Why I Quit My Job as a Missionary to Scrub Toilets

by Craig Thompson on January 22, 2016

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About this time last year, Chanel Cartell and Stevo Dirnberger, successful advertising professionals in South Africa, left their lucrative jobs to travel the world together. While the blog they maintain, full of wonderful adventures and beautiful photos, has gained a lot of attention in the press, the post that made the biggest splash came six months after their departure, entitled “Why We Quit Our Jobs in Advertising to Scrub Toilets.”

In it, Cartell tells about the “uglier” parts of their trip, how, as their funds dwindled, they were forced to do less-than-glamorous jobs in exchange for food and other necessities:

You see, to come from the luxuries we left behind in Johannesburg, to the brutal truth of volunteer work, we are now on the opposite end of the scale. We’re toilet cleaners, dog poop scoopers, grocery store merchandisers, and rock shovelers. It’s painstakingly hard and dirty work.

My story is similar, except I came back . . . and didn’t leave luxuries behind. When I and my wife and children left Taipei to return to the States, our plan was for us to settle on a place to live, for me to get a job that would allow my wife to stay at home with our younger kids, and for us to buy a house. Now, more than four years later, my youngest son’s prayers still focus on those goals, with his own addition—to get a dog.

It’s been tough being a former missionary, especially without a bona fide career to replace it. I’ve come to realize how much my identity is tied up in what I do, and I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with the American Dream.

Oh yeah, back to scrubbing toilets. For a while I worked at an elementary school as a building aide/janitor. More recently I supplemented our income by cleaning the bathrooms and entryways of another school in the mornings before classes started.

I’m often reminded of my lack of progress. After I got promoted to paraprofessional/teacher’s aide at the elementary school (and me with an advanced degree in education), a first grader asked, “Are you doing this because you can’t get a real teaching job?” Yeah, pretty much.

And then a few months ago, I read in a book about a guy hanging a flyer on a bulletin board at a mission for the homeless, “next to one offering to buy poor people’s plasma.” Ironically, as I read it I was hooked up to a plasmapheresis machine.

I know we’re not alone and that many others have it worse. We have much to be thankful for, including the help we’ve received from friends, family, and our church. I’m working on being content, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

I’ve been wanting to write about this here for some time, but I think I was waiting to see if things would change dramatically and I’d be able to tack on a final paragraph saying, “And here’s how it all worked out in the end.” But as I made notes for what I wanted to say in a post, I realized that I’d already written it—exactly one year and four days ago at my blog. That entry, “When Does a House Become a Home?” talks not only about moving and finding a place to live but also about working and finding an occupation, because they’re are all intertwined. With just a few tweaks, it could be retitled “When Does a Job Become a Career?” I’m reposting it below, because it’s still true. In the year since I wrote it, little has changed. It wasn’t the easiest thing to write back then, and it’s not the easiest thing to read now.

I know that transitions take time, but here’s hoping that we’ll be able to add that last paragraph—the one where everything has fallen into place—soon. My son’s still praying.

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When does a house become a home?

I asked that question of some friends a while ago. One answered, “When your mess is everywhere.” Another said, “When you feel part of the neighborhood.” My wife said, “When you hang your pictures on the wall.”

When we first moved to Taipei, another missionary family let us live in their apartment for a few months while they were back in the States. We needed a house to stay in while we looked for a place of our own. But it wasn’t our home; it was theirs. Their clothes were in the closets. Their books were on the shelves. Their beds were in the bedrooms.

Later, we found that place of our own. It was on the 17th floor of a 21 story building. While we enjoyed living there, the family who owned the apartment had left some of their furniture there, so we always knew it was someone else’s place, and sure enough, after about two years, they told us they wanted it back for themselves.

When we moved, we ended up in a great apartment with a huge balcony . . . and a hovering landlord. She wouldn’t let us forget that we were in her house, like the time she dropped by on Sunday morning to prune the plants on our balcony so that their leaves wouldn’t clog the drain. The next day she saw me at the post office and commented on the strong odor in our house. It was my wife’s cooking, I said. Spaghetti. Not a good smell, she replied, frowning and shaking her head.

So when we got ready to move back to Joplin, Missouri, we should have been ready, right? Well, while we were busy moving from house to house in Taipei, the city itself had become our home. We had developed routines there. We had made friends there. We had a found a purpose there.

But we needed to move, and move we did. Though that was over three years ago, Joplin doesn’t yet feel like home again and neither does the house we’re in now. We’re renting, and we’re not making long-term plans to stay here.

