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When God sends the grandparents away image

When God sends the grandparents away

An interview with a multi-generational missionary family.

Hear the good news, repent and believe
Follow the Saviour and everything leave
Taking the yoke that's easy and light
Dressed for the battle equipped for the fight
Learn from the master to sacrifice all 
Gladly obeying his call

Now is the moment, the day of salvation
This is the hour to be serving the King
Bearing the gospel go to the nations
Now is the time for our tribute to bring
And live for the kingdom …
(‘Live for the kingdom’, Rob Smith)

Last year, I heard these words being sung at the commissioning service of some friends, Jeremy & Jill, who were heading to Cambodia to serve as long-term missionaries. My friends had been missionaries in their younger days, spending a total of 11 years in Tanzania with their two young daughters. Now they had decided to return to the mission field as ‘empty-nesters’.

The person leading the singing that day was actually one of my friends’ daughters. As she sang those words, she was sending her own parents off to a distant mission field. She and her younger sister, who now has two small children of her own, would surely have preferred their parents to stay.

Curious, I interviewed this multi-generational mission family to find out what it was like for the girls to grow up on the mission field, and then ‘send’ their parents—their kids’ grandparents—back.

How old were the girls when you went overseas the first time?

Jill and Jeremy: Originally, Jeremy applied to go to Tanzania as a single missionary. Instead, we got married and went together one year later. Jasmine was born during our first home assignment and Juliet was born two years later. 

After two tours (seven years), we decided to leave Tanzania as Jill felt pressure from her parents; our girls were their only grandchildren. Upon returning to Australia, we both felt that this had been the wrong decision. Nevertheless, we took four years to give her parents some meaningful time with the girls. Much to their sadness, we returned to Tanzania for another four-year term.

What were the 'costs' of raising your children on the mission field?

Jeremy: Some people were very concerned about us taking our children to Tanzania, as they were worried about how their education would be affected and all (in their minds) the things that they would miss out on. For us, this proved absolutely false. We returned to Australia with two confident young ladies who were academically ahead of their peers. Both of them have gone on to pursue vocations based on experiences they had in Tanzania. I believe that it is the parents who ultimately create the family ‘dynamic’. Missionary families can grow stronger by experiencing many different and wonderful things together. Raising our girls in Tanzania was the best thing we could have given them! 

Jill: I think the biggest cost was for my parents as they were not really committed Christians. In the 90s communication was sporadic: letters with a six-week turnaround and a very expensive phone call once or twice a year.

How did growing up on the mission field impact your faith?

Jasmine: From a young age I realised that following Jesus was costly. Although I also felt very privileged and honoured to be part of God's global mission. Coming back to Australia made me so aware of how rich we are here, both materially and spiritually. I've often felt the great sense of responsibility to share this wealth as from those who have been given much, much is required (Luke 12:48).

Do you feel you missed out on anything?

Jasmine: Not really. I recognise now that I missed out on time with my grandparents, but I never felt the lack of this time. The hardest thing was the accumulated grief of transitioning countries and saying goodbyes, not simply to family in Australia but to those friends I made that arrived and departed practically every year at the Christian international school I attended. 

I wouldn't trade my childhood in a missionary family for a stable life in Australia. I've learnt to be OK with not knowing where I truly belong or fit in, and that makes me depend on God and long for my eternal home all the more. I think there is far more danger in becoming too comfortable as Christians.

Juliet: While I did feel like I missed out on some things, I knew why we were on the mission field, and it felt good to be part of something much bigger than myself. I really enjoyed it over there. I had some great friends who became like family, and I loved the slower pace, without the busyness that western culture brings.

How did your daughters respond when you said you wanted to go back overseas?

Jill: We had always said that we would return to Tanzania when the girls were at uni. (We didn't end up going then because my dad died and my mum came to live with us for ten years.)

Jasmine: To me, their departure felt like a very natural thing, I would miss them, but this was what they needed to do to serve Jesus.

Juliet: It was not really a surprise when my parents announced they were going back. What I didn’t expect though was the heartache it would bring. It wasn't until I had kids of my own that I really felt the sting of them leaving. I could always cope with the hurt that I would experience with them moving away, but I didn’t anticipate the pain that it would bring my own kids and having to help them through their emotions as they processed what was going on.

What has it been like for the grandkids?

Juliet: When my parents left, my two boys were two and six months old. My parents had been living with us for around six months, so it was a big adjustment for all of us. My eldest would often burst into tears and say, ‘Why did they leave me?’ I would explain that they left to tell people in Cambodia about Jesus and he would say ‘But I need to know about Jesus too!’. He would say ‘Let’s go and see them!’ and I would say that they live a very long way away, and that you would need to fly in a plane across an ocean to see them, to which he would reply, ‘I don’t mind, I’ll catch a plane, I miss them!’. 

How has 'grandparenting' from a distance been going? 

Jill and Jeremy: Technology has made it amazingly better than it was for my parents. Juliet rings for a video chat often. Our older grandson and I do sticker books together (we have a copy of the same book), read books and have general chit chat. Occasionally I bring out a puppet. 

I have ordered stuff on the internet to be sent to their house as a gift from me. I have been investigating some ‘mission-orientated’ books for toddlers to purchase and read with him. 

Juliet: My parents may not be around physically, but they are still 'involved' in our lives. I send photos and videos often and we try to have weekly conversations. 
At first, all my two-year-old wanted to do was to play with the phone (or his reflection)! And it was hard to manage the disappointment when my parents couldn’t talk in that moment. 

But it has come a long way, especially now that our eldest son can communicate in coherent sentences. My parents are very good at trying to talk in whatever situation they are in (often traveling in the back of a tuk tuk!). 

How do you cope with not having your parents around for practical support?

Juliet: Not having your parents around certainly causes you to turn to God. You don’t always have someone to help out when someone is sick or go to the 'grandparent day' at preschool. However, you do become closer to your spouse as you lean on each other for support. It has also drawn us and my parents-in-law closer together because we are more reliant on them. 

Is mission worth the cost to families?

Juliet: My kids will benefit from having missionary grandparents as they will be able to see the needs of the gospel all around the world. They will have a taste of what it means to live fully for Jesus and will understand that being a Christian will involve sacrifice. 

I feel personally that my walk as a Christian has been remarkably influenced by those years of life on the mission field, and I am far better off for having had them. My prayer is that my kids’ lives are influenced for the better too.

Talking about my parents’ decision has also opened up many conversations with both Christians and non-Christians. It has made a way for me to vulnerably tell of the cost that it is for them to leave and yet be then able to turn to praise Jesus for sending them over there. Jesus is worth the sacrifice.


Footsteps for Future Generations

A collection of essays and wisdom from Christian grandparents and those influenced by them will inspire and encourage grandparents to embrace our unique opportunity with purpose and passion: that of leaving the generations following us the legacy of faith in Jesus.

Read more

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