Catholic school. My second-grade report card captures the exact moment that I learned the language that first year: the first three quarters showing fail grades until the complete reversal in the final quarter that brought me to the top of my class.
I wish I could give advice to the younger me: that the feeling of being overwhelmed, of hopelessness, and thinking that I would never learn the language, was actually a turning point. And perhaps that the difficulty I experienced was a necessary place from which to depart in order for Spanish to become second nature.
I would also tell my younger self that returning to the United States could, in some ways, be just as difficult, because I would not be returning to the United States I remembered. The world (or rather, my awareness of it) had grown while I was on mission. That is not the kind of thing one easily forgets.
Maturity is a process of growth to be expected throughout childhood, even if arriving piecemeal. Mission expedited that growth, though to what extent is imprecisely known. If ignorance is bliss, it was “bliss” that I lost, somewhere between the mission term and normal adolescence.
Today I find it hard to reconcile my recurrent disappointment in reality for failing to meet my strong sense of justice. Given my family background, this would probably have been an issue I would have faced anyway, with or without having gone abroad in mission.
But I think that I would not change the experience if I could. And I would not tell my parents to go anywhere else. Knowing what I know now, as I am setting out to make a life of my own, I can say that the Maryknoll mission was the greatest gift my parents could give to me.
Thank you so much for writing this, Thomas. It is rare that I get to speak much to the children of our missioners, so I can only imagine what their experience is like. For you to share your experience, similar I am sure to so many of our “mission kids,” is a real gift and a privilege for me. I am glad that mission had such a positive influence on you.