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What happens to their children?

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Archives / 2007 / May



What happens to their children?

Joseph Leininger Wheeler
Joseph Leininger Wheeler, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of English at Columbia Union College; cofounder and executive director of the Zane Grey’s West Society; Senior Fellow for Cultural Studies, Center for the New West (1995–2002); general editor at Focus on the Family, and considered to be one of America’s leading anthologizers of stories.


We were living in Fresno, California early in 1944 when my father received his call to the mission field. And to my parents, a call to the mission field was a sacred thing: a call from the Lord Himself.

Next thing I knew, I was told, “We’re going to the mission field!”



“Where is that?”

And out came a map.

At eight years of age, I didn’t really understand what maps meant. As a parochial school teacher, Dad had moved a number of times already, so another move meant little to me. Except, of course, that this particular move had a kicker at the end: “to the mission field.” And when I noticed that my friends were impressed by it, I began to feel important—and even a bit excited. My brother Romayne, at two, didn’t, of course, know what was happening.

So the folks began to pack.

The roar of propellers

All the relatives who could be were there by the mesh fence to see us off. But I did wonder why everyone was making such a big deal of just another move. Why were they crying as they waved and waved and waved? Not until later did I understand why. Mission terms being seven years long in those days, I’d be 15 years old before they saw me again. My grandparents clearly wondered if they’d ever see us again.

For the world was so much vaster then . . . And it was at war, too, and who knew how long thatwould last? No cruise ships plied those waters then. On land, the roads were terrible and accommodations both limited and primitive.

We’d walked out from the airport terminal to the stairway on wheels that had just been pushed out to the plane. Inside the plane, the incline from the front of the DC-3 to the back was steep and dark.

Finally, the two great engines caught, the propellers spun faster and faster, their roar becoming deafening and vibrations shaking the entire plane. Suddenly, we were in motion. . . .Seemed like forever before the wheels finally left the runway and we were in the air. At last, we were on our way to those two exotic words: “mission field.”

In the years to come, those great silver birds would carry us all over Central America and the West Indies. Those fl ights we both longed for and dreaded. The DC-3, being incapable of flying above most storms, was forced to fl y through them. Tenser by the minute, we’d look out the window at those massive thunderclouds ahead, gray to pitch black. Once in, drawn deeper and deeper into the vortex, the plane would begin to buck! In air pockets, the planes would sometimes free-fall so far it seemed certain the very wings would be ripped off when we hit bottom. Thick brown bags were prominently displayed on the back of every seat—and we used them disgustingly often.

But when the skies were blue, it was like a moving magic carpet to look down at the Lilliputian villages far below. Since our speed was slow, we had the opportunity to savor every mile. After what seemed forever, we’d land and refuel in places like Mexico City, Tapachula, Guatemala City, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Managua, San Jose; and finally, as they covered every window with thick black cardboard so we couldn’t see the Panama Canal below and learn where it was most vulnerable to enemy attacks, the descent to Panama City!

When we got out on that rolling stairway, the heat that engulfed us seemed blowtorch hot, and the equatorial humidity left us limp and sopping in only minutes. We knew then that we were indeed entering another world of images and impressions that have never left me.

Moments to remember

I remember so many things from those days! The sight of a black panther one evening, noiselessly stealing across our school campus in Pedregalito. . . . The hymn sung by a white-robed choir as I was raised out of a river the day of my baptism. . . . The long-suffering white horse named Musica given to me one unforgettable day. . . . The scorpions that would lie in wait for unsuspecting hands in sleeves and feet in the toes of shoes. . . . The sight of a packed third-story balcony in Panama City—and watching in horror as it collapsed on top of another group in a second-story balcony and then all crashing down on carnival revelers in the street—in only seconds. . . . The soldiers and sailors and marines who, during the war, considered our place home.

In Costa Rica, swimming in the legendary Ojo de Agua. . . . The day my father came home in midafternoon, his face ashen. A Taca Airline plane had taken off from Nicaragua, greatly overloaded—turned over on its back, crashing, burning all but two to death almost instantly. That terrible, terrible funeral: The charred remains of the six-foot-four-inch-tall president of the mission were brought into the church in a four-foot casket. Later, the other missionary children and I were shooed out into the patio for a three-day Monopoly game while our mothers wept and packed. Learned later that my father was supposed to have been on that plane!

