Last month, I had the chance to sit down with a couple who recently launched to live and serve in a region hostile to Christianity. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this couple—a man and woman who are both perfectly charming and perfectly ordinary—two millennials not much different from me or my friends.
They’re people I might live next door to—people I might see at church or pray with in a neighborhood/small/community group. Except instead, they have up and moved across the planet to let the Lord join their story with His—as it is now unfolding—in North Africa.
I wanted to know more about how God shaped their hearts and lives to lead them to consider cross-cultural ministry in such a place, what kind of challenges they’ve faced in the process, and how their first year of living abroad is shaping up at its halfway point.
*Please note: For their protection, we’ve changed all names, used vague language, and modified potentially identifying details.
Click to jump to a topic:
- What was it that led you to change your lifestyle?
- How did you know the timing?
- What’s it like three months in?
- What do you spend your time doing your first year in country?
- What challenges did you face?
- What has the transition been like?
- What is language learning like?
- What’s it like trusting God with your future?
- How did you decide where to go?
- Words of advice?
LAUREN: How did you get drawn to this? What was it that led you to change your lifestyle? How did you make a decision that would ultimately have you leaving the marketplace and life here in the US to go and serve others there?
MRS. Bonner: It’s been a whole long journey. The first time we actually met was through a mutual friend, because we both had this interest and conviction regarding living overseas and living cross-culturally.
So, I think for both of us, that began in university. That’s where we met and where we both put our “yes” on the table with God. It was actually what ultimately brought us together and sealed the relationship.
MR. Bonner: Yeah, pretty early on in dating during college, we both decided to explore the idea of this lifestyle by getting some short-term experience.
MRS: I grew up abroad, in similar circumstances to an MK/Third Culture kid, but just had no idea about the real context of why my parents and our family lived where we did. My parents worked hard to enculturate, so I didn’t learn about things like the “10-40 Window” until college.
The idea of living and working overseas wasn’t at all strange to me—but I did have some bitterness from my own experiences growing up. My family was invited to leave my home country—the country I grew up in. I had some baggage, so I wanted to try it out. I went to serve in a predominantly Muslim country for four months…just seeking the Lord, considering the experience.
MR: For me it was more: I’ve grown up in a fairly typical, wealthy American family. Am I realistic about what this means? Am I serious about this?
We both wanted to explore the idea separately. So, while she served abroad, I also went short-term and served in Ghana. We basically didn’t talk the whole time—maybe one or two emails. And we both got the same answer from the Lord separately.
MRS: Yeah, he got back to the States first and called me while I was still overseas—right about the time I had finished up a meeting with a mentor who knew my convictions and had said, “If he doesn’t agree with this, this, this, and this, you should break up with him!”
Then, he gets on the phone with me and says, “Hey, I don’t know if you’re serious about this. But if you don’t agree with this, this, this and this, we can’t be together. And it was the same convictions. It’s the things I had written down in my journal. He said them all right back to me, and he had the gall to try to dump me first!
So, together, we put our “yes” on the table for the relationship and this lifestyle. We got married, and then the Lord said, “Good! Now, wait!”
MR: Yeah, we waited for about a decade.
LAUREN: Why was that? How did you know the timing was ultimately right?
MR: We felt very strongly convicted that we needed to finish school, pay off debt, and get professional experience. We weren’t built like those that go at the age of 22. We really wanted to have careers and experience first. Plus, my career is medical, so we had grad school we needed to finish as well.
MRS: Grad school took us to [East Coast City]. And that’s where I got involved in the anti–trafficking movement. I ended up working for a prominent organization headquartered there and gained a lot of passion and experience serving in advocacy and rights.
LAUREN: So, the waiting was fruitful—until God’s time and plan were right. And now, here you are! Where is that? How long have you been there? And how’s it going so far?
MRS: We’re in North Africa. And we’ve been in our country for three months, though overseas for closer to seven. We spent the summer in Europe, picking up some language skills and now we’re here, picking up another totally different language! This whole first year has been essentially a transition for us so far.
MR: Now, most of our life looks like adjusting to a new place and learning a new language. Language school is our full-time job. We will spend a full year just learning language which seemed crazy at first, but now, after our first three months here, we’ve realized that’s more than enough.
