A Police Story

I had an experience a few weeks ago, my police story, if you will. Among overseas workers, it’s one I could wear like a badge – because many of us have them, don’t we?

Without going into the specifics, I was stopped by a traffic officer, unfairly ticketed, and in the process, felt bullied and vulnerable. Very vulnerable.

After my husband and I climbed back into our car (with him now in the driver’s seat) and assuaged our children’s fears, tears started to roll down my cheeks. He quickly rerouted us from our way to church, correctly realizing that we were far too late anyway.

As my husband tried to comfort me, my mind raced. Why was I so upset? Was it the injustice of it all? Was it the bullying? The condescending way he spoke to me, or rather, to my husband about me? It’s okay, my husband said, this was a one in a thousand type situation, don’t worry about it. It won’t happen again!

It sure did not feel okay to me. It did not matter to me how unusual or rare this situation was, I just did not want to feel this way.

Are they going to arrest you? One of my children cried, in the car, as the officer beckoned me to step out and come over to him. No, I scoffed. At least, I don’t think so? I thought. What would I do here if he tried?

As the familiar scenes of our southern African town flashed by outside my window, I identified the root of what I was experiencing: vulnerability. This was not the vulnerability that I have practiced and prided myself on practicing: the honest sharing of my life and heart with those around me. It was not the vulnerability that meant willingness to show emotion or to allow weakness to be seen; I’m good with that kind of vulnerability.

This experience of vulnerability was the primary definition in all the major dictionaries: capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, exposed to the possibility being attacked or harmed. Ah yes, I most definitely felt exposed, keenly aware of the possibility of being harmed, either at that moment or a future moment when my husband may not be with me.

This was not the first moment I have ever felt this kind of vulnerability. Having lived in various countries other than my passport country for ten years, I am ever aware of the reality of being a foreigner, and a woman, in some difficult places. Of course, many of us have experienced the possibility of being attacked even in our home countries or have been in actuality.

But it was my freshest experience of this kind of vulnerability, and with my children as collateral in the car. For the next couple of days, I wrestled with feeling weak and defenseless, tears always close to the surface. I replayed the scenario, wondering how I should have been more assertive. I imagined future scenarios, making mental plans for the safety of my children and myself. But mostly, I shook my fist directly at the man who had threatened me and indirectly at God — until he spoke gently to my heart.

Maybe you have realized the obvious beauty in this story sooner than I had, but it finally hit me: this was the type of vulnerable that Jesus was. In his incarnation, in choosing to live and willingly suffer on earth, he subjected himself not only to the possibility of being harmed, but the actuality of it.

In my willingness to stay and live and work in a place where I am more prone to experiencing the potential of being wounded, I am identifying with Christ. He knows what it is to leave his home and to place himself in harm’s way – completely, fully. He experienced bullying and condescension, and the ultimate earthly wounding, death.

What was it that motivated him to such sacrifice? Love. The very love of Christ, which transcends height and depth and all earthly constraints, is what compelled him to offer himself so wholly, to subject himself to the ultimate worst of evil on this earth. So we, moved by the love of Christ, strengthened and carried by him, can offer our meager selves as we live and love in the places we find ourselves.

As tears streamed down my cheeks, I offered myself freshly to Christ, in this place he has brought us – my husband, myself, my children. Is it easy? No. Is it worthwhile, and good? Yes. Is he with us throughout it all? Always.

I hope I will not have another police story, but who knows? We still pray for safety and protection, and we seek to live wisely as strangers in this land. But we remember that Christ is our security. And we are grateful to walk in the footsteps of our Savior, through all the hills and valleys, knowing he has gone before us in perfect love.

Glancing in the Rearview Mirror

by Jessi Bullis

I was in my first car crash in May 2023. I had just gotten off a flight and was too hungry to complete my 90-minute drive home before eating (there always seems to be those awkward lengths of time between meals on flying days). It was pouring rain, and I pulled off at an unknown town in search of a late dinner. Traffic was coming up on a stop light, and while we all seemed to slow down quicker than anticipated, I came to a stop with room to spare. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I noted that the car behind me had enough space to fully stop. 
   
Less than a second afterwards, I felt the impact. I later found out I was actually the third car to get hit from behind in a four-car pile-up. 
   
Before that moment I had never really thought about getting hit from behind. It wasn’t a concern. For some reason I just had a lot of trust in other cars around me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in countries with incredible drivers who could fit four cars to a road, squeeze through any narrow street, and make lane switching in traffic jams look effortless. Or maybe it’s simply because I hadn’t yet experienced it.

 

Focusing on the Rearview Mirror

For many years, the way I “processed” the heavy (and even exciting) emotions that came with my Third Culture Kid (TCK) experience was to simply disregard them. 

The announcement would come that we were moving to another country, that yet another friend was leaving, or that the thing I was looking forward to was cancelled because of some complication with living abroad. And I would just shut down. Try to put on a blank face. Spew out some platitude about God’s goodness.

I would tell myself, “Emotions make you look weak and only get in the way of moving forward.” So I just kept pushing on, driving forward while never looking back. 

Years later, once my body very suddenly and drastically had its fill of painful circumstances going unprocessed and I developed an autoimmune disease, I was forced to look back as though I’d been hit from behind. In response, I began doing the heavy lifting of truly honouring my experiences and allowing myself to finally feel the waves of emotions that came with long-ago moves and crises.

As I realized just how much my refusal to process had stunted my emotional growth, I completely pendulum-swung from my “shoving down” mentality. I felt like I couldn’t move forward unless I had completely processed every single block on my Grief Tower

I was trying to gain control of something, anything, because I felt so very out of control. Suddenly I was trying to drive while only looking through the rearview mirror. 

As you can imagine, it was terribly painful. I became burnt out on grief processing and eventually learned that there needs to be a balance of intentionally looking back and intentionally looking forward, while also acknowledging and enjoying where I’m currently at. 
   

Taking in All Angles

In my grief-processing journey, I’ve learned something surprising. No matter how good you are at the balancing act of processing past grief while still looking forward, sometimes you get unexpectedly rear-ended by past grief that you thought you’d dealt with. No matter how much I check my mirrors, no matter how good of a driver I am, and no matter how safe an area I seem to be in, I’m not immune to being hit from behind.

We can feel like we are managing life well, just driving along. But then something from our past sneaks up behind us and taps us on our bumper – or maybe even causes a full collision. 

My car has been my safe space. It’s where I’ve done all my most profound processing. As an introvert, I have found I have the clearest thoughts in my car because it’s one of the few places I can find absolute solitude. It is in this space that I feel completely free to perform my “scream-singing” as I blast music to release any intense frustration, agony, and joy I may be feeling (my go-to song for emotional release is “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts, which seems all too fitting here). 

But after this accident I was nervous about even getting into my car. Suddenly my safe space felt dangerous. And when I did drive, I spent a lot of time nervously surveillancing my rearview mirror in fear that I would be hit from behind again. When our past comes knocking, it can feel disorienting. 

This is where I anticipate you saying, “Great, so you’re saying I can never fully relax? My past will never be fully processed?” What a terrible thought. And no, that’s not what I’m saying.  Rather, remember that life has ups and downs that are outside your control, and it’s not your fault

I often felt that when my past came back to haunt me, it was my fault — that clearly I hadn’t processed well enough. I felt ashamed that my “ghost of Christmas past” was returning for a visit. 

Control is something we TCKs tend to struggle with. After years of losing friends and community and stability over and over, seeking out “control” can feel desperate and hopeless. 

