This is the book I wish we had when we started our international service as young marrieds in 2005 . . . and when we became parents . . . and when we went to language school . . . and when we repatriated . . . and for all of the (extra)ordinary days in between. If you’re married and engaged in cross-cultural ministry, this book belongs in your hands and then in your reference library. It’s not your average prescriptive marriage book, but carefully and competently tailored for folks in cross-cultural service. It accounts for a variety of roles and seasons.
Today we talk with the author, Alexis (Ali) Kenny. I know you’ll want to hear what she has to say. If you would like to engage the conversation in the comments, your name will be entered in a drawing to win a free copy of her book.
Can you tell us about your cross-cultural service? Where were you, what were you doing, and for how long were you there?
Twelve days after getting married, my husband and I boarded a plane for Honduras to begin our 13 months of service at a home for children in rural Honduras. The orphanage works to keep siblings together and functions as a final placement for kids who have experienced abuse with no capable family member(s) to care for them.
Pat and I served as Padrinos, the primary caretakers, of certain groups of children there. Pat worked with 33 boys, ages 5-13, while I spent my days bucket showering, braiding hair, and folding the clothes of 16, similarly-aged girls. Our days began at 5:00am, waking up our kiddos and helping them get ready for school. After dropping them off, I would hand-wash laundry, prepare my weekly lesson for religion class (I also taught in the school one day a week), and sneak in some leisure reading. At 2:30pm, we would pick up the kids from school, do chores in the dormitories, complete homework assignments, wrangle everyone up for dinner, romp around the fields after eating, and then try to get the kids showered (“try” being the key word here) and ready for bed by 9:00pm. Simply put, Pat and I were full-time parents.
Do you foresee more in your future?
It would seem that my husband and I enjoy working together as we are both students in a Doctoral Program in School and Clinical Psychology. While part of me would love to serve internationally once more, I foresee my family and professional life keeping me here in the U.S. However, I continue to be interested in cross-cultural dynamics and hope to find a meaningful way by which to work with immigrant and refugee populations from a more psychological platform. Pat and I want to raise our family as part of a community that is culturally, racially, and religiously diverse.
What prompted you to write the book?
In short, it was a requirement. Married in Mission was my master’s thesis. In the fall of 2012, I began my studies in Intercultural Studies and Ministry. I took a year off to serve in Honduras, and then returned to Chicago in the fall of 2014 to finish my degree.
In reflecting on our shared cross-cultural experience, I have found that it can be summarized in one word – “intense.” Serving in a remote, hot, and notoriously dangerous environment was intense, being the primary childcare providers for abused children was intense, and doing it all as newlyweds was…you guessed it…intense. While Pat was (and continues to be) a self-contained and internal processor, I remember feeling like it would have been helpful to have had some guidance in navigating my overseas experience as both an individual and as a wife – someone part of a dyadic unit.
After returning back to the United States, I sought out literature specifically for married couples transitioning home from international ministry, and came up relatively empty-handed. As mentioned, I had one semester of coursework to finish and a thesis to write before my graduation. Seeing that I had the time, academic means, background, and aspiration, I decided to fulfill my thesis requirement by creating a resource for other volunteer husbands and wives working cross-culturally.
What need do you perceive that this book meets?
I believe that international service organizations (and those affiliated with them) must start looking at overseas work as more than just the time spent in a foreign location. How you prepare for (insert host country) and how you process your experience of (insert host country) directly impacts the relationship you have with your service in (insert host country). With that in mind, I have identified and separated extended, cross-cultural work into seven different phases: the pre-departure processes of (1) discernment and (2) preparation; the (3) beginning, (4) middle, and (5) end of the abroad experience itself; and finally, the post-service stages of (6) re-entry and (7) integration.
Each chapter of this book is dedicated to one phase of cross-cultural work and contains three exercises that are meant to help partners resolve some of the common issues that can arise in each stage of an international service experience. This resource is dedicated to accompanying those involved with overseas work via a more holistic schema with interactive components.
What are your hopes for the book?
Oh gosh. What a big and lovely question. I think I have two hopes for this book. Firstly, I wanted this resource to straightforwardly, yet gently address sensitive issues that many married cross-cultural workers face – struggles with changes in marital roles, maintaining emotional and physical intimacy, experiences of infidelity, etc. I think honestly dialoging about such topics can better assist couples in managing the dynamics within their marriage in an international context. Secondly, I was very intentional about writing this book in a way that made it accessible across theological boundaries. One of the most satisfying sources of feedback about this resource has come from my Protestant readers. As a Catholic, I am pleased that my living out and communication of the faith tradition to which I ascribe has encouraged non-Catholic couples to more deeply engage with their own religious identities as Christian spouses.
Is there anything else that you would like readers to know about you, your time in Honduras, your marriage, or your book?
I recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Pat and I’s first child. My pregnancy was both wonderful and conflictive. During those nine months of our daughter’s growth, I often thought about my 16 girls in Honduras. “Why is it that our child is welcomed into this world by two loving parents while so many other kids are not offered the same loving advantage?” I feared that the love I had for my own daughter would in some way detract from the relationships I formed with the Honduran children who had once been in my care. That fear was quickly quelled soon after our daughter’s birth. Becoming a mother has made me realize just how much each and every kid deserves the awe, unconditional love, and incredible commitment that are part and parcel of the parental experience. I think about and pray for the 16 girls who changed my life in one year, and continue to be grateful for the preparation they gifted me, which has allowed me to be the mother I am today.
Thank you, Ali, for joining us today.
Over to you, Readers. What do you find interesting or attractive about this resource? What phase of cross-cultural work are you currently in? Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing to win a copy of Ali’s book!