In Guatemala City, cathedral bells giving structure to our days and nights. . . . Lorita, the parrot I’d smuggled in a shoe box on the plane trip from Panama, frequently climbing up to the rooftop patio and embarking on her travels to visit our neighbors who’d, sooner or later, bring her back, perched on a broomstick. . . . The earthquakes that would periodically make us so dizzy we’d fall to the floor, look with fascinated horror at the writhing walls, and flee into the streets, lest the house collapse on us. . . . The day I was in the American Library when someone came rushing in, shouting, “Revolution! A revolution! Get home as fast as you can get there!” At home, all our furniture barricading doors and windows. My father inexplicably stuck (in the interior of the country) in a mud hole, in the mission Jeep. Able to make it home alive only because of that three-day delay. . . . Vacations in Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlan, old Antigua. . . . The birth of my sister Marjorie. . . . The missionary barrels that brought us hand-me-down clothes that would later make us objects of pity during furloughs back home (mercifully, later on, every three rather than every seven years).

Oh, there are so many memories to draw from! Any grown-up missionary child would have just as many. Different— yet the same.

A homeland that wasn’t

Eventually, in my midteens, I flew back to the United States by myself. But now, in a parochial boarding school, I felt myself to be a misfit, a fish out of water. I was a disaster at sports, and terribly naive about what were, to my classmates, accepted behavioral norms—especially where the opposite sex was concerned.

Eventually, but not until my junior year in college (no small thanks to a godly history professor who mentored me, serving as a bridge from the missionary world to maturity), I woke up, married, entered the teaching profession, sired two children, earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and became what people considered “successful.”

Meanwhile, returning to the homeland in order to be there for my sister Marjorie, my father accepted position demotions (as seen by many) as the price of returning to the United States, and Mom taught elementary school. After earning a master’s in counseling, my father accepted pastoral positions in small churches until retirement.

Comparing all this to the high positions my father had held in Latin America, I subconsciously considered Dad to be concluding his career as a bit of a failure. For both he and Mom now suffered from the missionary curse: losing the Zeitgeist. So long had they been absent from the fast-paced life back home that when they returned, it was immediately clear that they were no longer in tune with “the spirit of the age.” Much as I tried to hide it, in my new-found sophistication, I was a bit ashamed of them.


Until one memorable day in Dallas. The church the folks had served so faithfully was holding a world conclave in the Dallas Convention Center. Some thirty thousand were attending. One never-to-be-forgotten day, my wife and I were invited to join my folks for some sort of “surprise.” No explanation. They were just told to be at a certain spot at 1:00 P.M., with any close family who could come. So the four of us stood there waiting for we knew not what. I was proud of my professorial rank and position, scholarship, publications, awards, and increased recognition— and was just there to humor Mom and Dad.

Then, in only seconds, the epiphany that would dramatically change the rest of my life! First, far-off voices, footsteps on the stairs, then more and more, louder and louder, a never-ending stream of well-dressed people, some looking vaguely familiar, descended to the fl oor and eddied around us—the four of us, standing there in a state of confusion and shock. Suddenly, one of the most distinguished of them moved toward my parents and began to unwrap something quite large. It was a plaque. Almost instantly, there was absolute silence.

In Spanish, he began to read the words on the plaque—but he couldn’t continue, and began to weep when he came to the words “Mamá y Papá de Wheeler.” Unbeknownst to me, in my erstwhile arrogance, the speaker, now president of a college Dad had founded, was there to celebrate two cherished people, missionaries who had come to the West Indies to start a school from scratch. All those engulfing us, now in church leadership positions all over Latin America, had come to that school, fearing what they might see. Instead of noblesse oblige, they found a man and woman with only one reason for being there: to unconditionally love each student. In years to come, each student would look back at those six golden years and realize that those had been the happiest days of their lives, their individual and collective Camelot. As the words “Mamá y Papá de Wheeler” were said, the crowd constricted around us, all crying at once.

I stood there, my pride in shreds, belatedly recognizing that if I lived to be 200, no matter how many honors, no matter what position or recognition came my way, never could I begin to be the success of that man and woman now half buried by their “children.”

Finally, and for the first time, I realized what it meant to be a true missionary.

