Growing Up a Missionary Kid

My early life can be characterized by travel and moving. And, because of my parents, was filled with service and peace work. How much does our early life influence who we become as adults? 

My parents joined Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a relief, service, and peace agency shortly after their 1965 marriage. MCC represents Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and Amish bodies in North America. Their first assignment was to spend 3-years in Jos, Nigeria teaching at a high school. Jos is located in central Nigeria. It wasn’t such a large city in the sixties but today is close to a million residents. During this time, Nigeria experienced a series of military coups and the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). It was in this environment that I was born in October 1967. 

Ken Neufeld holding Kenley

To this day, my dad remains connected with some of the young students he had in Jos. I certainly don’t recall this time in Nigeria, but it is a part of my story. Nigeria is where I was born, but my connection and roots pretty much end there. 

When my parents commitment was complete, in 1968, they moved back to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and worked in the family lumber business. But our stay in Saskatoon was short-lived as my parents then moved to Akron, Pennsylvania where MCC is headquartered. My dad served as associate secretary of personnel services. Because this was the height of the Vietnam War, the MCC office was helping many young Mennonites seek alternatives to military service. Filing conscientious objector status was a time consuming matter. 

Once again, I don’t have memories of this time in Pennsylvania. And yet I can’t help be wonder how much the peace work my parents were doing may have influenced me. To be surrounded by people taking a clear stand against war and being willing to serve in other capacities. To some extent, I can say the MCC grounding in service and peace has most definitely carried forward throughout my life. 

In 1971, my parents were sent on another 3-year commitment overseas. This time we moved to Lusaka, Zambia. Here my dad was the country representatives in charge of 30 MCC personnel. It was here that I began school and making friends. I recall time on the dirt schoolyard playing marbles with other children. I recall the walk home to our house. Like many in Africa, we had house staff to help with cooking and caring for the property. I remember the people who lived with us. Their kindness and friendship. We had chickens running around the yard that we would use for food and eggs. I recall playing in the wilderness out behind our house where we could get lost in the tall reeds and trees. 

My time in Zambia is a good memory. A time of play and friendship. And beginning to learn about the world around me. But it did come to an end. One lasting negative memory I have was just before we left when we ate a slaughtered family cow. My feeling was of anger and not understanding. Perhaps this was the start of my veganism?

On that note, we moved back to the United States. We arrived in Reedley, California in 1974 where my dad helped establish a West Coast MCC regional office. This move came after I was fully acculturated in Zambia. Zambia is where I began my formative school years. Zambia was really all I knew. I even spoke with an “English” accent as that was the national language in Zambia. The transition to American culture and living was a steep curve and came with many difficulties for me. A missionary kid in a new country, with different ways of talking, different ways of doing things, and with the whole landscape of sports and media I knew nothing about. 

It was also here that I discovered some Mennonites who had served in the military. That was a shock to me because I already knew we were pacifists. But these Mennonites had been in the United States a very long time and had lived through World War II. And as German speakers, they needed to assert their patriotism. This is how I remember it. I knew my parents still spoke German and our family was from Canada (my parents are first generation Canadians). 

I won’t go into the whole story of acculturating to America, that’s for another time, but suffice to say I remain in California since that move. I naturalized as US citizen 1991 so that I could vote and not be kicked out of the country for speaking my mind. 

Growing up as part of the MCC community, the first 12-years of my life, I can most certainly say it influenced me in the areas of service and peace. I have been a lifelong pacifist, practitioner of nonviolence, and a strong advocate for social justice. And though I am no longer a practicing Mennonite, now a student of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village tradition, I can see my practice today is firmly rooted in those early years in Nigeria, Pennsylvania, Zambia, and California

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2 responses to “Growing Up a Missionary Kid”

  1. Joy Chase Avatar
    Joy Chase

    Kenley. thank you for sharing your story as an MK in Africa. I grew up with many MKs in India and still keep in touch with some. My dear friend died last month in Melbourne. She had to give up a baby in the late 1950s who was adopted by Mennonite missionaries. When they died, she was reunited with this daughter who now lives in India and she was able to talk to her before she died. My parents belonged to the Plymouth Brethren and I agree with you that although we may leave that group (as I have, too) we have roots in that space and it stays. Take care. Joy

  2. Kenley Neufeld Avatar

    Thanks for sharing some of your story and experiences.