Let’s just level here—celebrating holidays overseas can be hard. The pain of feeling the distance from loved ones and familiar tastes, scents, and cultural traditions often intensifies during the run-up to the holidays.
One of the women in Central Asia I talked with recently confessed, “In all sincerity, Thanksgiving hurts our hearts. Being away from loved ones, and seeing the photos of everyone gathered together, of fall leaves changing, pumpkin patches, and hayrides is hard. But the distance draws us closer to the Giver every time. Every year we say we’re thankful for the simplicity of celebrating here. In fact, there’s something sacred about it.”
Cultivating a thankful heart has a way of soothing hurt. Focusing on all the good that God has poured out in our lives over the year is the heart of Thanksgiving. And though missionaries serving around the world may not be able to dine on turkey, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce, their hearts are filled with thanks.
We asked them what they’ll be thankful for when they celebrate Thanksgiving this year. Here’s what they said.
Far from Home, Missionaries Give Thanks
“Should I tell you about the scrawny, tough turkeys we’ve picked up from our village friends that were alive the morning before we had them for Thanksgiving dinner? Or about the one we ordered from the grocery store that was moldy? Since the turkeys we have access to aren’t exactly suitable for eating, I’m thankful for ham! We usually plan for one of us to bring in a ham from overseas for Thanksgiving. Since we live in a Muslim country where pork is not available, ham is always a treat.
“And I’m thankful for the fact that we can gather as a group of believers without fear of imprisonment or harm; the bounty of the table (my husband insists that “pretzel salad” is indeed a salad!); the fact that the US had a president who deemed it fit to establish a day for giving thanks; and for God’s faithfulness to us throughout the year that sustains us.”
—Cathy Vinson, Central Asia
“I’m grateful for the unconditional affection our church in South Asia pours on my family. When I feel guarded or unsure, they are open and encouraging. When we welcomed our first child, they hosted a baby shower so we could feel connected to traditions in our home country. When we ask questions about their country or traditions, they answer graciously and without judgment. Our church is a true gift.”
—Rachel Cohen, South Asia
“I’m thankful for folks back home who give and send so I can be here in East Asia. And I’m thankful for the opportunity to share about the living hope we have through Jesus Christ with so many who are still living with no hope.”
—Roxie Malone, East Asia
“I’m thankful to live in a big city that has lots of restaurants with take-out options. At the end of a busy day the last thing I want to do is cook. I know many of my colleagues in other parts of Africa don’t have this option—they have to make pretty much everything from scratch.
“And I’m thankful that this city is reinventing itself after decades of struggle—crime, racism, urban decay. New restaurants, coffee shops, markets, businesses, and art galleries are springing up, bringing much-needed life and energy into downtown. At the same time, new churches are being planted in these areas. I praise the ultimate Creator, Restorer, and Entrepreneur for bringing life back to the city!”
—Melanie Clinton, Sub-Saharan Africa
“I’m thankful that God has given my family the opportunity to serve him. It’s remarkable that he chooses us to work for his glory.”
“I’m thankful for the blessing of raising three children overseas. Over the years, our family has celebrated Thanksgiving in multiple countries, and some of my favorite memories are when friends in our community joined us. Our children definitely have a unique perspective on the holiday and the menu. On our table, curry dishes sit next to green bean casserole.”
—Bryson Holtson, South Asia
“I’m thankful for my kids and the many “whys” they ask. Let’s be real, at times all those “whys” can get annoying, but they often help me remember to be a learner myself and to stop and ask “why” when I’m reflecting on my own life. The Lord is constantly using my children to make me more like him.”
–Sommer Buss, Europe
“I’m thankful my children have adjusted to learning a new language. I felt encouraged when I heard my daughter singing the tune of Jingle Bells . . . in the local language!”
—Pam Smith, South Asia
“Thanksgiving is a regular workday here, even for Americans. So, we usually get together for a big meal during the weekend. Turkey is difficult to find, so we eat chicken instead.
“Lately, I find myself increasingly thankful for my bed. It provides comfort and gives me rest after a busy day of ministry. Each night when my head hits the pillow, I’m reminded to pray for those out on the streets without shelter, safety, or comfort. God prioritized times of rest for his people, and I thank him for a safe place to sleep.”
—Emily Stockton, East Asia
“I’m thankful for a reason to make strawberry-pretzel salad “for our guests,” and then eat most of it myself, because combining sweet and salty is “an American thing.” But mostly, I’m thankful for friends who are family when our biological family is so far away.”
—Libby Donaldson, Europe
“I’m thankful for an apartment that God has provided as a refuge for us in this bustling megacity. I’m thankful for friends to share a meal with and for special treats packed in luggage and brought from America for us to enjoy, like pecans and chocolate chips. And I’m thankful for the gift of salvation that gives hope, joy, and peace this day and every day.”
—Madison Strauder, South Asia
“After spending the last four years overseas, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving in Kentucky this year. We grew up watching the Macy’s parade and the Cowboys play. When we’re away from family and friends on a day that reminds us of all we’re missing out on, it can sting. As I brine and stuff my turkey, throw the football around, and feast on all the fat, I’ll be thankful—thankful that our Sovereign Lord cares about me and the little things. He lavishes us with his grace and blesses us with abundance.”
—Josh Baylor, Europe
“I’m thankful that God has given my family the opportunity to serve him. It’s remarkable that he chooses us to work for his glory. Not only that, but he’s faithful to tell us where he wants us and what he wants us to do. He is so above us, but so filled with love that he bends down to show us affection.”
—Samantha Conners, Europe
Eliza Thomas is a writer serving with IMB. She has lived with her family in Central Asia for more than a decade.