But back to their children

Yet this study is really about the biological children; what is the impact of missionary life upon them? Especially today, when people look at Romayne, who earned two doctorates in music in Austria and has performed piano and synthesizer concerts all over the world, published several books of poetry, prolifically composed music set in Europe and Latin America, and today, in his Eagle’s Nest studio on the rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon (deeper and vaster than the Grand Canyon of the Colorado), is attracting camera crews and news commentators from Latin America, Europe, and North America. They look at Marjorie, after raising three children, now becoming an award-winning artist, both with the pencil and with the brush. My world, on the other hand, has been teaching, researching, public speaking, editing, compiling, and writing.

People look at us and shake their heads, posing the question, How did two such conservative missionary parents produce three such creative children? What magic did they have that enabled their three children to defy norms and the law of averages?

How, indeed! Let’s see if we can find out how they did it.

Re-creating that world

First of all, we were all homeschooled (before there was a term for it) by a remarkable woman. Mother, a trained teacher herself, was also an elocutionist— who knows what that is today! A stage performer who had memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings, Mother knew even book-length poems such as Longfellow’s Evangeline and Hiawatha by heart.

And she was a master teacher herself, turning out whiz kids in mathematics and verbal skills. At home, Mother expected us to value time as God’s greatest gift to us. Always, we were to be growing, becoming.

Looking back through the years enables me to finally gain perspective. I experience again the serenity of those years: no TV, no videos, no cinema, no computer, no telephone (only in the school or mission office). Our music mostly came from ourselves and our small collection of 78 rpm records (and the ones we checked out from the American Library) we played on our stack record player. The 78s played through quickly, but they were magic to us. Never anything but the best—classical, semi-classical, popular, folk, and religious. We’d play our favorites to death.

After chores and practicing the piano, it would be time for school, correspondence lessons being the base Mother built upon. But my real education, my real becoming, had to do with my weekly trips to the American Library (there was always a branch in the nearest capital city). I’d bring home towering stacks of books on every imaginable subject, my favorites being literature, history, biography, fi ne arts, mythology, nature, religion, travel, adventure, etc. In retrospect, it amazes me that my mother and father, so conservative in their own book choices, permitted me to read whatever library books interested me most. Almost invariably there was one hiding under every textbook I studied, and I’d read by flashlight under my blanket (no matter how hot the temperature!) far into the night. I had no idea why I was continually devouring entire libraries; I only knew that I wanted to know everything there was to know. That pace of reading would not ebb until I completed my History of Ideas Ph.D. some thirty years later.

The picaresque

But that wasn’t all. Always there was the world just around the corner that I hadn’t seen yet. We traveled as few of my age would have back in the United States. Whether it was by plane, by banana boat (we were caught once in a hurricane—poor weather forecasting in those days—off the Honduras coast), by train (all across Mexico and much of the United States), by bus, or by auto, I kept broadening my vistas, meeting people from every walk of life and intrepid travelers who had the itch to explore before there was even such a thing as a travel industry.

In literature, we have a term for a condition, story, or book: picaresque. It means learning, changing, and becoming through travel. Traveling such as Abraham did back in patriarchal days; like Homer did, twenty-nine centuries ago; Paul, two-thousand years ago; Marco Polo, eight centuries ago; and Cervantes’s immortal traveler, Don Quixote de la Mancha, about fi ve hundred years ago. They all learned, gained insights about life and people through travel. Just so, so did we.

Normally, children learn as much (most of it not particularly benefi cial) from their peers as they do from adults.

Not so with missionary children. Because we were cut off from children in the homeland (even during furloughs, we were considered to be so “different” that peer friendships rarely flowered), and because we were in the same category as preachers’ kids, we lived in glass houses and were forced to maintain an unreal threshold of model behavior (“What would the people think if you were to do such a thing!”), we existed in a limbo halfway between the adult world of our parents and the child world of our peers, in neither of which we felt welcome. But, of the two, almost invariably we preferred listening to and watching the fascinating people in our parents’ world.

Interestingly enough, there is an amazing correlation between PKs (preachers’ kids), MKs (missionary kids), and MBs (military brats), for all three grow up picaresque: the parents forever moving on after only a couple of years, hence few lasting friendships are made with peers. Children growing up in such an environment have almost no concept of home as a specific place, but rather, home is wherever Mom and Dad are. They have been programmed to be restless wanderers, content to remain in no one place, but always moving on, and on, and on. They are, one and all, global citizens (at home anywhere in the wide world, but not at home in any one place—not for long, that is).

