SHARE
Gabe Listro, pic­tured in bottom row, first from left, along with other stu­dents from South America Mission Academy. Gabe Listro | Courtesy

“It was not an average day,” John Somerville, pro­fessor of English, said of the South Korean mil­itary coup he wit­nessed while in the backseat of his parents’ Land Rover. “But I wouldn’t trade that world for any­thing.”

Growing up in South Korea, Somerville is one of several Hillsdale stu­dents and pro­fessors who spent years of their childhood on long-term mission trips in regions from Latin America to East Asia, expe­ri­encing every­thing from mil­itary coups to vol­canoes.

Somerville’s grand­parents spent 24 years as mis­sion­aries in South Korea from 1916 to 1940. His parents decided to follow in their foot­steps, moving in 1954, the year Somerville was born. Somerville’s father taught at a sem­inary school in Seoul while his children grew up in a mis­sionary com­pound.

“When I was in first grade, there was a student rev­o­lution. We lived just a few miles from the capitol building,” he said. “I had a front seat view of the tear gas, the crowds in the streets. At the time I thought, ‘This is not that unusual.’ But thinking back, I realize most kids don’t watch rev­o­lu­tions these days.”

Besides the political insta­bility, Somerville’s said his life was calm and con­sistent. Since there were many U.S. troops sta­tioned in South Korea, he could access an English radio station, news­paper, and tele­vision. “Since the G.I.s were from dif­ferent back­grounds, they would have a mix of music,” he said. “They’d play country, they’d play soul. On TV, there was a mix of dif­ferent net­works. No com­mer­cials, either.” Somerville said his biggest regret was not retaining the Korean lan­guage he learned as a child.

According to Somerville, many mis­sionary kids use their childhood expe­rience as a head start in a cul­tural or lan­guage study during college.

Kelly Franklin, pro­fessor of English, was a mis­sionary kid who became fas­ci­nated with the foreign lan­guage he grew up with. He acquired a master’s degree in Spanish after a rel­a­tively short mission trip as a child. The Franklins lived in Costa Rica for one year until they were assigned to Guatemala, where his father served as a support mis­sionary, teaching mis­sionary kids at the Christian Academy of Guatemala.

While he was there, Franklin also lived through a mil­itary coup in the third grade. “The radio sta­tions were all shut down. They played no news, only mariachi music,” he said. “As a kid, you’re not really aware of what to an adult would be really stressful. I thought, ‘This is fan­tastic.’”

Franklin said he’s thankful for the oppor­tunity to grow up in beau­tiful places like Costa Rica and Guatemala where moun­tains stood tall. “In Guatemala, we lived within sight of an active volcano. In the dis­tance I could see, at night, a legit­imate volcano spewing hot, red and orange lava,” he said. “I really loved the color of Latin America. The tex­tiles of the indigenous peoples are utterly beau­tiful. The markets are very vivid. There are a lot of beau­tiful sights and sounds that you get exposed to.”

In addition to the natural allure of Latin America, Franklin said he’s lucky to have grown up in a dif­ferent cul­tural context that gave him a lot of per­spective once he came back to the states.

“I encoun­tered really des­perate poverty as a young child, which is just pretty sad,” he said. “I def­i­nitely missed out on some American culture stuff, so when I came back as a fifth grader, I was a little out of touch. But that wore off after a year or two.”

Junior Gabe Listro spent three years in Peru as his parents served in a motocross min­istry. “My family’s always been into racing motor­cycles, and there was this church started by a famous motocross rider in Peru. My family worked with the church and also with a min­istry to reach out to spec­tators and riders,” he said. “It’s actually the third biggest sport in Peru.”

Listro said his parents became Chris­tians in college and felt called to be mis­sion­aries. They moved to Michigan, where his father became a mis­sionary pilot, but his family wanted more. “My parents felt that God wanted us to be part of peoples’ lives, not just  bus drivers,” Listro said.

In Peru, he attended a Spanish-speaking school and lived in the com­munity where his parents worked. “I just look back at it as my childhood basi­cally,” he said. “If you look back to the early 2010s, you picture Katy Perry, right? I picture being in a mango tree in my backyard.”

Overall, Listro said he was happy to have the expe­rience in Peru, despite the culture shock when he came back for high school. “I remember one time at a high school football game right when I got back, someone extended his hand for a high five,” he said. “In Peru, for men you shake hands and women you give kisses. So I grabbed his hand and shook it, and he said, ‘Yo, where’d you grow up?’ and I said, ‘In the jungle.’”

According to Listro and Franklin, many mis­sionary kids suffer from a phe­nomenon they called “third culture.” Children often feel like they don’t belong in America nor the country they grew up in.

Freshman Faith Linton, after spending nearly the last 18 years in Taiwan, said she felt this way. Every few years, her family would come back to the states on fur­lough to help raise money for their mission, but it wasn’t enough to keep her tied down.

“I think the thing about being a mis­sionary kid is that you never really fit into either culture. English is my first lan­guage, so in that sense a lot of people would think I’m American, and I think of myself as American too,” she said. “But when I would come back to America, I realized that every­thing was way dif­ferent.”

Linton’s parents worked in Taiwan to plant churches and convert a pop­u­lation with vir­tually no Christian com­munity. They struggled for a long time, but Linton said she’s inspired by her father’s passion and per­sis­tence.

On their daily taxi ride, Linton’s father would try and strike up a con­ver­sation with the driver. Even though Man­darin is a much easier lan­guage, Linton’s father always spoke in Tai­wanese, even though he isn’t com­pletely fluent, because the drivers would appre­ciate it and open up to him more.

“The drivers would begin sharing deeper stories about them­selves and talking about their life,” she said. “My dad always found some way to weave Christ into the con­ver­sation, telling them about lessons he learned from the bible, and stuff like that.”

Linton’s mother also found inter­esting ways to bring people to Christ. After receiving a “hate letter,” Linton’s mother invited the couple who sent the letter to church and even­tually befriended them.

A year or two later, the woman became a Christian. Several years after that, so did her husband. “They moved to the coun­tryside to live with us. They’re helping us to plan a new church,” she said. “Now, they’re our best friends.”