Yes, we can’t be in control of everything, but we can choose to give ourselves grace as we remember that the waves of life are not our fault. When we choose to remember that sometimes collisions just happen, the emotional weight of “fault” gets lifted. 

There’s only so much contingency preparation I can do, and there are only so many hours in the day for therapy and processing and – oh yeah – everyday life also. 

There’s a need to intentionally glance backwards. We cannot fully accept ourselves and move forward if we do not gently and graciously love our past selves. We need to take into account the circumstances we faced growing up because they are impacting the person we are today – how we make decisions, invest in relationships, and care for ourselves. 

It’s important to intentionally create space to process, whether it’s taking a Saturday afternoon to journal or do an art project while considering processing questions, talking with a friend, or sitting down with a counselor. (Check out this emotional processing activity guide for processing suggestions you can implement.) 

There’s also a need to steer forward. The rearview mirror should not be our focal point. There’s a reason you got in the car: you have a goal or endpoint in mind! We need to remember those goals as we move moving forward in hope. 

And there’s a need to be aware of who you are and where you are. Sometimes we just need to live life, not pull out another piece of our past to process, not plan the turn we’re going to make in five miles, but rather allow ourselves to be present and enjoy the moment.

For some months after the accident I had to be gentle with myself, evaluating my emotional stability and prioritizing self-compassion. It took time, but eventually my car became my safe space again, because I had allowed myself to authentically show up how I needed each day. 

Collisions will happen. Our past will come knocking throughout life. That doesn’t mean we’ve failed, and that doesn’t always mean we haven’t done enough processing. Yes, processing the past is important, but we can’t get stuck driving through our rearview mirror. We need to balance looking back and looking forward while remembering that sometimes life hits us from behind. And we can give ourselves grace for that too. 

Photo by Olga Nayda on Unsplash

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Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She uses her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling to create resources and serve TCK and their families as the Director of Adult TCK services at TCK Training. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God in how they are cared for.

What 7,300 Moons in Africa Taught Me

An outline of banana leaves framed the inky, glittering expanse that August night so long ago. My father raised his face to the moon and asked his father in heaven, “Lord, how many more moons will I witness in the African sky?” It was this farmer’s first night in Cameroon at the beginning of a Bible translation assignment that would span the next several decades of his life. With his homeland behind him, hundreds of moons would cross the Cameroonian sky before he would see an Iowa moon again. I was seven.

I have now witnessed over 7,300 moons in the African skies between my childhood and my adult life. Here are the stories I wish I could go back and tell that farmer the night he stared at the hollow moon and considered the cup he bore. 

“Dad, a few weeks from now, under this very moon, my brother will fall deathly ill from malaria, his feverish body folded in a wool blanket. Your desperate prayers will be driven by the crushing story of the two young sons your friends lost to malaria earlier this year. My brother will look small and skinny, and you’ll be scared. Take courage. God will heal your son, and Mom will nurse him back to health. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Under this tropical moon, Dad, my imagination will spring to life chasing tales and adventures across hundreds of pages in hundreds of books with the help of a kerosene lantern and a healthy diet of Vivaldi playing in the background. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will be weak the night you lay your exhausted head down after pulling lifeless men, women with bodies broken open, and babies with legs twisted backwards out of a horrific taxi accident down the street. Brace yourself. It won’t be the last time you do this. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The light of this moon will peacefully fall on the volcanic mountain ranges around our home each night, and your children will close their eyes to the sound of your and Mom’s voices filling our cement hallway with humble prayers uttered from your room, over each child, each family member, each Cameroonian family member. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will faithfully mirror the sun night after night from the first word you learn in Nooni till the day you write your first speech in the previously unwritten language. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the haze of this equatorial moon, I will memorize the deeply furrowed lines in the faces of my Cameroonian mamas as they rotate roasting ears of corn by the fire of their mud brick kitchens for their white child. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will light up the sky every Friday night when Mom lovingly folds pizza dough on her rickety kitchen table and us kids pick out our favorite movie. You’ll whistle your way out under the stars to fire up the generator for our weekly huddle of six around a 9-inch screen. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will shine a little brighter in your world as you sit in your prayer chair and ponder the gift of Mom. You’ll burst with pride watching her skillfully raise a family in a foreign land, make excellent food from scratch, trek mountaintops in a skirt and boots, navigate impossibly rutted roads like a pro, and work with a people you’ll come to love to write the rules to a language that’s never been written. She’s pretty great, Dad. I’ll learn what a woman can do by watching her. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“A sliver of this moon will dampen sad and heavy the night that our family experiences a Big T trauma that will forever shake our lives. Dad, the sun will come up the next day, but there will be a lot of hard moons after that. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The rays of this moon will pierce through a burglar-barred window the night that I will find freedom and love in Jesus Christ as a 16-year-old under your roof. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the glow of this moon, a boy I met in geometry class will take me hippo-watching along the banks of a muddy river in the Central African Republic. Did you know that hippos grunt so loudly you can hear them a mile downstream? It will be amazing, Dad. You’re really going to like this boy. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Dad, a few years later, our trusty moon will cast light on a red clay path for that boy from geometry class as he steadies his shaky legs and musters up the courage to knock on your door. He’s going to ask you if he can love me forever. You’ll be glad you said yes. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This orb will pierce the sky with light and a never-ending message of hope through our family’s most tear-stained bitter nightmares and our sweetest toasted-marshmallow dreams. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will dance like glitter the night the last verse of scripture is translated into the Nooni language, breaking open access for people to read God’s word in their heart language for the first time. They’re the same people who, four decades earlier, wrote a fervent plea in the language of colonizers for their mother tongue to be developed in written form. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Thousands of moons later, I will also look up at the unchanged luminous sphere, but this time it will be framed by the outline of macadamia trees on a farm in KwaZulu Natal. I will have just sung my own babies to sleep and herded my Irish Wolfhound to her blankie. I’ll think of you and Mom, and I’ll start my own mooncount on foreign soil as an adult. Oh, and Dad, the boy from geometry class is the best thing that ever happened to me. God’s grace is sufficient for me.

“Dad, whether it’s your first moon under the unpolluted Cameroonian sky or your eight hundred and thirty-first moon choked out by harmattan winds, you will find that God’s grace is sufficient for you. 7,300 African moons later, I came back to tell you that the moon at this angle is beautiful. It’s going to be an integral part of our family faith story. I’ve wrestled with the same moon, and I’ve found the same thing. God’s grace is not only sufficient, but lavish, for me.”

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 3: The Journey of Post-Traumatic Growth

by Shonna Ingram

Welcome to Part 3 of our series, where we’ll explore each re-entry season in depth, uncovering how to apply the principles of post-traumatic growth and offering specific resources for each season of the journey. (If you missed them, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 at these links.)

The concept of Post-Traumatic Growth hypothesizes that while trauma inflicts deep wounds, it can also create change. Through the post-traumatic growth journey, individuals can uncover new strengths, gain new perspectives, and explore new possibilities. More importantly, it can help them find restoration and a deeper connection to God. By embracing the post-traumatic growth model and committing to the journey, missionaries can discover their next step in ministry.

While not all individuals experience trauma during re-entry, a trauma-informed perspective acknowledges the possibility of trauma. In the following sections, we will explore the different facets of the re-entry journey, shedding light on the experiences and challenges missionaries may encounter along the way.

Season 1: Return (Pre-Departure and Arrival)

This phase of re-entry is covered extensively in most re-entry literature, which focuses on “saying healthy goodbyes” and “preparing for landing.” As we discussed in Part 1, ideally, missionaries have time for pre-departure preparations; however, unforeseen circumstances may disrupt this. Regardless, the Return phase marks the start of settling back home, from pre-departure readiness to initial arrival and approximately six months after they arrive.