There is something about this kind of an upbringing (all the parts of it) that churns out creative people who think outside the box. Let’s look specifi cally at PKs (children of ministers, rabbis, former priests) and see what we find. Strangely enough, even in our ever more secular society, there is a fascination with PKs and MKs. Always, they make good copy, not tarred at all with the brush that often denigrates the parents! Almost, it’s a badge of honor, of distinctiveness, of uniqueness.

PKs and MKs who have succeeded

Clearly, something about growing up in a manse significantly develops creativity in writing, research, and literature. Some, like Lloyd C. Douglas, Henry Van Dyke, Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, and John Wesley, choose the same profession as their fathers, but raise it to a fine art. Some, like Lewis Carroll, choose to write primarily for children. Some, like Edward Bellamy and Isaac Asimov, specialize in utopian or science fiction.

Some, such as Anthony Hope, gravitate into historical fiction. Some, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Hazlitt, and Joseph Addison, prefer the essay format. Some, like Ben Johnson, specialize in drama. Some, like Thomas Hobbes, become philosophers. Some, like Elsie Singmaster, prefer the medium of short stories. Some, like Dorothy Sayers, make a specialty of murder mysteries. Some, like Erskine Caldwell, write regional literature. Some, like Charles Pierre Baudelaire and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche, plunge into the study of evil, the dark power, and a world without God. Many, such as Samuel Coleridge, Edward Young, William Cowper, E. E. Cummings, Robinson Jeffers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Andrew Marvell, John Crowe Ransom, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, write primarily as poets. And ever so many, such as the Bronte sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne), Henry James, Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Richard Blackmore, Stephen Crane, Samuel Butler, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, write primarily prose literature. And yet others, like Oliver Goldsmith, write in many genres.

Of missionary children, undoubtedly the best known are Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Pearl Buck, who was raised in China; Olive Schreiner, who was raised in South Africa; and Hermann Hesse, whose father was a missionary to India.


We have seen that, for a child, missionary life is about the best thing that could happen. Even today, it’s probably safe to say that the missionary world would be much more serene than its counterpart in the homeland. But the world is ever changing. Today, at speeds that exceed sound itself, the planet has shrunk so much that you can get to places before you leave! There are precious few places that are remote anymore: The super-rich think nothing of flying halfway around the world for a special meal in a fancy restaurant. To the world I grew up in, dreaming as we did of those “faraway places with strange sounding names,” today’s realities would have seemed like far-out science fiction.

The missionary kid, excluded from the harsher realities of mission life and without a real peer group, will likely carve out a world of his or her own, a dream world in which dreams may germinate and grow. Books and their authors tend to become close friends, and the characters (both real and fictional) oftentimes more special and real than even the parents.

Undoubtedly the toughest time in the missionary child’s life is the period of reentry into homeland life. In high school, college, or university, they are almost certain to begin as misfits, as the loneliest of the lonely. The missionary children (most being ministers’ children as well) experience a double whammy upon return to the homeland, for they have no peer group to serve as a support system. In most cases, those they’ve identified with most, other missionary kids, they’ll probably never see again.

Most will now take one of three trails: (1) Some will be so angry at having been forced to be externally good for so long that they go berserk once freed from the parental straitjacket, stomping on all the values they’ve been forced to live by and veering into all that is self-destructive.

(2) What has been a facade for so long for some may coalesce into piousness for pious’s sake, self-righteous religiosity and holier-than-thou-ism. (3) But a surprisingly large percentage will blaze new and exciting trails—neither as conservative as their parents nor as self-destructive as the wild ones. Most likely each of these will have been blessed by godly mentors who serve as bridges between the parental/mission world and the world of adult realities.

Nevertheless, one thing is absolutely certain: Any child fortunate enough to be born to missionary parents will be blessed in ways beyond quantifying—the experiences gained a mother lode to mine all life long. One might liken missionary children to the one in Christ’s parable of the talents who was given five talents rather than one; the clear implication being: To those to whom much has been given, much will be required. Rather than being a liability, as some have mistakenly assumed, missionary childhood enables one to walk among the stars.

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