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Stranger in a Strange Land: Rick Ostrander

Missionary Kids

This is a guest column by Rick Ostrander, provost at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of North American Protestants traveled to foreign countries to spread Christianity. Their zeal to evangelize the world had profound, and sometimes unforeseen, consequences for their offspring, known in common parlance as "missionary kids." The shelves of books reflecting on their experience—from many different angles—are overflowing, and new ones continue to appear. Among those published in the last five years or so, two by children of Southeast Asia missionaries offer accounts that complement each other nicely. One is a memoir by a daughter of Mainline Protestant missionaries, the other a novel by a son of evangelical missionaries.

Catherine Frerichs, professor of writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, grew up as the daughter of American Lutheran missionaries in Papua New Guinea. Her book, Desires of the Heart, explores her parents' decision to work in Papua New Guinea and chronicles her experience in missionary boarding schools there and in Australia.

As a girl, Frerichs attended Katharine Lehmann School in Wau, New Guinea, established in 1951. The missionary boarding school was a rather recent phenomenon for Lutheran missionaries. It emerged from two primary impulses—first, the sense that the missionary wife was too busy with obligations in the field to be distracted by schooling the children; and second, an implicit sense of ethnic superiority, which suggested that missionary children needed to grow up around other white kids rather than the native culture. Previously, school-aged MKs typically were left with relatives in the states, which often meant that years would go by before they saw their parents again.

As Frerichs recalls it, the kids dominated the culture at Katharine Lehmann School: "The school was ours, we thought, much more than the staff's, many of whom had not been there as long ...

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