Home is Where: The Journeys of a Missionary Child by Margaret Newbigin Beetham
From the 1930s to the 1970s, Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary and Bishop in South India. When he ‘retired’ back to England, he pastored an inner city church in Birmingham, lectured and wrote a series of highly influential books.
No Christian writer has influenced me more than Newbigin. I have read all of his books and find him a continual source of wisdom and inspiration.
Newbigin and his wife Helen had 4 children. His oldest child, Margaret, has written a powerful and evocative memoir titled Home is Where about her upbringing and the impact that her parent’s missionary life had. It’s a vital book for anyone who appreciates her father’s work.
Home is Where is no hatchet-job on Newbigin’s reputation: in fact it gives further evidence of his warm and good-natured character.
But what it starkly illustrates is the impact that a missionary life can have on children. Newbigin was loved and respected by many, but the price of this was how absent he was from the lives of his children. As Beetham writes:
‘He was a father to a lot of people. Everyone wanted a piece of him and sometimes there was not much left for his daughters.’
In countless books and articles, there is no shortage of reflection and analysis on Newbigin’s thinking and theology. But this book is different. It focusses on Newbigin’s role as a Dad.
I found Home is Where an unusual and fascinating book.
Beetham is now retired from her career as an academic and lives in Manchester. Rather than recounting a linear narrative, she weaves in scenes from her life which have prompted memories of her upbringing. A creative use of letters and emails illustrate how the past intersect with her life today.
Her writing vividly recalls the culture in missionary and church circles of the time. She contrasts the heat, noise, colour and sensuality of her early life in India, with the cold, damp, grey, repression of post-war Britain.
When she is sent to boarding school in Kent, her tales of being shunted around Britain between grandparents, aunts and school are moving and poignant.
Confusion about what ‘home’ meant are constant realities of her early life. When friends celebrated the start of holidays, she felt differently because she did not return ‘home’ as others did. The break from school was mostly ‘days and nights stretched out in undifferentiated greyness, shot through with anxiety or bewilderment.’
She recounts her Mother teaching her to pack by putting the heavy, bulky items at the bottom of the case and folding clothing smoothly on top. Beetham uses it as an illustration of the tendency to conceal deep and heavy matters and present a neat exterior to the world.
Unspoken sadness is a key theme. Her Auntie lost 3 sons to war and suicide, her sister struggled with mental illness and she was afflicted by panic attacks, but none of these matters were spoken of.
Right at the end of her father’s life, she sits beside his hospital bed, wanting to articulate why so much has gone unsaid. But then they are interrupted by a clergyman who has journeyed to see him. Her father dies that night and the words are left unspoken.
Home is Where offers no simple resolution to the dilemma that countless missionaries will have grappled with. The tension is summed up by a debate at her boarding school where Beetham recalls that she argued for the motion ‘Missionaries should not have children’.
A key reason why I found this book fascinating is that similar circumstances have affected my immediate family.
My paternal grandparents, Wilfred and Doris Kuhrt, were also missionaries in South India for 40 years for the same period as Newbigin. They knew each other and Newbigin would consult my grandfather on Tamil translation.
My Dad‘s childhood had some similarities with Beetham’s, though he never went to boarding school. His situation was complicated further by disability (he was born with club-foot) and serious illness after he contracted Polio when he was 18 months old.
After returning to Britain after the war in 1945, his parents left him in England a year later when he was 4 years old and returned to India. He did not see them again for 5 years. He wrote about these experiences in a short book titled Life’s Not Always Easy.
Deep and challenging
Similarly to my Dad, Beetham may recount the past with sadness, but she avoids bitterness or sharp criticism of her parents. And, rather than reject the faith which had such a disruptive influence on their early lives, both she and my Dad are Christians very much involved in church life.
The impact that faith-based decisions have on our children is one of the deepest and most challenging of subjects.
Andy Dorton is a community activist who intentionally moved with his family onto a deprived council estate in Hull and has lived there for decades. He wrote this insightful comment:
“The problem with Jesus is that he never had kids: claim he understands all our temptations if you like, but he never had kids.”