LAUREN: Oh really? Why is that?
MR: The transition is taxing. The demand of adjusting to life in a new language and culture, with a new rhythm of life, learning to navigate a new kind of market, buy new types of foods with different money, in a language you don’t know.
We were both a bit surprised at how your capacity plummets when you move to a cross-cultural context. Both of us were working very high-capacity jobs in a fast-paced American metropolis—lots of hours spent doing lots of things.
And I think we both thought that we would lose some of that capacity.
MRS: But really, you get here, and suddenly your plans are: “Okay, today, I’m going to go to the grocery store, go to language school, and take a nap.”
And that’s my whole day! That’s all that I have the capacity for today. You make your peace with that. Then, slowly but surely, you adjust and orient and begin to rebuild your capacity in a new place. It kind of feels like you’re a child again.
MR: So, we’re no longer napping.
MR: But yeah, that’s been a big part. In these first three months in [country] there was also a big focus, for us, on finding our own apartment, getting our car, and things like that. It’s a surprising amount of work just settling and getting your life in place.
Not everyone transitioning to a cross-cultural context like us would say—get their own apartment or car—as quickly as we did. They might have stayed with others for longer, delayed a big purchase like a car, or transitioned more slowly.
But for us, going in, it was a priority to become independent and settled here quickly. So, we’ve been settling. And also grieving.
MRS: Yeah, our last year in the States before we came here was very rough. We were preparing for the big move and also facing some really difficult things. Then my mom passed away right before we left the U.S., so, language school in Europe for the first few months gave us time to grieve. Paris was language learning, but God also used it to give us some space to really work through that.
So now, we’re here and still in a bit of a season of grieving—but I also think it’s normal to be grieving everything your first few months living abroad! And now we’re starting to get into our work as well.
MR: Yes, we do language school full time, learn to live here, and now we also go to one work meeting a week. We’re seconded to serve a local association working here. So ultimately, when we finish our year of language school, I will be working primarily on the medical side of things, along with using whatever other skills I have (maybe sports?) to help serve and equip locally. But, we’ll do whatever it is that our local leadership decides they need of us most.
MRS: For me, that will mean working with them on another one of the many projects the association has ongoing. One thing that’s very exciting is that it looks like there is going to be an opportunity for me to help the association facilitate new work unfolding in the anti-trafficking arena in our new country. That is the background I came from and the work I did while Mr. Bonner was in grad school.
But I think what we’re realizing more and more, as we talk to more people who are living here and have been here for years —you have to wear so many different hats, and things can change, seemingly overnight.
MR: We have yet to meet somebody who’s lived here for any extended period who hasn’t done three, four, or five different jobs.
With the nature of this place and its challenges, there’s no long-established field hospital to jump into and stay at for 20 years. You just try to have very open hands and a flexible heart.
MRS: Which we love! It shows that the people here are people that really want to be in this place and love these people and not necessarily just feel a desire to use a certain skill or vocation for good.
Ultimately, I imagine we will change roles and job descriptions here quite often as the needs and opportunities change.
LAUREN: Okay So, you’ve been on the field three months, and you’ve got another six months at least of language school. Meanwhile, you’re connecting with your new community, learning what faith/life looks like in this totally new context, making new friends…
What happens next? In the next year—two years?
MR: We’re living in the capital of the country now, but we’ve been asked to consider moving out into the mountains to a smaller town, which we’re very open to. But we’re trying to get through this transition before we pick another transition.
LAUREN: So the future is still uncertain at the moment? You spend the next year or so praying about it and seeing what unfolds?
MRS: That’s right, it’s exciting to see some options, but knowing that the Lord is truly in control is both daunting and very freeing. We always make a joke: “Well, we’ve already jumped off the cliff!”
We know we’re going to land somewhere, but we can’t really control where. It’s really a freeing feeling. We always laugh with our friends. We made some wonderful friends and partners who have come alongside us in this journey. They say things like, “You guys have so much faith.”
I was like, we’re kind of lazy actually. The first step probably took a lot of faith, but at this point, it’s just like being along for the ride!