Pre-Departure Preparation: Typically starting nine to six months before departure, this phase involves logistical, emotional, and mental readiness. Prioritizing intentional farewells, addressing logistics early, and engaging in reflection is crucial for a smoother transition.

Initial Arrival (0-3 months) Preparation: This season can be especially hard if there is no pre-departure preparation. This phase addresses practical responsibilities like housing, transportation, and internet service. It is important to be aware of the emotional undercurrents accompanying these responsibilities.

Extended Arrival (3-6 months) Preparation: This phase sees missionaries exploring life in their home country, navigating ongoing adjustment, and settling in. Challenges may persist despite time passing, inviting reflection on overall well-being, family dynamics, career trajectory, and how to manage continued reverse culture shock.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding your return, you may grapple with the complexities of leaving behind your life overseas. You may exhibit a range of behaviors indicative of trauma responses, including fight responses by asserting control over your circumstances, fleeing from overwhelming emotions, freezing by looking like you are in indecision, or engaging in fawning behaviors to appease others. Being aware of these normal responses is essential in finding effective support during this transitional phase.

During the initial Return season, consider the following strategies:

  • Find a comprehensive checklist outlining essential tasks and considerations for preparing to return home. This checklist should encompass logistical arrangements, emotional preparedness, and strategies for self-care. Check out our free checklist here.
  • Beware of circumstances surrounding your departure so that you can ensure that you receive the assistance needed to navigate the complexities of re-entry effectively.
  • Foster awareness of the first re-entry season among other missionaries and support networks. This way you can better anticipate and address the challenges that arise in this season.
  • Create environments that validate your re-entry experiences.

Starting with these tips will help ensure that the journey to your home country can be done with confidence. 

Season 2: Restore (Navigating the Space in Between)

The Restore phase follows the initial adjustments of re-entry, representing a crucial period. This season involves navigating space between two life chapters and may span from a few years to a lifetime if not addressed.

During Restore, you may confront a range of emotions and experiences, including ambiguity, waiting, and uncertainty. Particularly important to address during this season are family dynamics, career shifts, and overall well-being. 

This phase presents unique challenges, such as supporting children through their adjustment and navigating shifts in faith. If done well, it can prompt spiritual growth while addressing unprocessed emotions, trauma, or even positive life changes.

Navigating this transitional phase involves a fluctuating journey, marked by moments of feeling stuck and longing for clarity, especially when neither the overseas nor passport culture feels entirely familiar. Questions about identity, purpose, and belonging may arise, prompting individuals to grapple with their new realities and search for their place in their communities.

Taking a trauma-informed approach to the Restore season is vital, considering that you may be wrestling with hidden traumas during this phase. Common trauma events observed during this season include: 

Acute trauma, which stems from one-time events like theft or accident.

Compound trauma, which arises from insufficient time to process between smaller transitions or smaller one-time events.

Survivor’s Guilt, which occurs when a person survives an event or leaves others to fend for themselves (this happened during the pandemic, especially if the worker had to leave national friends and coworkers behind). 

Moral Injury, which occurs when individuals have to act against their values, such as breaking laws to achieve certain objectives or witnessing others do so.

Unresolved childhood attachment issues, which lead individuals to feel unsafe or insecure.

It is imperative to be in a supportive environment where you feel empowered to address these parts of your journey in this season. 

During the transitional Restore season, consider the following strategies:

  • Adopt a holistic view of well-being and recognize all areas of physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
  • Be a part of a supportive community where you can find understanding and encouragement. Check out our Restore groups. 
  • Address traumas effectively. A team of counselors or coaches specializing in re-entry trauma, older couples, pastors, or organizations familiar with the re-entry space can all be helpful here.

It’s crucial to create a supportive environment where missionaries feel empowered to address trauma and to work from a post-traumatic growth model effectively as part of their journey toward restoration and healing during the Restore season.

Season 3: Rebuild (Developing the Next Step)

The Rebuild season marks a significant shift in how we spend our time, being able to move beyond the hard places, trauma, or liminal space that held us in a Restore season. This is when our brains shift out of survival mode, allowing us to move forward with openness and curiosity. We integrate past experiences, accepting the present while still allowing space for grief. It is also a time to embrace the future with hope.

Key areas of focus during the Rebuild season include cultivating cultural awareness, unfolding one’s faith journey, and embracing growth and transformation. By reflecting on your re-entry journey, leveraging your international experiences, setting new goals and aspirations, and embracing change and adaptability, you can step into a future filled with purpose and fulfillment in your passport country. 

During the Rebuild season, our attention shifts towards narrative development within the post-traumatic growth model. Utilizing resources such as re-entry workbooks and seeking guidance from coaches or trusted friends, individuals can explore their new values and motivations, recognizing both their strengths and areas for growth. Through the process of crafting a new purpose statement and adopting a forward-thinking mindset, you can actively shape your new narrative to cultivate growth and resilience.

During the Rebuild season, consider the following strategies:

  • Explore your renewed purpose and possibly consider further education or training to align with your values to foster a profound sense of purposeful living. You can also join a Rebuild group.
  • Engage in meaningful work or ministry opportunities, which offer avenues for personal and professional growth.
  • Explore new avenues of service, whether through pursuing new job opportunities or engaging in cross-cultural ministry endeavors. 
  • Foster connections within the community, whether through church involvement, professional networks, or volunteer opportunities, as this is essential for building strong support systems and facilitating a smooth transition during re-entry. 

As you start the Rebuild season, you can embrace new opportunities and navigate this transformative phase with confidence and purpose.

You Don’t Have to Go Through Re-entry Alone

As we wrap up our series, remember that you’re not alone in this journey. My consulting company’s new Re-entry program is dedicated to providing resources for each season of your re-entry journey. Whether you’re navigating a season of Return, Restore, or Rebuild, we’re here to equip you with the tools and insights needed to support yourself or others through the re-entry process. From comprehensive digital courses to engaging in small group discussions, we offer a space where you can find understanding, connection, and support. Our team of experienced coaches is ready to walk alongside you, offering guidance and encouragement every step of the way.

If you’re part of an organization with a member care program, consider how you can further support your missionaries by becoming a trained re-entry coach yourself. And if you know someone who could benefit from our resources and community, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Our supportive community is continually growing, so whether you’re planning your return to your passport country, you are still in the process of transitioning back, or you are seeking guidance in retirement, we’re here to assist you. We would love to help you navigate this journey. 

Not sure what season of re-entry you are in? Sign up to take the free quiz.

Our next groups start April 25th and May 3rd. 

Connect with more re-entry resources at shonnaingram.com/resources.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 2: A Case Study of the Three Seasons of Re-entry

by Shonna Ingram

In this second installment of our three-part series on Beyond Reverse Culture Shock (read Part 1 here), I will share a case study to explore the complexities of the three seasons of re-entry. To review:

Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.

Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arrival and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.

Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately from two to five years after returning and entails living out the next phase of one’s life and determining how to show up in this new reality.

Throughout this article, we’ll follow the journey of Sarah as she journeys through each of these seasons, and we’ll look at the challenges and growth she experienced along the way. 

Sarah’s Life on the Field 

Sarah and her husband started on their missionary journey accompanied by their four children, ranging in age from four to nine, and headed to East Africa. Despite Sarah’s background in social work and psychology, which led her to take on the role of on-field care facilitator for their branch, they encountered challenges soon after they arrived. 

In their daily work, these challenges included navigating the complex team dynamics of a young team and wrestling with a partnering organization. As their responsibilities expanded, it became increasingly clear that their primary mission was to hope and pray the new missionaries would return for their second term. 

