This is an article I wrote for Faith & Fellowship magazine–my denomination’s church publication–about meeting a childhood friend randomly in India mid-April.
Crossing Paths: Chance Encounters with a Fellow Alien
Just a couple weeks ago I got an email from my brother titled: “David Nordtvedt in Calcutta”. To most people this would be entirely unremarkable. But this surprised me on two accounts. First, David Nordtvedt was a fellow Lutheran Brethren missionary kid (MK) I knew from childhood in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Second, I had just left Calcutta.
My friends and I were heading north in Eastern India, seven months into our year-long bicycle tour from Beijing to Paris. At the time I had no idea where in the world David Nordtvedt was, but it would seem that David and I had barely missed a fortuitous chance encounter in a random city half a globe away.
Since we were traveling by cycle, we would still be in the area for a while. Our next major stop was a tea-growing city in the mountains of West Bengal called Darjeeling. We would be there in about a week, so I sent David an email saying, “Wow, sorry we missed. You wouldn’t happen to be going to Darjeeling in a week…?” Since internet access is sporadic, I didn’t get David’s response until I was sitting in a computer lab in Darjeeling four days later: “As a matter of fact…”
That particular weekend happened to be the Bengali New Year, and he and some friends from Calcutta were planning a get-away to Darjeeling. Great! Our fortuitous chance encounter seemed to be guided by other forces.
We finally got together over dinner and spent the next day hanging out and catching up. It still seemed quite strange that while we had had no contact, our paths would cross like this. I got to thinking: what are the chances of meeting a fellow Lutheran Brethren MK anywhere in the world at any given time? Actually, better than you might expect; it seems there are MKs scattered all over.
When we met up with David and friends we hadn’t been in touch, so as we wandered the alleys and sampled street food he told me about studying in western India, volunteering in Bangladesh, and his current plans to enroll in graduate school in the Philippines this Fall. His older sister, Annalise, has been working for the past several years at the international school in Taiwan where the Nordtvedts were missionaries. Micah, the oldest, is living in Seattle but working on a project that documents the lives of missionary kids around the world, which finds him traveling just about everywhere. I think of my fellow MKs in Cameroon. That I know of, two (Mark Hunter and Steph Lazicki) are currently living on the African continent; Pat Lazicki spent some serious time studying in Ghana; her oldest sister Suzy has been living in China for several years; and Alyson Gerstmann is traveling all over the United States as a truck driver. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised to meet David in India.
Being a missionary kid doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t settled somewhere normal, but there is a good chance you haven’t—or you just haven’t settled.
A little over a year ago my family and I were casually milling at the home of Dr. Paul Hiebert, my dad’s friend and PhD advisor. Dr. Hiebert had been a missionary kid as well, and subsequently spent much of his life in India as a missionary and anthropologist. He said to me then, with a twinkle in his eye, “You know Andrew, being a missionary kid means your fate is sealed. Either you’ll end up a missionary or you’ll do some sort of anthropological work, but you’ll never feel like you have your own culture to call home.”
For our high school graduation my friend Ryan Garvin sang a song with the words, “Home is a place I’ve never been.” These words stuck with me. They call to mind a passage from the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. The early Christian leader is telling about the great men and women of faith who have gone before. He says,
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. … And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:13-16 NIV).
The assumption is that all who live by faith also experience a deep and curious longing for a better country – a better existence. For some these feelings are undoubtedly stronger than for others, or perhaps occur more frequently. I think MKs have a special perspective on this passage.
For an MK, the early fabric of identity is woven through the various colors of sometimes vastly different cultures, which means that we may have few qualms about traveling to a place where the daily market includes freshly butchered chickens and tubs of live eels, but it may make us uneasy to spend time at a mall, a party, or a dance club. Even if we develop the ability to enjoy such things (we are trained to adapt), we may never feel like we truly belong. Of course this can be isolating at times, but it should not be a lament. I would never trade my experiences growing up in Cameroon for a different, more homogenous life – even if it means I remain caught between cultures, interested in many but belonging to none.
Our several days in Darjeeling were a nice rest before we moved west to Nepal, and the unexpected meeting of a fellow MK made it all the more special. As we were preparing to once again go our separate ways, David asked, “Do you mind if I pray for you guys?” We gathered together, and I was grateful for this bond that we shared through prayer. Though at times we may feel like wandering aliens and strangers in this world, we belong to a special community – those that can talk to and trust the Author of Life. And so together we hold on to this hope for which we live: that we may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.