MR: It can be a temptation to be lazy. We have to proactively partake, too. We can’t think the work is done just because we got on the plane.
LAUREN: I guess looking at it from the outside, it does seem like a risky and radical step—to move to that region as Christians—that it would stretch your faith to even consider it. And how did you end up in this place? Was North Africa originally on your radar when you were first considering moving abroad?
MR: Not at all. We had not considered this region.
This might seem like a roundabout answer: but the journey to this particular place was really God-led as we just took it step-by-step.
First, we found out about this organization at a conference—we met a doctor there who had previously lived overseas, and he answered all our questions. It turned out that SIM was one of the only organizations that said they could place people with my medical specialty. So, we got connected and hooked up with an application coordinator there who helped us through the long process of considering the choice to go, learning more about the process, vetting the org, and all of that.
MRS: She [the coordinator] humored us with all the difficult questions. I wanted to know their stance on how you address the history of colonialism and all the hard millennial issues that I was concerned with. She very graciously answered every single one. And when she couldn’t answer, she sought out an answer and got back to us.
Then, when we got further into the process and committed to going, we were handed off to S [a Mobilization Coordinator]. And then S walked with us for three years because we were slow applicants. Oh, man, we were taking our time!
MR: The hardest question for us was: Where? Where to serve. We had it in mind that we would be in Sub Saharan Africa, especially with my medical skillset. And that was the case for many years, but we were open and not feeling super committed to anything.
MRS: And with S, she’s the best, but the woman would not stop giving us countries to consider! With every new place that was given to us, we thought: Sure, we could do that; we can make that work. Eventually, we had to tell her to stop giving us countries because we weren’t narrowing. We were just wandering.
MR: It came to a head during one of the on-campus trainings. Around that time, the mobilization team had basically said that to take the next steps of training and prep we needed to decide where we were going.
MRS: I had a little bit of a meltdown. At one point, we were in the guest house, and it felt like everybody was foaming at the mouth for his medical skills and telling me: “Oh, and you can raise the kids…” But we don’t have kids, and it felt silly to plan for an imagined future. I didn’t feel seen and I felt like there wasn’t anything for me.
And I remember we got back to the guest house and were sitting in the room. I was agonizing: What was the point of having a whole career? Of working so hard on my education, my career and everything I did … what was the point if it’s not going to be used? We were just so discouraged.
MR: We decided to pray about it and put it to rest. The next morning, we met with S, and she simply said: “Have you ever considered North Africa?”
Of course, we said no…
MRS: And she goes, “Well, this one just came across my desk. This is the top need.” And what was written as the request from the local believers was word-for-word my former job title when I worked in anti-trafficking.
We didn’t decide right then and there, but it just felt like such a relief. Like the Lord was reminding us that it wasn’t for nothing, that He has us in His hands. And so we prayed about it and ultimately, after wrestling for so long, once we submitted to the decision—everything happened so quickly and easily after that!
MR: Doors opened miraculously in the middle of COVID. People started reaching out, asking us when we were going to start fundraising. It was God’s perfect timing. It was like He said, “Okay, it’s been long enough, almost ten years, it’s time for you to go now!”
LAUREN: Wow, incredible story! I have one final question: What would you say to people who are considering this change in lifestyle? If someone were considering going abroad and living cross-culturally like you are, what would you tell them? Advice? Warnings? Words of Wisdom? Encouragement?
MRS: Encouragement, definitely! Hmm… maybe: You can’t shake it for a reason. Your mind keeps coming back to it. There’s a reason for it. If you’re trying to, and you can’t get rid of it, it’s for a reason.
MR: For me, I feel like it’s really worth it. It’s a lot of sacrifice. But it’s worth it. I think, what I’ve been surprised about is how tangible it feels to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself, which has been really special.
MRS: We live with this high level of dependence on the Lord. But I never would have had this kind of dependence if we were still living in our big city in the US.
MR: So that’s a good thing! Yeah, if we had to go back two years from now or 10 years, we would do the same thing. It’s 100% worth it.
MRS: We’re still in the honeymoon phase…
Ask us in six months!