Living four hours away from quality medical care, Sarah became proficient in managing frequent health issues like malaria and stomach illnesses. They grappled with regular water and power outages, in addition to dealing with multiple missing items which Sarah knew had been stolen. They faced the unexpected deaths of a few national team members and a house helper due to AIDS. 

The trust in any security that she once had no longer was there. It was all so draining. Despite receiving feedback from a missionary care psychologist who indicated the unhealthy nature of their position, Sarah felt compelled to continue, sensing that they had no other choice. Their hearts were burdened for the new missionaries, and they felt responsible for taking care of them.

Amidst these daily challenges were moments of success, such as helping their house girl start her own business and launching ten Bible translation projects.

Sarah’s Pre-departure 

As they approached the five-year mark, her husband said that it was time to go on home assignment and explained that they needed to decide if they were going to return to the field. Sarah found herself hesitant to leave, feeling they had only scratched the surface of their mission. However, it soon became clear that returning to the States was their next step. 

Since they knew in advance that they were leaving their overseas ministry, they followed re-entry book recommendations on how to leave well. They also secured new positions at their international headquarters in the States. Despite feeling somewhat broken yet functional and still in need of a break, they felt like they left the field well.

Sarah’s Arrival (Return)

The first six months started with navigating the housing market, including multiple failed attempts at securing a suitable home due to bidding wars and undisclosed issues. The season was full of stress. They had to find everything that a family of six would need to feel settled, like beds and a car that would hold them all. They made multiple trips to supporting churches explaining their new ministry and the need for more financial support because it was more expensive to live in America.

A few months after they started paying their mortgage, their largest church and individual supporter thanked them for their service in Africa and abruptly discontinued their support. This added to an already fragile state which put a strain on her marriage and her children’s attitudes. 

Reverse Culture Shock in many other areas of life set in and started a downward spiral of not being able to keep it all together. Sarah started having unexplained physical symptoms (beyond the normal perimenopause symptoms that most women feel during their 40s) which she knew were from unprocessed experiences from their time on the field.

Despite a year of fundraising efforts, disappointing results occurred, with discouraging remarks like “You work in the States now; why doesn’t your organization provide your salary?” and “Get a real job and support your family.” These experiences only added more questions about God’s presence, her identity, and her relationship with the church. 

Then one day they received an email from their organization stating that they didn’t have enough funds in their account to get a salary that month. After doing everything she knew to do, she was done with missions and very angry with God for not providing and protecting her and her family even as they tried desperately to do the right thing. They had given up everything to move across the world, and this is what they get? This intensified Sarah’s emotional and physical pain, culminating with bouts of pneumonia and eventually being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease.  

It became evident that their return season consisted of two distinct parts: While they managed the pre-departure phase fairly easily, it wasn’t until they arrived that they found themselves not being able to get out of survival mode, since they could not even get their basic needs met. 

Sarah’s In-Between Season (Restore) 

A few years later, as she continued to navigate a season of uncertainty, Sarah was introduced to the study of trauma. It was there she recognized its grip on her—feeling trapped in a constant cycle of fight or flight, numbing out, and being easily triggered by seemingly insignificant events. 

Her journey into trauma recovery led her to confront her heart wounds. She learned how to face loss head-on and to address feelings of disappointment and resentment stemming from past experiences, including things that happened before she went to the field. Engaging in the practice of lament over past hurts, she began the journey of forgiveness, extending it to others, herself, and God.

This shift marked the beginning of her path toward healing and hope, transforming her approach from merely doing work for God to partnering with Him. This part of the healing journey wasn’t a one-time event but a lifestyle change of healing and growth.

In addition, Sarah began healing her body through specific somatic exercises and nervous system regulation techniques. Furthermore, she learned how trauma impacts brain chemistry and how the brain can rewire itself. Armed with this knowledge, she navigated the connections between her heart, mind, and body, fostering a deeper sense of self-awareness. 

A few years later, looking back on her re-entry journey, she realized that if she had known this information earlier, her recovery might have been quicker. As she shared her story and spoke with others going through similar transitions, she found that many could relate. Seeing the value in her own journey of healing, she felt motivated to assist others on their path to recovery.

Navigating the phase “in-between” two life chapters often entails moments of feeling stuck and a strong desire for clarity, especially when struggling to fully adjust to either the overseas context or the passport culture. Nearly everyone I’ve worked with has experienced at least a few days in this in-between season, but some people get stuck in this season. Additionally, during this phase, questions about identity, purpose, and belonging may arise, prompting individuals to wrestle with their new realities and seek their place within their communities.

Sarah’s New Narrative (Rebuild)

Driven by her passion for helping others heal, she immersed herself in various trauma recovery trainings. Through those trainings, she noticed a significant gap in available resources for those in the church and missions world. 

At the beginning of 2020, she created a new post-traumatic growth program for churches. Later that year, she was asked to help her organization establish a re-entry program. Eager to contribute, she created new resources specifically for returning missionaries. Other organizations worldwide started reaching out to her as they saw what she was doing to help missionaries return well. This led her to create a new organization geared toward those on the re-entry journey. She is now able to impact more lives than she ever did while she was on the mission field.

The Rebuild Season signifies new beginnings, offering an opportunity to reevaluate our contributions to the ongoing narrative of ministry. It’s not a one-time event but a continuous journey of growth and hope, where we discover our evolving purpose and embrace the next chapter of our ministry.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is mine. I am Sarah.

In the next article, we will look at trauma-informed care in each season of the re-entry journey.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 1: Trauma-Informed Care for the Re-entry Journey

by Shonna Ingram

As I stepped off the plane at Houston International Airport with my husband and four children between the ages of 9 and 14, my thoughts were all over the place. We thought we were ready for the next season. A little broken, sure. A little uncertain sure, but isn’t that what God called us to? 

We had read a re-entry book that guided us in ending our overseas service well, which led me to believe this next chapter shouldn’t be too difficult, since we had only been overseas for five years. However, the months and years that followed show a different story that I hope to never repeat. That was over ten years ago, and nothing has been the same since. 

Navigating the Changing Mission Landscape

The missionary care landscape experienced a significant change with the sudden onset of the pandemic, particularly impacting missionaries who had to unexpectedly return from their field. Missionaries found themselves forced to leave their country of service within 24 hours’ notice—a situation seldom witnessed in recent history, if ever. Even before the pandemic, there was a notable trend of missionaries returning home due to factors such as visa complications, burnout, or health issues affecting themselves or a family member. 

Additionally, there has been a noticeable shift in the duration of missionary service, with many individuals opting for shorter overseas assignments, deviating from the traditional model of long-term commitments. As someone closely involved in a Bible translation organization, where projects typically span several decades, this evolving trend has prompted concerns and reflections. 

I found myself pondering these trends. Are these changes viewed as failures or simply a natural progression within the missionary journey? These reflections led to further questions about the preparation and support available for returning missionaries.

Throughout this series, we will delve into the re-entry journey across three key seasons, exploring its impact on missionaries and offering practical insights for navigating this critical phase of the missionary sending process.

Defining Re-entry

At first glance, re-entry is simply the process of returning to one’s passport country after a period of overseas service, whether returning from a short mission trip or ending a lifelong career as an overseas worker. No matter how long you live overseas, it does something deep within you. However, for those who have at one time dedicated their lives to overseas Christian service, re-entry can be a confusing and complicated season.

