Dis/Located: Wisdom and Story from the Regent Faculty
Amy Anderson (MATS '16) is the Director of Communications and Public Engagement at Regent College.
On rooting, uprooting, and making our home in Christ
The Christian tradition is full of stories of coming and going: Abraham pulling up stakes to seek a new land; Hebrew slaves, delivered from Egypt, heading out into the wilderness; Israelite exiles making their homes in a foreign land; and, of course, the Son of God, living as an itinerant teacher with no place to lay his head.
At Regent, the pilgrim life is not just a theological concept. Each semester we welcome a wave of new students from around the world. These students leave home and family to put down temporary roots in this community, staying for a few months or years. Then they graduate and depart, heading out from our community to find a new, often temporary, home.
Many of our faculty, born and bred in other parts of the world, left home and country to join us in Vancouver. We sat down with a few of these faculty members to hear what has helped each of them navigate the dislocation of making their home in a new place and the challenge of staying rooted while others come and go.
It’s always painful to pull up roots. Diane Stinton, Regent’s Dean of Students, emphasizes that it’s important to acknowledge that reality:
“Be gentle with yourself, give yourself time, because it is a grieving process to let go. There is deep loss and deep cost in coming to a place like Regent. You miss family, friends, church, communities, identities where you’re known. [I] encourage people to be self-aware of where they’re at in the process of transition, to allow themselves to grieve, but also in time to really give themselves to building new relationships.”
You don’t have to move across the world to struggle with transition. Assistant Professor of New Testament Mariam Kamell Kovalishyn first experienced culture shock within her own country:
“My first major move was when I [left New York State], went down to college in North Carolina, and discovered that I didn’t fit the southern culture very well.
“My Latin teacher had moved from New York to teach at this college, and she asked me a few months into my first year how I was doing with the culture shock. She gave me the name: I didn’t realize why I was unhappy.
“And suddenly I realized, oh, just because I’m still in the States, that doesn’t mean that I can’t experience culture shock. After that, things calmed down a bit.”
Dr. Yonghua Ge, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Regent, has lived in four countries on three continents since first leaving his home in China. For him, one of the most challenging parts of moving has been the time it takes to build new relationships:
“This is a generalization, but [in Western culture] there is a sense of loneliness. In a bigger city [where] people are always on the run, it’s hard to build meaningful, in-depth friendships. It is tough to keep going without friendship, someone who understands and talks to you—a buddy, you know. It’s hard. [But building that kind of relationship] takes time.”
It’s critical to have realistic expectations about that time frame. It took Mariam a few moves before she figured out what’s reasonable:
“Six months is the starting point. By six months I hopefully will be starting to make friends, starting to see what life looks like. In college, my expectations were way too high, way too fast, like ‘I should love this: why don’t I?’ Now I’m like, well, there will probably be some loneliness, there will probably be some awkwardness. And then, after a time, you start to settle a bit more.”
Remember Your Roots
So what do you do when you find yourself in a new city, feeling friendless and alone?
First, don’t lose sight of the relationships that have brought you this far. All of our faculty pointed out how important it is to hang on to long-term, long-distance relationships with friends and family.
Happily, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch. While technology can’t replace relationships, it does make long-distance connections simpler. Dr. Amanda Russell-Jones, a sessional lecturer at Regent College, moved from Wales to Vancouver when her husband, Iwan, began teaching at Regent. In spite of the distance, Amanda has managed to maintain near-daily contact with family back home. Her favourite tool for this is Skype:
“It’s fantastic. I talk to my mother every day at least once. She says, ‘It’s nice to see your face,’ and I know what she means: it’s not just a voice on the end of a phone. That’s made a huge difference with our kids as well. You can be cooking and still talking to them—it’s absolutely brilliant.”
When Mariam first moved to the UK to pursue her PhD, she had a few different tricks for staying in touch. But one of the most effective tools was a simple personal blog. By sharing stories about her daily life, she gave friends and family back home the opportunity to journey with her and connect with the details of her life in Scotland:
“When I came home, [it wasn’t just like], ‘so how’s Scotland?’ and you’re expected to say, ‘great!’ and that’s it. It was more like, ‘Oh, that story you told, I remember…’ And then people would tell stories in return. It was a way to connect the ongoingness of life.”
Whatever tool you use, find a way to share your journey with the people who matter most to you. Diane notes:
“Claire [Perini, our Assistant Dean of Students] says it really well. She says: journey with someone from home. So whether it’s by Skype or email or Facetime or whatever, choose at least one really significant person from home [to] share your ongoing experience of change at Regent. Because when you go home, you will have changed a lot, [and it will be much easier] if there’s at least one person who has accompanied you on that journey and is aware of some of these changes as you’re walking through.”
New Place, New Roots
Second, make a conscious effort to settle into your new home, even if it’s temporary. Ross Hastings, Regent’s Sangwoo Youtong Chee Associate Professor of Theology, has noticed that this is a challenge for a lot of his students:
“I think one of the hardest things in life … is to live down into the place where you are right now. Difficult as it is, it’s really important to put down temporary roots and dwell in the now. Don’t look too far into the future for a while.
