Guest Blogger: Katie, former missionary
Five years ago I came back to Michigan after living overseas for three years. It was a hard transition to say the least. In all honesty, it took two years for me to adjust and start to feel normal again. I think it is a challenge for churches to know how to minister to returning missionaries.
There are many things that are unique to the missionary experience, and re-entry can sometimes be hard for people to understand. As I look back at that time, I can see certain things that were helpful as a returning missionary.
When an overseas missionary returns, they need to live somewhere. Imagine coming back and having to immediately sign a lease for an apartment or buy a house when you do not even remember which kind of milk you used to buy. Some churches have houses that they offer to returning missionaries until they know what is next for their life. I think this is a great thing. Other missionaries may stay with family or their sending agency has some sort of housing. In my circumstance, a family from our church offered to have me live with them until I got on my feet. This was an amazing blessing in many ways.
First of all, I had gotten rid of everything that I owned that didn’t fit into two carry-on bags and a backpack. Living with a family allowed me to hold off on buying a lot of household goods that I frankly could not afford at that point. It also gave me some breathing room to figure out what was next for me. I was not locked in to a lease or mortgage, and that gave me the freedom to look at different options for the next phase of my life. I was single, so living with a family worked out really well for me.
A family with children probably would not be able to do this option, but it’s good for churches to think through how they could help with housing when a family returns.
Being patient with the transition
When I returned, the prevailing attitude among people here was excitement that I was “home” again. I was excited to be back. I was excited to see people that I loved. I was excited to not sweat profusely all day every day. I was excited to have flushing toilets and hot water. But I was also sad.
I think it can sometimes be hard for people to realize that missionaries build whole lives overseas. I had relationships that I greatly valued. I had routines, places, and responsibilities that I left. I had invested three years to a people and a place, and it was only natural that I would grieve the loss of that. This dynamic of being glad to be back but also missing the life I left, was difficult to navigate. It was also difficult to navigate cultural issues. I had adopted the culture I was in overseas, but also had the background of the United States culture.
To this day, I still do not feel that I fit completely into any one culture. I made cultural mistakes when I returned. I did things and said things that were considered rude in this culture, but were normal in the culture overseas. I was not doing these things on purpose, I genuinely had forgotten or not adjusted yet. When I made those mistakes, some people would ask me about it. They asked with patience and a desire to understand. This was helpful because it showed me aspects of culture that I needed to be aware of, and it gave me an opportunity to ask them what was normal in this culture. It is amazing to me how long it took me to adjust back to the US culture, and I needed those cultural guides to show me how to do it.
Seeing me as me
When I returned I was completely burnt out. I had moderate PTSD, was emotionally exhausted, and had become disillusioned with missions. I felt like my entire three years had been a waste and that I was a failure. I remember that at my debriefing we had to draw where we felt we were at spiritually. My drawing was a piece of paper that was completely colored black with a giant question mark in the middle. That’s where I was at when I returned. I did not always feel that I could admit that though.
Many of my financial supporters were in the church that I was attending. How could I tell them that I felt spiritually dead and like a complete failure? But there were people that I could tell. People that did not see me as a “missionary” but saw me as a fellow believer who was having doubts and struggling. Those safe people allowed me to be honest with not only them, but with myself. They lovingly reminded me of God’s grace, his patience, and his care.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that are helpful for returning missionaries. Each returning missionary will have his or her own particular list but as sending churches, it is important to take missionary care seriously both in the field and upon return.