It is also important to note that re-entry comes in two forms: planned returns and unplanned returns. Planned returns can often be marked by the completion of a project, retirement, or at least entering into the season knowing that they will be returning to their home country after a period of overseas service. It may entail celebratory send-offs and opportunities for reflective gatherings to honor the missionary’s service. Many resources are available to aid missionaries in this initial phase of re-entry, through books, articles, and checklists focusing on ensuring a successful conclusion to their on-field service.

On the other hand, unplanned returns are a different type of return. These unexpected departures can stem from various reasons, such as health concerns affecting the missionary or their family, marital crises, visa complications, or unforeseen global events like pandemics. Missionaries facing these unplanned returns require a different approach and guidance in navigating the re-entry process.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the return, the re-entry journey is not merely a physical relocation but a transition that affects emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions and can be a complex experience that demands careful attention and support. 

Understanding the Re-entry Journey

During the pandemic, I had the privilege of being part of an organizational think tank tasked with establishing a re-entry program. My involvement stemmed from my expertise in crisis and trauma support, career development, spiritual formation, and my own re-entry journey struggles. We wanted to comprehensively understand the journey of returning missionaries and identify strategies to facilitate their transition.

Our initial inquiries revolved around the difference in experiences among returning missionaries. Why do some navigate the re-entry journey more easily, while others find it profoundly challenging? We then conducted interviews and focus groups, soliciting feedback on what helped, what didn’t, and what could have been beneficial during different phases of the process.

Then I went one step further and took into account the SAMHSA definition of trauma, which states:

Trauma arises from an event, series of events, or circumstances that an individual experiences as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening. This trauma can have lasting adverse effects on various aspects of a person’s well-being, including their mental health, physical health, emotional health, social well-being, and spiritual well-being.

One glaring observation emerged: while existing resources predominantly catered to those experiencing expected returns, we were experiencing a significant number of missionaries facing unexpected circumstances around their return. Moreover, we identified a progression through a few distinct stages.

We distilled the missionary re-entry journey into five key phases which I turned into three key seasons:

  • Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.
  • Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arriving and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.
  • Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately two to five years after returning where they integrate their overseas time into their next life season.

Note: It’s crucial to recognize that these stages are fluid and not strictly bound by timelines. External factors such as marital issues or health concerns can indeed impact the progression through these stages, potentially causing delays or requiring additional attention and support. While we’ve outlined approximate timelines for each stage, it’s important to acknowledge that individual experiences may vary, and flexibility is key in navigating the re-entry journey effectively.

By reframing the re-entry process through the lens of these stages (which I prefer to call seasons), we gain a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities on the journey. This approach allows us to anticipate and address the unique needs of returning missionaries more effectively and to facilitate smoother transitions.

In the next article, we will take a deeper look at the three seasons of re-entry through the use of a case study.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Accessing the Power of Good Debriefing

A colleague of mine at TCK Training spent time preparing and travelling to facilitate a two-day debrief with a family who were on home assignment in their passport country. As they all introduced themselves and began to get to know each other, she asked what their hopes were for their time together over the next two days. The parents looked at each other and then back at her as they sheepishly admitted, “Actually, we have no idea. This is something our organisation requires, so we just signed up because we were supposed to. We have no clue what a debrief actually involves.” 

While debriefing has grown in popularity and more missionaries are at least familiar with the concept, the actual nuts and bolts of a debrief can be a bit murky. Because of that, it can be hard to even know, “What is a good debrief?” What should your expectation be of the debrief you signed up for? How do you know a debrief went “well”? 

As we’ve worked with hundreds of families at TCK Training, we’ve heard about a wide array of debrief experiences. There’s a vast mixture in what they received and how effective it was. We would love to see a broader understanding of the hallmarks of a good debrief, even if the execution differs.

In this article I am going to explore what a good debrief involves, why good debriefing can be so powerful, and how to access quality debriefing – no matter what services are (or are not) made available to you in your own situation.

Q: What is a good debrief?

1) A good debrief is preventive. 

That is, the debrief is not in response to a crisis situation but is part of a program of regular care. At TCK Training, we recommend that all families experiencing global mobility do a full debrief (two full days set aside for the sole purpose of debriefing the entire family) every 3-4 years and a check-in style “annual debrief” each year in between. While crisis situations also need to be addressed, this should not be the only situation in which a debrief occurs.

2) A good debrief crafts an intentional, open-ended journey.

Good debriefing is more than verbal processing, prompted with questions along the lines of “Tell me what happened? How did it go? What happened next?” A good debrief instead asks about all different facets of life, and is open to unexpected answers, not just looking to check items off a list. A good debrief asks intentional and purposeful questions that are crafted to lead you and your TCKs through a journey of discovery, finding things that need processing – even if you weren’t consciously aware of them.

For children, this element of a good debrief involves engaging in a variety of ways. Since we all know that sitting across from a child and asking them direct questions isn’t particularly effective, we need to make sure that movement and creativity are a central part of a TCK debrief. 

3) A good debrief creates a sacred space for hard things.

During a good debrief, you feel safe to explore difficult experiences and the difficult emotions that go with them. You are not shamed for your emotions, worried that your emotions might be used against you, or that what you share might result in you losing your job. In the sacred space of a good debrief, you know there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. 

4) A good debrief embraces both shared and individual experiences.

At TCK Training we believe in the power of families working through debrief materials together. We all have shared experiences as a family, and it is helpful and healing to process those shared experiences together. During the debrief, parents get the opportunity to model expressing hard feelings and doing the hard work of emotional processing, with expert guidance to support them. As their children watch this, it will help them recognize the importance of this work and how to do it, as well as give them permission to do this work with their parents, not only in the moment but in the future.

In addition, there will always be aspects of our lives as a family that are individual. Children and parents do not have the same experiences, nor does each child or each parent have the same experiences. Having individual sessions as well as family sessions is necessary to build self-awareness and for personal growth.

Q: Why is a good debrief powerful?

Making debriefs part of a regular program of preventive care leads to more beneficial outcomes. Reactive care – a debrief that takes place in the aftermath of a particularly stressful event – occurs when individuals are full of heightened and heavy emotions and aren’t able to fully engage in the debriefing process. During a preventive care-style debrief, individuals are less occupied with a specific need and can engage in the process of working through all the small things they have experienced over time. This leads to greater learning about themselves and their needs and greater likelihood of retaining that learning over time. 

As part of an individual debrief, teenagers and adults alike get the opportunity to work through their experiences with guided assistance. The crafted questions of a good debrief help us recognise things we didn’t even know were hiding under the surface of our hearts and minds. We debrief our emotions, identity, grief and loss, subconscious expectations, and more. 

Debriefing as a family helps us see where these different facts do and do not line up with each other – where we have different perspectives on the same events. Children are provided a safe space and a mediated opportunity to share emotions they have struggled to express. Parents can help fill in the gaps where children were missing part of the story. These can be powerful family moments.

One Adult TCK shared with me that as a child, their missionary family had something called a “debrief” every four years through their parents’ missionary agency while on home assignment. Yet this experience never included anything individual for them as a child or teenager, where they could explore their feelings. In addition, they felt constrained to not speak about certain events. A debrief that created sacred space and acknowledged their individual journey would have been far more powerful. It would have combatted the loneliness far too many TCKs struggle with and instilled the value that they are worth being individually cared for.

Q: How can our family access a quality debrief? 

If your organisation offers (or requires) a debrief, try to get some information about what debrief means to them. You might ask what the debrief consists of, how children are involved, what the goals/aims of the debrief are, and how the debriefers are trained. 

If your organisation does not provide debriefing, or the debriefing offered is not comprehensive, you could ask them to outsource these services to another organisation or to cover the cost of your family procuring a debrief elsewhere. Knowing what a good debrief is and why it matters will help in explaining why this is important to you.

