By Laura McKillip Wood
Missionary families face the challenge of teaching their children about American culture while respecting the cultures in which they live. Jed and Renee Gourley deal with this challenge, raising their five children in the Caucasus Mountains in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Since the Georgian people celebrate international holidays, like Christmas and Easter, the Gourleys celebrate those with their national friends, and their children naturally absorb the customs of the Georgian people. However, “distinctly American holidays, such as Thanksgiving, are set times when we can gather together and celebrate our heritage.” Since their children have spent most of their lives overseas, Jed and Renee emphasize American holiday traditions at Thanksgiving to teach their children more about the history and culture of the United States.
Many Thanksgiving traditions center around particular foods, and procuring those foods for Thanksgiving dinner can be tricky. Jed said, “Wherever we are, we scour the stores and open-air markets for things like sweet potatoes or find alternate recipes to make the dishes that our minds recall with such fondness. There have been times we were blessed by surprise packages of marshmallows in the mail, or even the more rare canned pumpkin.” The Gourley children also look forward to taking turns telling what they are thankful for during the Thanksgiving feast.
As for celebrating other holidays, this family has made it a point to take things with them that are meaningful to them. They’ve taken certain Christmas ornaments, movies they watch for special holidays, and traditions that Jed and Renee remember from childhood. When traveling back from a furlough, “We almost always have one suitcase devoted to things like Christmas stockings, a manger scene, holiday music, etc., because we believe that it is important for our children to have similar family bonding experiences as we had growing up.”
Living outside of American culture puts the Gourleys in a unique situation. Their distance allows them to choose the American traditions they want rather than feeling burdened to fulfill certain obligations. “These simple practices often help us stay focused on the essentials of the holiday and not get lost in the details or excesses.” Of course, holidays that both Americans and Georgians share are times when the Gourley children benefit from living in a different culture. The family is able to incorporate many holiday traditions from their host country as well as American ones, enriching the family’s holiday celebrations.
Jed and Renee have plenty of experience celebrating important days overseas. They have served as missionaries since they were teenagers themselves. Jed said he did not start out very interested in travel and, in fact, never even took a world geography class in high school. He did participate in a short-term missions trip during high school, but the idea of becoming a missionary did not take root until he spent a summer in Kiev, Ukraine during college.
Jed went there to work with Renee’s parents, who had previously served his church in Indiana. He spent the summer teaching English to students in the public schools and used the Bible as a textbook. He began hanging out with the students outside of class and formed a sort of youth group with them. He returned to college in America that fall and tried to settle into college life. However, “With each passing day, the normal American life seemed less and less alluring for me. I didn’t realize that I had changed.” Eventually, Jed cancelled plans for college and bought a one-way ticket to Ukraine.
Jed and Renee married and served 12 years in Ukraine and 7 years in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. A little over a year ago, they moved to Tbilisi, Georgia. They spent their first year settling in: finding a home and schools, figuring out new medical systems, and getting long-term visas. They are taking language classes and hope to begin a Bible study soon. Their large family rooted in missionary work is their team. “The children are not tagalongs, and it has been exciting for us to work together.”
In all of their ministries, the Gourleys focus on church planting. “We are prayerfully working toward establishing a local church . . . which will be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-reproducing.” They would also like to begin a training program for Russian-speaking pastors who desire to serve in the unreached places of the Caucasus.
Find out more about the Gourley family on their website (distantfields.com).
Laura McKillip Wood formerly taught missionary children in Ukraine and now works in the academic office of Nebraska Christian College in Papillion, Nebraska. She and her husband, Andrew, have three children (lauramckillipwood.com).