Actually, it’s the third non-home house we’ve been in since our return. The first was a residence that our church had purchased for visiting and returning missionaries. We were there for about six months and are very grateful that it was available. We certainly weren’t the only ones in Joplin in transition at that time. It was June of 2011 and we were living across from the parking lot of the church property where two “tents” stood, distributing food and prayers to those affected by, as everyone here calls it, the tornado.

While we were there, the items that we’d had shipped from Taiwan arrived and we unloaded  them into the garage. From there we moved to a rental house, with me still looking for full-time work and all of us wondering what the future would bring, praying about where we’d land.

In Taiwan, I remember reading news about the recession in the States, but I didn’t anticipate how much it would affect my ability to find a job once we returned. Ask anyone looking for work and they’ll tell you how difficult it is right now. Add to that the fact that being out of the country makes a person out of sight and out of mind for potential employers. With so many people looking for employment, those doing the hiring hold most of the cards, and they’re reluctant to take chances on someone who could do the job. Rather, they’re looking for someone who’s already doing the job. And the risk is much lower if they choose someone whom they’ve known for a while.

Since our arrival, I’ve worked at a number of money-making ventures, often overlapping. They include being a janitor and a paraprofessional at an elementary school, cleaning at another school, working at a multi-media ministry, teaching ESL, driving a delivery truck for an auto-parts store, recruiting international students at a university, and donating plasma.

We’re still not sure if we’ve landed yet or if that will come later. And the pictures aren’t on the walls. Instead, they’re still packed up, stored under our bed. When we finally do open them up, I think we’ll find some that we forgot we have.

When I asked my question about a house becoming a home, another friend had this response: “It’s when you can go to the bathroom at night without turning the lights on.”

That reminds me of a passage in a book I read several years ago. It was discussing people who had been blind for a long time and then had regained their sight. Now that they could see, navigating their surroundings obviously should be much easier. Yet when they needed to move through their house—their home—quickly in an emergency, they would close their eyes. That was more familiar to them.

When we’re under stress, we rely on the familiar to help us find our way.

That’s home . . . the familiar place, the comfortable place, the place where we can close our eyes and know we belong.

(Chanel Cartell, “Why We Quit Our Jobs in Advertising to Scrub Toilets,” How Far from Home, August 31, 2015)

[photos: “This Way,” by Yeonsang, used under a Creative Commons licenseThe Travel-House,” by Shena Tschofen, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.
  • This transition back to life in your passport country is one of the black holes of missionary life, I think. When you’ve spent your career-building years overseas and none of it counts on a resume here. And you don’t live in that sexy place doing those sexy things that churches want to support. It’s really, really tough. Thank you for sharing so honestly from the middle of your story, Craig. That’s so hard to do, but so necessary for all the families who are slugging it out just like yours. Big hero sticker on your chart today.

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks much, Kay. We’d rather be looking back on it than living through it, but I agree that we all need to share from “the middle of our stories.” I appreciate the encouragement.

      • it’s a relief to know it’s “the middle of our stories”… there’s something good around the corner and this season will not go on forever. that comforts me.

        • i can’t wait til i can look back on this time… and not feel like i’m still IN IT…

    • “black holes of missionary life”… totally agree. never used that term before, but maybe i will now too 🙂

      OH MY GOSH do i relate to the “spent your career-building years overseas and none of it counts on a resume here”. OH GOSH DO I RELATE.

      I talk with friends and family and counsellors here about how I think I am dealing with extended PTSD when it comes to reentering the workforce here and the job hunting / application / interview process… and continually finding rejection after rejection. Loss of confidence to do leadership jobs (which I did competently overseas) but somehow back in my home nation, I either can’t seem to catch a break, or I don’t have the confidence to apply in the first place. Or getting rejected for jobs that highschoolers are getting! So I’m somehow overqualified for that, or not wanted for those jobs (partly that relieves me, but also freaks me out that I can’t even get jobs that highschoolers can get), and then finding that because I’ve lost a lot of confidence, I keep applying for jobs that don’t scare me as much, but then I find myself in jobs that barely pay the bills and are jobs that I can’t really stand… and then I get mad at myself that I’m an ungrateful, lacking-christian-character-and-humility for complaining about these ‘ho-hum’ jobs that feel like dead ends.

      And furthermore, many friends and family members or people who knew me back in my home country, have no idea the hard work and years I put in overseas and the legitimate work I did overseas, as many think I was just “having fun travelling”…

      Oh, ok, i’m gonna stop now haha.

      • I think this story is far, far, far more common than we know. When we were finishing our project, we suddenly realized…woops…what’s next… We joked that we would create a line of merchandise to go along with our new testament. Action figures (Translator Pete, the 12 disciples…), jewelry, home decor.