Our priority at TCK Training is ensuring that families have access to quality debriefing, both inside and outside the missionary world, and we are not the only group with this goal. Other sources of quality debriefs include MTI (Mission Training International), Alongside Ministries, TRAIN, and Safe Place Ministry. 

TCK Training provides debriefing services (both in-person and virtual), and we also train others to provide good debriefs. (We have trained hundreds of people in how to conduct quality debriefs, including staff at various mission organisations.) To make quality debriefing even more accessible, we now offer a resource to help parents lead their own family debrief at home. We also have a FREE processing worksheet with great questions to ask yourself or someone else to help work through emotions. This free resource is a great place to start if you want to learn more about what a quality debrief can look like.

Photo by Mike Scheid on Unsplash

Can I Find Belonging in the American Church? {Wrestlings of an Adult MK}

by Jessi Bullis

As an adult missionary kid (MK) who grew up with a fairly mobile childhood, “home” and “belonging” have been tricky for me. I remember being as young as five years old and responding to the question “Where are you from?” with deer-in-the-headlights style anxious sputtering. 

As I’ve grown, I’ve spent oodles of time processing how each different country I was raised in has impacted who I am as a person, and I’ve learned to weave them together to make up the mosaic of my personal cultural complexity. Nowadays, I have a ready-made answer for the “Where are you from?” question. But just because I’m prepared to answer doesn’t mean that internal confusion and childhood longing aren’t sometimes set off. 

Over the years, digging into scripture and falling even more in love with Jesus, I came to know Him as my true Home. And since Christ’s bride is the Church, I desperately wanted the Church to be my earthly home.

Afterall, that was the one consistent “location” in my life. In England we attended a church with 300 members, while in Turkey we went to a house church that fluctuated from 20-30 people depending on the week and in whose apartment it was held. Visiting Tanzania, we worshiped in a mud structure, and in Germany church was held in the school auditorium. Each might have looked different, but the underlying feeling was the same.

So when I returned to the exotic, frightening, and magical land of the United States of America for college, my hope was that in the midst of my hardest transition, I would find a home-ful belonging in the Church.

However, while there was hope, I’ll admit there was also a bitter pessimism. 

The American church has often felt like an unsafe place for me growing up. As a child, whenever we would return to the U.S. on home assignment and enter the church circuit, raising support felt like a job requirement to be filled rather than a place to be known and loved.

I felt like a hidden immigrant in the church — misunderstood, but also laden with high expectations to be “the perfect MK.” It was assumed that I would know all the ‘right’ answers to any biblical questions thrown my way, while at the same time I was confused by the jokes and cultural references made in conversation. I learned to play the part, but internally I felt like an outsider.

I also noticed that it sometimes seemed like American patriotism and Christianity were intertwined. 

While my passport country is the United States, and I am legally a citizen, I have struggled to wrap my head around what that means. For many of my mono-cultural friends raised in the U.S., this has meant that the American flag elicits an emotional response, and July 4th comes with life-long traditions of celebration and reverence for American history. Because America was born from the drive for religious freedom, for some it seemed that being patriotic was the most Christian thing they could do.

I, on the other hand, didn’t know the words to “America the Beautiful” or even the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I attended sporting events (which I’ll admit wasn’t often), I moved my mouth around hoping it looked like I was saying the same thing as everyone else. 

So when I attended churches where I heard pastors talk from the pulpit about how “America is the best country in the world” and where church members discussed how great a blessing it is to be American, I felt like an outsider. Many cultures have informed my faith, and the global perspective I have impacts how I read my Bible. I love that about myself and my story, so hearing words of American patriotism in the church feels to me like a sucker punch. Suddenly the separation between me and my fellow American believers seemed even wider. 

In these church sanctuaries I found myself questioning: If I didn’t “feel” American, would I be fully accepted as a sister in Christ? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ first – before our cultural backgrounds? If I voiced concern about patriotism and Christianity being conflated, would my character and faith be questioned? 

In the New Testament, I saw that Jesus spoke with Gentiles as cultural equals. On days when the fear of not belonging has felt strongest, I’ve turned to Philippians 3:20 for comfort (“we are citizens of heaven”). And I always drew hope from Revelation 7:9, where we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together in blessed harmony. 

As I considered these scriptures, I began seeing my own assumptions and prejudices arise. Sometimes my own religious comfort has been built from my cultural experiences, and I have had to repentantly unwind them at the feet of Jesus.

Culture impacts how we interact with God and how we worship. Sometimes this is beautiful and glorifies God in the diversity of His creation. But at other times culture becomes an obstacle to the true message of scripture. I have learned beautiful things about God, His creativity, the depths of His love, and so much more from every culture I’ve worshiped in — including in America. 

I write this article not as someone with all the answers, but as someone who has so very many questions: for myself, for my fellow believers, and for the American church. Questions like:

  • How does national culture play a role in my relationship with God? And with my fellow believer?
  • Do I have opportunities to view Christianity from different perspectives and cultures? If not, do I need to find them?
  • Could I have blind spots towards my faith due to my national culture? 
  • Do I feel closer to a believer from a different country than to an unbeliever from my own country? 

It’s important for all of us to consider questions like these. I pray that each day we, the Church, become more and more like the Bride of Christ that will meet God at the shore of eternity.

“…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

A great resource on navigating God and culture is the Perspectives Course, and if you’d like to know how to support missionary kids in their walk with God, I recommend Tim Sanford’s book I Have To Be Perfect, along with this training for Churches Supporting Missionary Families.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

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Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

On the Fringe

But once we have found the center of our life in our own heart and have accepted our aloneness, not as a fate but as a vocation, we are able to offer freedom to others. –Henri Nouwen

Cresting the hill overlooking the community where our campus sits, I hear the chatter of my daughters in the seats behind me. My mind, however, is miles (or kilometers, shall we say) away. I had just run into a few friends, whom we have known for many years now, and chatted briefly.

As I herded my children into my car, I reflected on the experience. Though it was good to run into them (was it, though?), it was also painful – a reminder, again, that we are the outsiders. These friends have a seemingly vibrant, interdependent community – one for which my husband and I have longed. For a wide array of reasons, we have succeeded in knowing a lot of people from a variety of communities, but we have not leaned in to just one. We’re “on the fringe,” we like to say, of a lot of communities.

There are definite perks to this; but tonight, I am just lonely.

//

This past summer, we had a three and a half-month home assignment in the U.S. It was hectic, as they are. And I was keenly aware that my daughters seemed to have more friends in the U.S., where we have not lived for almost eight years, than they do in our ministry area, where they have essentially grown up.

I pondered this for some time. Was it true? Would they/we have these friends if we lived in the U.S.? There was of course the reality that we visited many different states and churches, nearly all the people we know stateside. In the end, I wondered, is it that friendships feel easier in their “home” culture, even though they haven’t grown up in the U.S.? Do they sense that we are “on the fringe” here too?

//

I have a feeling that you can relate. As cross-cultural workers, we can work alongside people all day, we can attend a vibrant church or co-op, we can be part of groups and workplaces, and still feel unknown. We can spend countless hours pursuing others, opening the doors of our home, building relationships, and have maybe one or two that takes off and goes deep – but otherwise feel like outsiders the rest of the time.

