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.

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