“Students just three weeks into their time at Regent will already be coming to me and saying, ‘I don’t know whether to do an MA or an MDiv.’ And I tell them, ‘Don’t even think about that right now. Dwell in the now: dwell in your studies for a time before starting to think about where they’re taking you.’ The kind of life where you have one foot in one place and one in another can be quite destructive, both mentally and emotionally.”
Rituals are helpful in cultivating a sense of rootedness. For Ross, it’s “getting a new driver’s license, finding where your grocery store is, getting your health card: these are all ways of being landed in a new place. When I moved to Montreal, I found a few places where I could fish, and that really helped me. Find ways to do things that you enjoy: it settles you.”
Amanda had her first major experience of dislocation when, freshly married, she and Iwan toured Europe with a Youth for Christ band in a van. That experience taught her the importance of finding a comfort zone—knowing what made her feel at home wherever she was: “I got used to the idea of, okay, I need my knitting, my book, my Earl Grey tea bags.”
When she and Iwan moved to Vancouver decades later, Amanda did the same thing—just on a larger scale: “It was [bringing] the art that we like and putting that up on the wall. Some pottery things [from home], that sort of thing. Lady Grey tea bags. Photographs of the children—including photos of when they were small, because I thought, we’ll arrive here and nobody will know we’ve got this hinterland of being knee-deep in blonde kids.”
Finding points of contact with your culture can also help you settle into a new place and ease the pain of a major move. This can be as simple as finding a friend who understands where you’ve come from. Ross and his wife found a lot of comfort in connecting with another Scottish couple after a move from Scotland to Montreal. Here in Vancouver, Yonghua stays connected with his language and culture by preaching in a Chinese church from time to time. For Amanda, the Anglican church—its liturgy and style of worship—has been a key source of stability through several moves.
Even without that cultural factor, plugging into a church is a great way to get rooted in a new community. Over the years, Mariam has learned to give herself a fixed period of time to try out a few different churches in a new city. Once that time is up, though, she chooses a church and settles in:
“[When I started teaching at Regent] I gave myself six months to visit churches throughout the city, but I kind of said that by the second semester, partway in, I wanted to pick somewhere to get settled into.
“So without thinking ‘I have to get involved right away,’ [I made] it a priority [to find] a community that I met with every Sunday, where there were people my age that I could get to know that weren’t necessarily part of the community here [at Regent] to keep life a little more rounded than it would otherwise be.”
It’s okay to focus your efforts to build community in just one or two places. When Rikk Watts, long-time Professor of New Testament at Regent College, moved to Gordon Conwell to complete a master’s degree, he knew that he and his wife Katie had a very limited span of time to spend in that community. He recalls, “I had all these plans to get heavily involved in the church. But early on, one of my instructors said to me, ‘So what are you planning to do?’ and I mentioned all these many things. He said, ‘Did God call you to Gordon Conwell?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think he did, for sure.’ And he said, ‘Well, just make sure that you don’t dishonour that call by doing a whole bunch of other things.’
“I thought that was a very wise observation. … It helped me to realize I should honour the call. So we went to church on Sunday, but we were basically just part of the Gordon Conwell community, and I focused on my studies.”
On the other hand, when Rikk and Katie moved to Cambridge a few years later, they found that they had way more time and energy to invest in a local congregation. Reflecting on that experience, Rikk concludes, “You just have to adjust depending on your setting and recognize [what] brings life in a [particular] location.”
Moving often helps us to see the world in a new way. Though born in Angola, Diane spent most of her childhood in Canada. In her early 20s, she moved to Kenya for a two-year teaching stint. When she returned to Canada at the end of that time, she found that her perspective had shifted:
“I had this kind of—love/hate is too strong, but this kind of mixture of joy and celebration and ambivalence about my own culture, because you don’t know your own culture as well until you step out and see it from afar and come back into it.
“There’s an African proverb that says, ‘Those who have not travelled think that their mom’s cooking is the best,’” she laughs. “Something to that effect. You just assume that your world and your worldview and your perspective are best until you see that there are others.”
To this day, Diane continues to travel back and forth between Canada and Kenya. A key stabilizing practice for her has been “to celebrate the good wherever you are. When I’m here, I want to live fully here. Likewise, when I’m there, [I want to] enter fully into the things that I love about Kenya. Just try to live that balance, so that you’re living positively and embracing the context wherever you are.”
The hardest things about moving can also provide the richest opportunities for growth. Diane recalls that her first teaching trip to Kenya was “probably one of the most significant turning points in my life—leaving all the wealth and security and comfort of my home place and identity and finding myself all on my own in an entirely new context, new culture.
“That sense of dislocation cast me upon God in a way that nothing else had to that point. All of a sudden, the things that had defined me—my sense of belonging and my competence and my comfort in life—those things were completely stripped away, and I had to discover anew: who am I in God?”
One of the lifelong takeaways from that experience, Diane notes, has been “a much deeper awareness and compassion for those who are dislocated, knowing some of the struggles that they are going through—not just in terms of finding house, home, and school and forming friendships and stuff, but some of the inner transformative work that God is doing in their lives—wrestling before God with who they are.”