        • oh that’s brilliant… with a sense of humour! hehe. Sometimes you just have to joke in the transitional season… it’s what’ll get you through…

  • Man, I can sooooo relate to this post, Craig. It’s been 3.5 years since I returned to Canada after 7 yrs in missions overseas. I’ve moved multiple times in those 3.5 years, and worked many humbling jobs that haven’t lasted long (either seasonal or promise of full time longer term but then hours getting cut) and other scenarios like moving to start what I think could be my “real life” only to have trouble finding work, and not quite sure if the town is the right place for me to make a longer term life, and so I’d move again, and start the process ove again… etc… Trying to navigate the whole ‘job hunting’ world was so intimidating… (still is)… after not having had to look for work in a decade, and returning in my mid 30’s… it’s very humbling. It’s hard to go from job to job, not feeling like it’ll turn into a “career” and living in temporary houses/rooms/apartments that don’t turn into “home”… it wears on ya… I’ve been pondering a lot of the things you’ve been sharing. Dang, I guess all I can say is “I relate” and “it’s so nice to know I’m not alone”…Ok, I’m rambling on. I guess it just feels nice once in a while to encounter someone else who hasn’t just hit the ground running and getting some big break in some great place to live, and a great place to work that feels like a new and fulfilling career/calling… I’ve learned life doesn’t unfold very neatly… it’s pretty hard most of the time. And pretty humbling… Bless you.

    • Craig Thompson

      I need to hear that I’m not alone, too. That, I think, is one of the biggest fears in writing about something like this: What if no one else has the same struggles? Another is What if I’m just whining? Thanks, Alison, for joining me here and giving the affirmation.

      • Also, just wanted to say that it’s comforting to hear this from a man’s perspective. As a woman, it really encourages me that men go through this too, as fathers and husbands. I can imagine it would be very humbling… and deeply stretching…

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Oh Craig, this is so painful to read! Thank you for being brave enough to share both the original, and the non-happy-ending-intro. No one ever talks about this part of re-entry in missionary training, or anywhere else, but I see from the other comments that you are NOT alone. Thank you for being on our team. We need you in this space.

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks, Elizabeth. You’re a good encourager.

    • Craig, i can almost bet you never thought that 4 years into your re-entry that you’d still be in the “intro” stage…! I know I never ever thought I’d still be in the intro… I think a lot of my struggle stems from impatience and lack of acceptance of the timetable of life… it takes a longgg time… a life time, really. LOL.

  • Thank you for being real!

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks, Julie.

  • KW

    Thank you for these words, you are definitely not alone. We are walking this same path right now. So many assume you are just able to pick up right where you left off and don’t give a seconds thought to what our reality is like.

    • So encouraging to know you’re not alone in the struggle! I mean, I knew it would be hard to return home (as I had hard furloughs every time I came back), but I think I thought it would be a year of hell or a year of struggle, and then I’d get back in the swing of things and really get some momentum. Into year 2, I was pretty incredulous that it could still be so hard and almost feeling like I’m going in circles, or backwards even, rather than that sense of picking up forward momentum in creating a life I was proud of (or felt deeply connected to in a sense of meaning/calling). Then into year 3, the implosion started happening internally. All through this time, I’ve been connected to a therapist to help me navigate, but it’s amazing how that doesn’t really tidy up one’s life lol…. you still have to live this messy, surprising life in real time… no cheating and no cutting corners, no avoiding reality…

    • Craig Thompson

      I’m sorry that you are going through this, too, but it is good to hear I’m not alone. Before going through this, I think I’d be in the same camp as those who “don’t give a second thought.” I’m glad I know better now, but I think I’ve learned it well enough already—OK, God?

      • thanks for the chuckle (what you said here) —> Before going through this, I think I’d be in the same camp as those who “don’t give a second thought.” I’m glad I know better now, but I think I’ve learned it well enough already—OK, God?

  • Sometimes I think about how many years it’s taken me to adjust back to my home nation, and I think of the years I invested overseas, and sometimes, to be completely honest, I almost regret ever leaving my home nation in the first place. The moment I say that, I almost always want to take it back, because those years overseas were the best of my life, but….. I think if I’d known how hard it would be to re-establish myself in a home town, a career and job and field, and reintegrate my heart and life back into my home nation… I might not have set out in the first place. But I also have to remember that somehow things will change and it will not be like this forever… and one day, I will look back on these re-integration years as a chapter in a larger story, and it will have its rightful and purposeful place in the whole scheme of things. Then I will look back and realize how important and necessary a time it was….

