RICHMOND, Va. (BP) -- Richard and Sharla Rachel are typical American grandparents who enjoy being a part of their grandchildren's lives. They babysit. They have dinner together. They read books and play games.
But one significant difference distinguishes them from many American grandparents: 5,834 miles to be exact. That is the distance -- including an ocean -- that separates the Rachels from three of their grandchildren.
The distance has prompted the Rachels, who live in Carrollton, Texas, to find creative ways to connect virtually with their grandchildren, whose parents serve as Christian workers in the Balkan region of Eastern Europe.
"One time, Richard did virtual babysitting," Sharla said. The Rachels' son-in-law was out and their daughter, Rose,* was busy doing other things. She asked Richard, who had called on Skype from Texas, to keep their 6-year-old son occupied for about 30 minutes.
"I was on the computer and he and I were talking," Richard recalled. "Every few minutes he would leave the room and I would call out, 'Kevin,* are you still alive?' He would come back and we would talk some more."
Not only was Rose comfortable with her dad serving as "simulated babysitter," but Richard's presence, albeit virtual, meant a lot to Kevin, too, Sharla says.
"At that moment, Kevin wasn't thinking that granddaddy was across the ocean," Sharla recalled. "Granddaddy was right there. Kevin could see his face."
Creative approaches like this allow grandparents to maintain relationships with their children and grandchildren who serve internationally. Parents of missionaries offered seven tips to families separated by international service.
1. If possible, parents should visit their children overseas. Seeing where they live can help them to visualize their child's experience. It also fosters a level of comfort you might not have if you don't make the trip.
"I would never have traveled overseas," Robert Lovell, whose son, Joe, served in Asia, said. "I had been to Mexico one time for work and hated it, but we wanted to see where (our son and his family were.)" During the 15 years his son lived in Asia, Lovell and his wife Lela visited all three countries where his son lived, sometimes twice.
"I'm glad we went," Lovell said. "We saw where and how they lived and worked in a foreign country … and made great memories. I would encourage any parent to go."
2. Learn the culture and language of your child's adopted country. "Learning some of the language … will bond you with your grandchildren who are growing up multi-cultural and bilingual," Richard Robbins, whose children serve in Asia, said. And, if you can't make the trip, "studying, reading and searching the Web about the place your kids live will help you visualize their living conditions."
Richard Rachel said, "I can just type in their address on Google Earth and it will go right to their apartment. You can see it. It's neat."
In some locations, Google Earth even allows you to take a "virtual tour" of the community. You can see the market where your child shops, the school your grandchildren attend and the park where they play.
3. Keep in touch. "Before Skype, before email, I would write a letter in long hand every week without fail," Sally Ozment, whose daughter has served in Asia for more than 20 years, said. "Of course, by the time they got it, it was old news, but it was still a connection from me."
With today's technology, keeping in touch is easier than ever, parents say. Communication apps like Skype, FaceTime, Facebook and others allow parents and kids to connect instantly to share photos, videos and stories about the day.
"Skype is God's gift to missionary parents," says Ozment, 77, who wryly admits, "I'm a slow learner and my mind doesn't work in that technical realm, so I just look for an 8-year-old (to help me.)"
4. Make the most of stateside visits. Overnight visits, special one-on-one times and family gatherings characterize the stateside time of many missionary families. These are important times to renew relationships and build special memories. Workers caution, though, that many of the conveniences and choices Americans take for granted are new, exciting and a little intimidating to grandchildren who have grown up in a foreign culture.
"My daughter had a hard time choosing a Gatorade flavor," one worker recalled. "I sent her off to the drink aisle to pick what she wanted. She returned a few seconds later, needing help. 'There are too many choices!' she said. When I joined her, I had to agree. Flavors, brands and sizes were too many to count!"
5. Become involved with a support group. No one understands the separation better than another missionary parent understands, says Mike Beckler, who, along with his wife Connie started a support group for parents of missionaries in Missouri, their home state.
"[Parents of missionaries] are the only ones that really understand a lot of the emotional things you're dealing with," Beckler said. "Friends and family help, but they don't really 'know it' the same way."
Even if you don't join a missionary parent fellowship, finding a group of close friends who will talk and pray with you is vital, Beckler explained. The support can be as simple as an email "prayer chain," in which parents share requests about their children and pray for one another. It can be as elaborate as periodic gatherings, like the national missionary parent fellowship, that meets once every two years at locations around the country. The next national gathering is scheduled for April 7-10, 2016, at IMB's International Learning Center near Richmond, Va.
6. Let your children see you cry. "When my son first left, I tried my best not to let him see me cry," Betty Isachaar,* whose son serves in East Asia, said. "Then he told me that made it harder for him. I learned that he needed to see the happy and the sad -- tears of joy that he was doing God's work and tears of sadness because I would miss him."
Parents also suggest being honest with kids who are overseas when illness, death or estrangement strikes the stateside family.
For Sharla Rachel, who was diagnosed with breast cancer during her daughter's first term, being honest was paramount, but deciding when and how to share the news was challenging.
"I remember how difficult it was to tell my daughter," Rachel said. "I was glad I was able to do it on Skype because I could see her face and she could see mine … Not wanting her to worry, knowing she couldn't come home but needing and wanting to share with her … that's when (I knew we were) depending on God."
7. Pray for them and share prayer requests with your church. Most parents agree that prayer -- alone and with others -- is the single most important thing they can do for their children and grandchildren.
"I pray for their safety wherever they go," Helga Culbert, whose son, Mitchell,* serves in Central Asia, said. "To me, their safety is always a concern, so I have to trust God that it will be OK."
Keeping the missionaries and their needs before the local church also is important, parents say.
"I'm allowed to do a mission focus every Sunday morning," says Ozment, who is director of the Woman's Missionary Union at Sutter Creek Baptist Church in Sutter Creek, Calif. "There is so much going on all the time, and [the church] just needs to be reminded how important [missions] is."Ways to connect
-- To learn how to become more involved in your family's work on the mission field, read "Parents as Partners: Supporting Your Family as They Serve Overseas"
-- For more information about missionary parent support groups, visit imb.org/parentinfo
-- While you pray for missionaries and their work, remember missionary kids (MKs) also need prayer. Use these bookmarks
to learn how to pray for MKs. Pray
-- Pray for parents of new missionaries who may be struggling with separation. Pray they will develop healthy strategies for keeping in touch with their children and grandchildren. Pray that God will give them peace.
-- Pray for families separated by the missionary calling for many years. Pray that they will continue to find creative ways to remain close in spite of the distance. Thank God for advances in technology that make staying in easier.
-- Pray for healthy, fun experiences when families have opportunities to reunite. Pray for special one-on-one opportunities between grandparents and grandchildren.
*Name changed. Tess Rivers is an IMB writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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