Do you know what it feels like to be an exile?
It was the summer of 1975. I was nineteen years old and I had signed on to a program called Practical Missionary Training (PMT). Co-sponsored by CAM International and Wycliffe Bible Translators, PMT was an eight-week missionary life “sampler” for people who wanted to explore whether God was calling them to the mission field. Rather than being a simple “mission trip,” PMT was structured to give a broad sampling of different aspects of missionary life. Even though it was a “sampler,” each participant’s experience was individualized to a certain degree.
Because I (at that time) was interested in teaching in a seminary or Bible college, during my eight weeks as a member of PMT, I stayed with a missionary family in Guatemala City. My host was a professor at the Central American Theological Seminary. I also lived for two weeks at a Bible institute. The rest of the eight weeks was punctuated with missionary adventures such as two weeks of rustic living at Wycliffe Bible Translators’ “jungle camp” in southern Mexico, spending a night in a Tzeltal Indian village, and much, much more.
PMT was influential in helping me determine that my ministry call was not to the mission field. It was a great time and it opened my eyes to many things, but after eight weeks in Mexico and Guatemala, I knew that my ministry would be along another path. However, although I concluded that I was not called to missions, PMT taught me something priceless.
It taught me a little of what it feels like to be an exile.
I had taken four years of high school Spanish, but retained little of it. So as we traveled—by bus!—the entire length of Mexico, then rolled (in a smaller bus) into Guatemala, I felt more and more estranged from my surroundings. I could speak enough Spanish to find the bathroom and order a “Coca” (Coca-Cola), but that was about it. All around me, people were speaking a language I didn’t understand. Billboards and stores had signs that I couldn’t read.
I couldn’t even watch TV.
It was several weeks into my trip when I realized just how “English-starved” I was.
The missionary couple I stayed with in Guatemala City took me out one evening to a local theatre group’s production of Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap.” The production was in English, and I was like someone who had crossed a desert and just come upon an oasis. For two to three hours, I soaked it in as the actors performed. I’m a fan of mysteries, but I wouldn’t have cared what the story was about—just as long as I could understand it.
They were speaking my language.
My strongest memory from that entire trip is when I was on a bus and we had just crossed the border back into the United States.
I read every billboard, every street sign, every business sign, you name it. If it was in English, I read it.
I was home. I was back in my native country.
Part of living like an exile is that there is a natural and ongoing homesickness. Even if things are going well, home is always in the back of your mind.
That’s part of what it means for a Christian to live as an exile. We live in this world, but readily understand and admit that we can never be truly “at home” here. The world speaks a different language, has a different culture, values different things.
Are you living as an exile?
I hope so.
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own” (Hebrews 11:13b-14, NIV).