An Unwanted Gift

I wasn’t supposed to be there.

We were in sunny, sweltering Palm Springs for a week of orientation. It was the end of July, and I had spent the previous six months intensely preparing to move overseas. I had made a commitment to teach English for two years  in a country where it was illegal to share the gospel.

All summer I had been busy buying a year’s worth of toiletries (half a suitcase), filling the rest of my bag with clothes and food that reminded me of home, and reading books that my mission agency had sent about the country I was headed to. As I packed, I wondered what it would be like to live overseas. I had never lived on my own before. Many people I met that summer were impressed by my new job. Even strangers exclaimed, “You’re teaching English overseas? That’s so cool!”

But I didn’t want to go.

I was afraid of moving so far away from home. I’d just graduated from college and was leaving most of my friends and all of my family behind. I had been living with my family that summer,  packing in my bedroom and dreading the next year.

And I was afraid that I wouldn’t be a good teacher. As an introvert, I preferred working in small groups or behind the scenes. I was nervous about standing up in front of a classroom with 300 students every week. I had already taught in that country for a month two years previously and I’d had a wonderful time, but I’d had only fifteen students. When I’d returned, I was so exhausted from 16-hour days with students and teachers that I barely got out of bed for two weeks.

But I applied and committed to going because God called me to go. Even when I was overseas before, I sensed I would be coming back. When I prayed about what to do after I graduated, God said, “Be a missionary.” When I searched online for other jobs, he patiently told me, “You’re wasting your time. I’ve shown you what to do.”

Then I realized there might be a way to stay home.

By then end of May, we each had to raise $5,000 in support to be eligible to buy our plane tickets. But on June 1st, I had only raised $1,000. I happily thought, Maybe they’ll let me stay.

But because of an accounting error, my ticket was purchased anyway. I couldn’t believe it when recruiter told me that I had replaced someone on a team who hadn’t raised the required $5,000 to buy her plane ticket. I wondered why I had been allowed to go.

When I finally said the last tearful goodbye to my parents and flew to Palm Springs, I felt like a fraud.  I don’t deserve to be here, I thought to myself. I don’t fit in, and I didn’t even raise enough money to go. As soon as the accountant finds out that I didn’t raise enough support, maybe I’ll be sent home. As I thought about how embarrassing that would be, I almost wanted to stay.

When I finally met with the accountant and explained that I hadn’t raised the required amount, he said, “Oh, that’s fine. Of course you’re going. More support will come in after you go overseas.”

He was right, darnit. Over the next year, support eventually came in. My teammate later told me that she’d had an uneasy feeling when she first heard about their team. “I looked at everyone’s picture, and it just didn’t seem right,” she said. “But when we finally received the email saying that you were on our team instead and we saw your picture, we just had a good feeling, like our team was finally complete.”

And it was a good team.

But it was a hard year. I grew depressed and bitter because things weren’t going the way I had envisioned. The first people we met said, “We’re so sorry you’re at that school,” meaning our school – the one I was committed to working and living at for the next two years.

Our first semester was a whirl of negative rumors and disagreements all covered in humidity and thick, dark pollution that filled our nostrils and covered our floors in black soot. I was told that people were spying on me and I started to believe them, staying inside away from the crowds.

I had many wonderful students, but others didn’t understand English at all and didn’t seem interested in learning. I hadn’t been trained to teach beginning students, but that didn’t stop my self-condemnation. Frustrated at my failure in the classroom and with my team, I started procrastinating to the point of barely getting up until it was time to go to class. Day after day I returned home and collapsed on the cold tile floor in tears, crying with loneliness, misunderstandings, and homesickness.

I blamed God for sending me to that place, but mostly I blamed myself for failing to live up to my high standards. I had unrealistic expectations of success, and I didn’t give myself or others grace when we failed.

Maybe sometimes grace is easier to see–and receive–in retrospect.MiahOrenPhotography-1 copy 5

Now, 10 years later, I think of how my life has changed because I was there. I think of all the wonderful students I met who took me out to dinner, introduced me to their families, and encouraged me when I was ready to give up. How perhaps my biggest success was that I stayed and didn’t quit.

If I met the girl I replaced now, I would sit down over coffee and tell her, You missed a crazy year. I’ve never cried so much. I’ve never been so alone. But I wouldn’t trade that year for anything because God works all things for good. Even when it’s hard. And even when we do our best to run the other way.

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MiahOren portraitMiah is the author of The Reluctant Missionary, a memoir about her time overseas. She writes about learning to let go of perfectionism and embracing God’s plan for her life. She lives in Dallas where she dreams of someday having another cat. Connect with Miah online at