Lonely? You’re probably not alone. Whether you’re a local or a newbie, keep an eye out for others around who have been uprooted and are looking for opportunities to connect.
When Amanda moved to Atlanta with Iwan and their children, she remembers, “One of the things we missed was having family around at Christmas. One year, nobody was going to be coming to visit, so we thought, why don’t we just invite a bunch of international students? Because they’re in the same boat as us. So we did. And that’s always been part of my approach: if I think I’m a bit lonely or it would be nice to know more people, or something like that, I think, you know, there are probably quite a lot of people who would be happy to come over for a meal.”
Diane agrees: “Exercise hospitality. It doesn’t need to be massive, it doesn’t need to be complex, it doesn’t need to be expensive. It can be as simple as, ‘Come over for tacos on Friday evening!’ And once you do that, reciprocal relationships begin to emerge. But when everyone just huddles at home with their books, feeling isolated and alone in the rain, that breeds the kind of alienation we’re all seeking to overcome.”
Building a new community takes time, but the payoff is rich. That said, it comes with a cost. Mariam has come to understand this in a new way since she decided to settle permanently in Vancouver:
“Now I’m watching people go, which is the hard thing with students. I remember at the first graduation, I was like, ‘Oh, I stay and they go.’ Until now, I’ve been the one who’s like, ‘I’ve got the next new thing going!’ But now I stay put. And now some of our good friends are talking about moving to Nova Scotia, and it’s like, okay, I have to let go of students, I have to let go of friends.”
While letting go can be painful, Mariam remains committed to building relationships: “Life is about investing when you don’t know what’s going to come: you can’t control the outcome, but you can still go ahead and invest in people.”
Coming home after a long absence can be bittersweet. Diane experienced this when she returned to Canada after two years teaching in Kenya:
“I can still remember going down the runway and taking off: I was crying uncontrollably and could not believe how painful it was to leave. … I realized the tremendous richness that God had built into my life through that experience. And even though I was coming home to all the comforts and all the security and all the things that I had left, there was a real degree of angst: ‘Will I be reabsorbed into that? Will I lose all that God has given me in this context?’ [I was already] missing terribly the wealth of all that I had gained in that rural experience in Africa that wouldn’t easily be replicated in Canada.”
This is true no matter what stage of life you’re in. After spending 20 years in Vancouver, Rikk and Katie Watts moved back to Australia in December 2016. Before departing, Rikk observed:
“There’s a lot about Australia that’s great. … But we don’t really know anyone. We’ve known people here [in Vancouver] for 20 years. We’re going to a city that’s not ours. … I’m focusing on all of the things that I think will be exciting and interesting and creative, but I’ve been through this a few times, so you just have to realize: it will work its way through. There will be grieving, and you can’t hurry that. So, you know, just: ‘Okay, take it as it comes.’” He sighs, then laughs: “Profound, eh?”
After a series of major moves, Yonghua has learned that an ongoing posture of surrender is essential: “Ultimately, I think our lives are in God’s hand. Sometimes it’s not always going as you wished, but there’s kind of a surrender to God, where we’re willing to go where God has called us.”
Still, he notes, the practical expression of that can be difficult: “Sometimes it’s easy to say that our eternal home is in heaven, but I think we can’t quickly write off this life. We are human beings, we are material, we are embodied. We are really attached to people and places. There’s a fine balance: on the one hand we are willing to go, and our eternal home is with God, but at the same time we are creatures—embodied humans—so we live in this tension. … There’s a lot of emotion involved [in leaving home to follow the call]. Ultimately you are willing to sacrifice for God’s calling, … but it’s still a sacrifice.”
Grafted into the Vine
In the midst of ongoing dislocation, the Christian tradition equips us to root ourselves in the life and love of God. For Diane, this comforting and liberating love provides a sense of freedom—freedom “to be rooted in place, but also [to] celebrate our unrootedness, because we are pilgrims and ultimately, eschatologically, we will be at home only in Christ. [We’re called] to not hang on in a detrimental sense, [so] that it really shakes us too much to be moved on, but to be ready to move on like those Israelites: when the cloud of fire comes, the pillar of cloud or the pillar of fire, we’re ready to move on at Christ’s beck and call.”
When repeated uprooting leaves us without a sense of place, we can rest in the fact that God isn’t just leading us into the wilderness: he is using this whole pilgrim life to bring us truly home. As Rikk points out, “We are sojourners in a sense in this current world under its current leaders. … But on the other hand, in a more profound sense, this is my home, because this is the place where my eternity is going to be spent. It’s my Father’s world. So ironically, even though I might feel a bit liminal from an eschatological perspective, … we’re the stuff that’s going to last forever—shining like stars, and all that sort of thing. I think taking that with me wherever I go really helps.”
Ross notes in conclusion: “Ultimately, as believers, our home is in the triune God. And these circumstances of loss and dislocation, for all their pain and anguish, press us to live into that: to live in the cradling arms of our loving and beloved God.”