    • Craig Thompson

      I know you think you’re rambling, but I appreciate all your comments. You’re saying a lot of things that resonate with me: losing confidence, applying for less-scary jobs (it’s almost as if we’re applying for work in a foreign country, where we don’t know the rules), regretting feelings of regret. . . .

  • By the way, I came down to help out for a week in Joplin 3 yrs ago… with building a house with Samaritan’s Purse and Mennonite Disaster Service (a friend’s organization). This was during my sabbatical season and reentry to Canada after finishing up with my mission organization overseas. it was a very interesting time in Joplin.

    • Craig Thompson

      On behalf of Joplin, thanks for the help. The house we’re renting now is in the tornado zone, so we see the rebuilding going on all around us.

      • You’re in the midst of a redemption zone… rebuilding zone…

  • Susan Williams

    So much resonates (especially the constant moving from rental to rental!)…I still work for a mission organization stateside, but was recently told that my local church might support me but doesn’t “get” 1) how I am a missionary here, 2) why I am on support not salary, 3) how what I do in the US relates to the global goals of our mission. (I am living in a new area since coming back from 12 years overseas and have been attending this church for only about 2.5 years.) Craig, I think of something I read in Streams in the Desert this morning: “God has a set time as well as a set purpose, and He who orders the bounds of our habitation orders also the time of our deliverance.” This is my mother’s copy (she went to be with the Lord during my time overseas, though I did get to see her before she died) and she marked this passage just a few weeks before my father died without warning. I marked it in January of another year and by October was making plans to leave the field unexpectedly (and never returned to work there). I also marked it two years ago when I took a HUGE step of faith to rent a large house to use as a missionary guesthouse – with no idea where the funds would come from.
    But I can say, looking back, God had me in His hands through all of this. Yes, looking back after things have changed or we are through the trial is definitely easier – going through it is NOT. But I hope you can be encouraged by stories of others’ journeys and the ways we have seen God at work in these awful/horrible/terrible/no-good/very bad days. 🙂 Don’t be afraid to “pour out your complaint” to Him, just as David did. After all, He knows how you feel anyway.
    Let me say, as someone who moved last fall out of the big “missionary guesthouse” house (and had people comment on the “death of a dream”) and then lived in THREE different places in four months, there is a peace that passes understanding. I have my times of anxiety and have to literally RUN to the Word and to my knees (and sometimes, unfortunately, to food/TV/sleep). But He understands – and He is in it with us. This recent time of transition for me has been a period of learning excruciatingly difficult, but incredible things from God. And as I heard Elisabeth Elliot comment on her own life – losing the results of three Bible translations three different times – “Can God not do as He wishes with what is offered to Him?” Hard, but true.
    One lesson He has taught me during these last months of transition: Whatever situation I am in on any given day – single, ill health, lack of funds, moving house OR well-provided, in a happy family situation, comfortable and safe – that is His BEST for me on that day. I know – hard to believe sometimes. But very, very true. He doesn’t make us just “wait” for His best – He gives it to us every single day of our lives – for whatever purposes He is seeking to gain.
    Please know that every place He takes you for work (menial jobs) or home (rented small space) is the BEST place you can be at that moment. He will use you there, speak to your heart, allow you to wrestle with what you are feeling and going through. AND He is giving you a heart for others. That’s what my struggles have done for me. I’m no longer the fix-it person, doling out advice and leaving people to get by on their own. I sit with them, try to listen well, and point them to the ONLY One who can truly fix things. And as a friend of mine said to me when I lamented that I wasn’t more “victorious” in my trials, “Would you have come to me to share your struggles if I had come off as ‘victorious’ all the time?”
    Many blessings. God’s got your back!

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks, Susan, for sharing from your story. What a precious book that copy of Streams in the Desert must be for you—with all of the “marks” charting the transitions and times of trusting.

  • Anna Wegner

    Thanks for sharing. We’ve only done temporary re-entries to the US, not permanent. We’re blessed in that my husband’s former place of employment has been happy to have him do some temporary work while in the US, and that could be a safety net for us if we needed to return more permanently.
    I do have some friends who have had to make this hard transition, and they felt that they had no one who really understood. In two of the cases, they had very difficult experiences on the field, due to leadership, who also happened to be from their same church in the US. They didn’t want to drag that out in front of everyone, so they were really on their own. It was struggle finically, logistically, emotionally, etc. I’m happy to say that they are doing well now, but it opened my eyes to the process. We do need more people to talk about reentry.

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks, Anna, for adding your voice. For this to be a full conversation on the topic, we need to hear not only from those of us who’ve come back and struggled but also from those who are getting ready to go on the field and from those who might be coming back soon and from those who have exit strategies and from those who have made a good transition and . . . Let’s keep talking.