Seven years into international ministry, I am no longer surprised by this reality. It used to be a sharp reminder of our otherness; these days, it is more of a dull ache, a sense of loneliness. God has been gracious in the midst of this struggle for belonging. These are a few truths God has used to comfort me:

The longing to belong is a good, God-given one. This desire to know and be known is part of our human, image-bearing experience. This longing reflects our spiritual, emotional, and mental capacities for relationship and meaning. Any feelings of being ‘unknown’ are part of our experience in this broken world; alternatively, the joy of feeling “known” reflects the already-but-not-yet of Christ’s kingdom coming.

I am known, deeply. The truth is that each one of us is deeply known by God himself, more deeply than we know ourselves. While this may sound trite at times, I have found profound comfort in embracing the reality that the God of the universe knows me, on every level, through and through, and cares deeply for me. Nothing in my life is hidden from him; he knows the best and worst of me and loves me still. What a joy!

He knows what it is to be “on the fringe.” Christ himself came from the Father, to an earth which was not his home, in order to minister and serve and give the ultimate sacrifice for others. Though his “otherness” was different than ours, he is familiar with the struggle to belong. In his life, I find a model of living “on the fringe” which gives me a path forward in my overseas life.

I think of Jesus’ words in Mark 10, where he shares a simple mission statement for his coming to earth: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45).

Jesus is our ultimate example of coming to a place, fully knowing he would not belong, and giving of himself anyway. When I put aside my own feelings of “otherness” and seek to offer my life for others, I am imitating Christ. When I accept the reality that I will not fit as I would ideally love to and continue to serve anyway, I am imaging Jesus.

So I continue to lean in and pursue others, but less for what they can mean to me, and more for how I can faithfully serve both them and Christ. I am working toward setting aside my own needs for belonging and living joyfully anyway. This is only possible because of the confidence we have in Christ. He knows me, he knows the ache, and he served in love still. Jesus, help me to do the same.

What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

In my previous post (What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma), I shared data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) along with wisdom from many A Life Overseas authors. As we sifted through information on what can be a difficult topic, we kept in mind these two key points:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

This means that often there is no clear ‘right’ answer; different people (different families, different children) will need different things. Setting blanket rules is unlikely to address every situation. Instead, we are going to talk about principles.

My last post included four suggestions for ways we can support families, and in this post I will expand these ideas with practical tips and more wisdom from the ALO team. 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

Protect children where possible

Knowing that witnessing potentially traumatic events is linked to increased risk should cause us to think carefully about taking our children to places where this can occur.

Part of determining field suitability should include a careful assessment of the level of trauma, including witnessed trauma, likely to occur in the location. If the risk is high, additional supports should be in place. If traumatic events end up happening frequently, a change of location may be warranted. 

How do we make these momentous decisions? Anna Hampton’s thoughts on Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker are so helpful here: “A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?” 

A lot in life cannot be predicted, including how individuals will react to and cope with potentially traumatic events. Flexibility and a willingness to change plans is important – in life generally, but especially in high risk areas. Sometimes a location changes from low risk to high risk very suddenly. Sometimes a single event changes how individuals within a family feel about their emotional and/or physical safety. 

Being willing to sacrifice our plans in order to protect children is crucial. If we sacrifice children in order to continue the plans we had made, there is something wrong with our priorities.

I love how Kay Bruner writes about this in Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice: “We are not called to deliberately – or carelessly – traumatize our children for God’s sake. When traumatic events occur, we should be the first ones at our child’s side bringing care, concern, and healing…Please don’t take your children into active danger, thinking that this will somehow make you a better kind of Christian.” 

Fight the normalisation of trauma

Just because something happens regularly does not mean it is normal. When potentially traumatic events happen regularly, we must actively fight against them being seen as ‘normal.’

Whatever happens regularly during your childhood becomes your normal. Children can adapt to anything – including, sadly, horrible abuse and devastating traumas. Believing these events are ‘normal’ does not, however, stop them from affecting a child’s psyche. This means that in order to process the impact of the abuse and/or trauma they have suffered, an individual must first recognise that what they went through was not normal. 

Many missionary kids normalise abusive and/or traumatic events they experience during childhood – to the point of not mentioning them to adults in their lives, including their parents. This is something we see over and over again at TCK Training, when Adult TCKs dismiss dramatic events and inappropriate behaviour from others as potential sources of trauma because “that was normal where I grew up” or “that happened to everyone.”

Adults in their lives unwittingly contribute to this every time we downplay things that make children feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In addition, while phrases like “Don’t worry, this is normal here” or “You’ll get used to it after a while” may be intended to comfort, they instead teach children to ignore their feelings because what is common is normal. We think that by putting on a happy face, we can make a scary situation okay, but we’re wrong. 

Anna Glenn writes about the problem of pasting a smile over pain in Toxic Positivity in Missions: “Toxic positivity is a reaction that stems from fear and shame rather than faith. It focuses on self-reliance to ‘power through’ and create or shine our own light rather than calling us to step into the light through surrender to the one true God. Toxic positivity is a shallow substitute for the hope of the gospel and a genuine relationship with Christ.” 

Instead, we all need to be brave enough to sit with difficult emotions and to sit with children and young people experiencing difficult emotions. We need to call out the wrongness in our world, even when it happens frequently around us. We need to acknowledge that witnessing potentially traumatic events is evidence of the brokenness of this world – not something to dismiss, but something to mourn. It is something that impacts us, and even the smallest child, on a soul level – because the world should not be this way. 

“We need to recognize these stressful events as threats to the mental health and stability of international families. When we recognize them as such, we can mobilize to acknowledge and debrief these events.” – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Provide support to both parents and children

We need to think about the entire family unit. Children do not live in isolation, but with parents and caregivers who live in the same environments and therefore are likely witnessing the same or similar potentially traumatic events. They may even have witnessed more events from which they have sheltered their children.

Just because parents are adults does not make them immune to the impact of witnessing traumatic events. On the contrary – the impact of traumatic events flows through them to their children. The whole family needs support when living in environments where traffic accidents and violence are occuring. 

“The stress of bearing witness to trauma is easily brought into the home, impacting family dynamics and parent-child connectedness.”  – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Parents need support to process what they have witnessed so that they can be emotionally available to support their children. Unfortunately, in many cases these occurrences are normalised, and families do not feel they are ‘allowed’ to need or want help to work through witnessing events that happen regularly. Yet regular debriefing (and crisis debriefing when a significant event takes place) should be a key part of how families are cared for to ensure long-term health and thriving for each person. 

When these potentially traumatic events are ignored and families do not receive adequate support, the impacts do not go away over time – they fester. As Abigail Follows writes in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, “We can think of a trauma as a ‘heart wound’ – a wound that needs tending, otherwise it will get infected – a wound that can heal with the right treatment.”

In addition to targeted support, supportive communities that surround families in these situations are incredibly powerful. As I wrote recently in It takes a village – including for missionary families, “The communities supporting families living abroad are essential to these families’ long-term thriving. If we want to see missionary kids thrive long term, we need more than good parenting advice; we need to be the community these families need.” 

When potentially traumatic events occur regularly, when missionaries and their children see these soul-injuring sights in the course of their daily lives, it takes a toll. Anna Glenn writes poignantly on this in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries:

“For many missionaries who are serving in underdeveloped nations where hunger, disease, and violence run rampant, the horrors that they have witnessed day in and day out may have grown to be too much. We all know that death and pain are a part of life, but when you see people, people you know and love, dying from easily preventable causes nearly every single week and you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.”

Given that these words were written in the content of missionaries who have returned to their passport countries from the field, this leads us to our final point:

Continue support after they leave the field

The impact of witnessed trauma doesn’t end when we leave the environment in which it occurred. Unfortunately, upon leaving the field many missionary families lose the supportive community who understood those experiences. Taking care to support missionary families through the lens of accumulated trauma can make a big difference.

