Author - Graham Poland, Elder, Grosvenor Church, Devon
Graham Poland grew up as an Echoes missionary kid firstly in Morocco and then Portugal. He and his wife, Maureen, have been in Christian ministry since 1978, initially with GLO, and for the last 31 years in Barnstaple, Devon, where they have seen Grosvenor Church grow to over 600 people in 3 congregations.
“You’re not Irish!” he said with a derogatory smile on his face. I was confused, because I thought I was. Some might quip that it doesn’t take much for an Irishman to get confused, but this one stunned me. I had been born in the same Southern Irish town as him, both of my parents had been born and bred in Dublin, both sets of my grandparents were Irish. How was I not Irish? Well, probably, I understand now, because he heard an English accent.
I had that accent because I had been deposited at boarding school in England at the age of eleven. I was in Ireland because that was where I had been sent for my Easter holidays from school, packaged off, as I frequently was, to stay with a friend of the family because my parents couldn’t afford for me to go home. Home was not in Ireland, but a two-hour flight away in Portugal. However, in those pre-Ryanair days, that cost more than a missionary could afford. Yes, I’m an M.K. (Mission Kid) and have grown to be proud of it, but back then I wasn’t sure what I was, except for the fact I’d just been informed I definitely wasn’t Irish.
The pint-sized international commuter
I had a multicultural childhood. I learnt to walk and talk in Morocco, moved to Portugal at the age of 3, then survived adolescence flitting between boarding school in England, Easters in Ireland, with long summers and Christmases back at ‘home’, learning street Portuguese with my temporary friends. At times I felt like an international commuter, battered suitcase in tow, emotionally numbed by the frequent ‘goodbyes’.
I am learning to fix my heart more on heaven than on earth
A sense of displacement
One of the common denominators that I am sure many missionary kids of my era share is that sense of displacement. Where do you belong? You hear your parents talk about going ‘home’ on furlough but you thought your home was where they were living. Then you find yourself thousands of miles away in a boarding school in a cold, grey, dismal country; in my case hating the place, and vowing to get out as soon as I could. Let me clarify: I never resented being an M.K. In fact, I loved the sense of adventure, felt very grown-up leaving home at eleven, and enjoyed being different from other kids. But there were times when I was confused, and, with this real Irishman looking down at me, this was one of them.
We live in a much more fluid, transitory society today than when I was that displaced kid and, as a result, there are millions around the world who are also confused as to where they belong. Every day we see the lucky survivors who tumble out of a make-shift raft onto a foreign shore to start a strange new life. My experience has helped me to empathise and identify with them.
Jesus came “to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (Jn 1:10). Yet He was secure in being a stranger, propelled by the knowledge that he was on a mission. I increasingly identify with the Scripture that reminds me that, “here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). This understanding has released me from my confusion. ‘Home’, they say ‘is where the heart is.’ I am learning to fix my heart more on heaven than on earth and to recognise that here I am not a settler but a temporary resident.
The irony is that I ended up being a missionary myself in that cold, grey, dismal country I vowed to get out of! Our misguided expectation may be that a missionary is someone who goes ‘abroad’. But I have come to realise that mission has less to do with location than with vocation. I suggest that what you are called to do is more important than where you do it.
Guidance as to what to do with our lives should be shaped more around gifting than geography. To, “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) obviously includes the land in which you find yourself. In my case it was not the land of my first choice, but it was where a door for ministry opened wide, allowing the fullest expression of my gifts and those of my wife; teaching, pastoring and counselling. By stepping through that door I have found that many other doors have opened up for others to be influenced and encouraged to, “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mk 16:15), sent and supported by the churches I have led.
Yes, we need a vision for the whole world and a heart that embraces all nationalities, whether we go to them or they come to us. But the most important thing is that we follow God’s calling on our life, wherever that may be. That’s where we belong.