  • I’ve been really encouraged by this website, Rocky Re-entry: http://www.rockyreentry.com/when-leaving-the-field/ (this is their latest article). They have a FB group/community as well that I follow: https://www.facebook.com/rockyreentry/?ref=ts&fref=ts

  • Rachel V

    This might seem rather strange…but i feel almost like we are living the opposite story…we “returned” to my husband’s homeland overseas, but since we didn’t move overseas with a mission board and supporters in place (because it was for family reasons), it became rather awkward when I did try to raise support to teach at an international school. We still have a little bit of support but we’ve never been fully funded, and we’re not working full time in “ministry” so it seems weird to ask for more support, although we do have a community project that we are working on part-time…so we must scrape by as we can for now, not quite sure of our future steps so never fully investing in our current physical location, and waiting for “real life” whatever that may be and whenever that may happen! I fear that we may continue with the same struggles though even if we do re-enter into North American life.

    • Craig Thompson

      Your move may be different, but the circumstances you mention seem quite the same—unsurety over the future, financial difficulties, difficulty putting down roots, and a delay in getting on with “‘real life’ whatever that may be.” The location doesn’t make a difference on it’s own. It’s what happens while we are there. I hope that the what-happens gets better for you. Thanks, Rachel, for adding to the conversation. You are not alone.

  • Tami

    Wow.. I’m gripped by the similarities in our experiences. The specifics vary but the emotions are mirrored. Like those who replied, I too am comforted to know that others have shared our proverbial boat. We spent 9 years in Africa and truly loved our life. We raised three children there. When our oldest daughter was ready to graduate and start college we felt it best for her to return. Without going into too much detail, a serious crisis in her life made it blatantly apparent that she needed us near her in this next season in her life. With blessing from our African family and friends, we returned to America. What awaited us at “home” was a myriad of confusion, disillusionment, heartache, and rejection. People meant well, they truly did. We love them so. But, they simply didn’t have the understanding or quite frankly, the time to help us. We needed a home, work, car and more importantly… help to make sense of everything. We weren’t asking for freebies. We just wanted connections, support. People were truly kind and sincerely wanted to help but no one knew how. We were too burned out and broken to articulate how they could help. In all of the busyness of American life, we slipped through the cracks and were left with only good intentions from truly good people. We struggled to find work. We were either over qualified or under credentialed. How does one put 9 years of bush experience and life skills on an application that only wants credentials? In my anguish I felt like God was punishing us. For what, I didn’t know. My Abba doesn’t do that, but nothing made sense. This was not at all what we expected in our return to our home country. There’s so much more to our wilderness story where we wandered in the “land in between.” It was truly the hardest experience we’ve gone through. Almost four years later, this I know…our God is faithful to be with us where ever we go, even at the end of ourselves. He wasn’t punishing us. That’s not who He is. It grieved Him to see us go through that as much as it grieved us. Though He seemed silent and distant, He was not. In fact, I know this because I kept a journal of His comforting love during that time that I called, “Whispers in the Land In Between.” So… thank you so much for your honesty about your experiences. Even now.. almost four years later it blesses me. I’m forwarding it on to our kids. Blessings abundant on you.

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks, Tami, for taking the time to craft this response. I’m glad that my post is a comfort and encouragement to you—and hope that your kids get something out of it as well. What you’ve written is a comfort and encouragement to me.

  • JudeThree

    Frankly this entire article sounds incredibly self centered. Whining about not having a home and having life pour blessings at your feet. Time to stop being a martyr. Time to stop expecting everything the way you want it, when you want it, how you want it. You claim to be a missionary, yet neglect the Lord totally, you claim to long for the familiar, but neglect to talk about the One Who has been with you since the beginning. Time for you to stop making the plans, time for you to stop complaining about cleaning toilets and find your purpose while you are where the Lord has you.

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks, JudeThree, for your comment. Self centeredness is only one of the many sins that I struggle with.

  • Gary Desterke

    It’s Ben a while since this was first posted, but I just saw it now and want to say I can identify 110%. After 10 years in missions in Guatemala re-entry in the job area was unbelievable to me. No one knew what to do with me and I ended up having to declare bankruptcy which was incredibly humiliating. My wife was homschooling our three children and did book-keeping for some clients which kept our head above water while I went back for yet another degree that made my employability status less ambigous and God provided through it all. Now, thanks to an inheritance, we can both retire early and I am again involved almost full time in a ministry to refugee Muslims! I am so grateful to our God for allowing me this privilege in the last years of my journey here. Be encouraged. He has a plan for you and your family to. He is a “good, good Father.”

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