Letter to My Student Emilia
The teacher from the middle school
told me for six months you’d worked
a second shift job after lying about
your age, then you slept every day
in class. She made you quit the job,
and in ninth grade, you begged me
to help you find work. We thought
our life would be better here you told me.
After Christmas break, I told the class
about the gifts I’d bought my children:
a dollhouse for my daughter, a train table
for my son, gifts bought with money
from my husband’s second job.
What did you get for Christmas?
I asked the class. I saw your head go down.
A ribbon of shame burned through
me; I thought everyone got Christmas
gifts, even poor immigrants. I wanted
to apologize to you, but I never found the words.
* * * *
Today my friend Amy Peterson’s book, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, comes out! This is a beautiful and heart-wrenching book that follows Amy’s journey into Southeast Asia to teach English and save the lost. Armed with a college degree and missionary dreams, Amy’s story was anything but what she expected and she learned that evangelism and kingdom work are far more complex than she imagined.
Reading this book was good but hard for me. I was a missionary kid in Southeast Asia, spending 7 years of my life in Thailand. (BTW, Thailand is mentioned in this book!) I was a teenager and had a blast. I loved living in another country, learning a new language, and getting to know people from different backgrounds. However, the reality is that missionary life is complex and often difficult. Living in a different culture is stressful enough, but when we were there, there was no Internet, very little access to books in English, and no access to mental health care. Connecting with home and finding emotional support were difficult. Of course, losing my brother on the mission field further complicated our experiences there.
Thankfully now there are a lot more resources for missionaries, but I’m really glad Amy wrote this book because it speaks truth to the missionary experience. Her narrative is punctuated by interludes that explore the history of missions and evangelism and critically examine evangelism strategies. This is something that needs to be explored, too. The old ways of doing mission work may not work anymore, and we need to consider how exactly we are measuring success when it comes to evangelism.
* * * *
Amy asked me to reflect on my own mis-guided quests or cross-cultural experiences that changed me. I thought about a lot of experiences I had in Thailand, but instead I chose a more recent experience I had with one of my high school ESL students from Mexico. As an ESL teacher, I’m still working with individuals from other countries on a daily basis, and sometimes I think they have changed my perspective on the world and God’s kingdom even more than living in Thailand did. This poem grew out of a real moment that happened one year in my classroom. Out of respect for this student, the name has been changed.
* * * *
I am giving away a copy of Dangerous Territory! To be in the drawing to win the copy, all you have to do is comment below!! Have you experienced a mis-guided quest? Have you ever had a cross-cultural experience that changed you? Tell me about it below, or simply respond in some way to this post, and you’re eligible to win a copy of this amazing book! I’ll announce the winner in a week!
Love the poem and the work you’re doing, Karissa – both in your classroom and in your writing. I think it’s harder for people to maintain their anti-immigrant beliefs if they actually know any immigrants. So keep introducing us to your students and their stories, please!
I’m linking up with Amy with a story about being a “missionary” in upstate New York. As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve realized I’m such an idealist I’ll probably always be on some kind of potentially-misguided quest, but I hope I’m always moving in a more well-guided direction. Thank you for the poem; it’s such a familiar feeling.