This means acknowledging that what feels safe/unsafe may be different for them – especially for children who grew up in a different environment – and that what triggers unsafe feelings may be different. 

Often this includes exposure to media coverage of other countries, including but not limited to countries where the family lived previously. Lilly Rivera brings up an important point in Reading the News When Crisis Hits: “Reading the news can be a triggering experience if you have gone through traumatic experiences yourself. The injustice, violence, and pain can make you feel paralyzed, angry or really upset.” 

I also appreciate this perspective from adult MK Aneurin Howorth in Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad: “The trauma we carry around as TCKs usually manifests itself through mental illnesses once we are adults. The counselor Lois Bushong says that most TCKs tend to only start going to counseling once they are in their 30’s. I am not yet in my thirties, but already, increasing numbers of my classmates report having mental health issues, almost exclusively struggling from unresolved trauma or grief on the mission field. Being a TCK does not stop when we become adults; both the blessings and the curses will follow us forever.” 

The impact of witnessed trauma does not always manifest immediately; sometimes it is a slow burn, which is why long-term care and support is important. It is also why TCK Training is running research on both the good and hard experiences TCKs had during childhood, as well as their strengths and struggles as adults – we want to know more about the links between these so that we can better support TCKs as they grow. (Learn more about the survey here).

 

Resources referenced:

Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker

Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice

Toxic Positivity in Missions

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Debriefing Resources (TCK Training)

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

It takes a village – including for missionary families

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Reading the News When Crisis Hits

Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

Impact of Childhood Global Mobility on Adult Wellness (TCK Training Survey)

Photo by Transly Translation Agency on Unsplash

What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Trauma. What does this word make you think of? Does it worry you, even scare you? Does it bring to mind certain events from your own life? Have you seen it used so often that it’s beginning to lose meaning for you? 

I found the definition of trauma Shonna Ingram shared in her post The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does very helpful:

“Trauma results from any event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting negative effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Over the years, A Life Overseas has not shied away from difficult topics – including trauma on the mission field and how it impacts missionaries and their children. Together we have written about how to understand trauma and heal from it; specific experiences of trauma and how to process them; the long-term impact of trauma on the field, including on mental health; theology of risk; toxic positivity; moral injury; and more. I have also shared research insights from my work with TCK Training, looking at the experiences of missionary kids and their families over time.

Today I come with new data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) together with the collected wisdom of A Life Overseas’ authors. I’ll discuss data on potentially traumatic events witnessed by TCKs and reference excellent articles from the A Life Overseas (ALO) library. I’ll list these resources at the end.

Why do we need to talk about trauma?

In TCK Training’s research, which involved over 1,000 missionary kids (MKs), exposure to potentially traumatic events was one of two key risk factors linked to high ACE scores. High ACE scores in turn are linked with increased risk of a range of negative outcomes in adulthood. (The other key risk factor was high mobility, which I wrote about in Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help.)

It’s important to start by recognizing that trauma can, and does, happen everywhere all over the world. Staying in your passport country does not make you immune to trauma, and leaving for the mission field does not guarantee a traumatic outcome. Abigail Follows explained this nicely in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, where she wrote that “disasters, traumas, and crises happen. They happen everywhere.”

In addition, there is a difference between potential trauma and actual trauma. Witnessing a potentially traumatic event does not mean an individual will necessarily experience it as traumatic.

As Kay Bruner wrote in Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma, “The perception that we are helpless in the face of frightening events is one of the foundational pieces of psychological trauma. This helps us understand why some members of a family may be minimally impacted by an event, while others are deeply traumatized.” 

In fact, lack of control means that sometimes children feel a deeper sense of trauma from an event than an adult might in that situation. In other cases, not understanding the full impact of what is happening might mean a child is less impacted. The important point is that we cannot know how each individual will respond, so assumptions are unhelpful.

As we start to look at some difficult numbers together, let’s keep in mind these two pieces of wisdom:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

Witnessing Potentially Traumatic Events

The 1,904 ATCKs who took our survey were asked both if they had witnessed a certain type of event at all, and if they had witnessed this ‘regularly.’ The events we asked about included:

  • Extreme poverty
  • Serious traffic accident
  • Armed conflict
  • Traumatic death (human)
  • Traumatic death (animal)
  • Physical violence

86% of missionary kids witnessed at least one of these potentially traumatic events; more than half of missionary kids witnessed potentially traumatic events regularly (53%).

Extreme Poverty

77% of missionary kids reported they had witnessed extreme poverty at least once, and 61% said they witnessed this regularly. Living among those experiencing extreme poverty and knowing you cannot fix it can lead to what Rachel Pieh Jones labelled ‘moral injury.’

In her article on the topic, she writes: “All my high ideals and righteous ambitions lie in tatters at my feet while people around me go hungry and I can never feed them all. When injustice reigns and I don’t protest. When racism rules and I benefit. And that’s just what I’m willing to publicly confess.”

Witnessing extreme poverty was the only item on the above list not linked to higher-than-average risk. That is, MKs who only witnessed extreme poverty (18% of the group) had an ACE risk similar to that seen in the general TCK population.

Serious Traffic Accident

In some countries traffic accidents are more common, and where cars regularly share badly maintained roads with motorcycles (and helmets are not worn), accidents can be particularly traumatic to witness. As Anna Glenn writes in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries, “[When] you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.” 

Three out of every five missionary kids (40%) had witnessed a serious traffic accident by age 18. Nearly a quarter of those (9% of all missionary kids) witnessed serious accidents regularly. 

When originally crafting this survey, we made sure to ask about serious traffic accidents because we’ve seen the impact of ongoing struggles related to witnessed accidents, even when TCKs were not directly involved in the accident themselves. A variety of reactions, including fear, anxiety, nightmares, reluctance to drive/learn to drive, and PTSD, can be involved. 

Witnessing Violence

More than half of missionary kids (59%) witnessed one of the final four types of potentially traumatic events we listed: 

  1. armed conflict
  2. human death
  3. traumatic animal death
  4. physical violence

For the purpose of our survey, we defined armed conflict as “two groups fighting with weapons.” We found that 20% of missionary kids had witnessed armed conflict.

One quarter of missionary kids had witnessed the traumatic death of a person (24%), including 4% who witnessed a murder. They had the same increased ACE risk as those who witnessed armed conflict (28% of the group had high-risk ACE scores). The risk was higher again for MKs who regularly witnessed any kind of human death, with one third of this group having a high ACE score (33%), nearly double the rate for MKs overall. 

In our work with adult TCKs, we have often found that animal death comes up as an event requiring debriefing as it had not been processed effectively at the time it occurred. More than one third of missionary kids (35%) reported witnessing the traumatic death of an animal. Witnessing animal death came with an increased ACE risk, especially when it happened regularly. The risk associated with regularly witnessing traumatic animal death was the same as the risk associated with regularly witnessing human death.

What do we do about this?

Based on the research around trauma, including the data we have on what MKs are experiencing, I have four suggestions about what we should do next. In my next article, I expand on these four ideas with practical suggestions and more quotes from the ALO library: 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

The Good News

Not all TCKs, and not all missionary kids, witnessed these types of potentially traumatic events. When we review the data on those who were not exposed, we find some wonderful news!

Looking at the missionary kids who did not regularly witness traumatic events, only 9% had a high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) score (4 or more out of 10), compared to 12.5% of Americans and 17% of MKs overall.

Looking then at missionary kids who did not witness ANY potentially traumatic events, only 6% of recorded 4 or more ACEs – lower than seen in any study we could find in any country using the same question framing.

This is really good news. It suggests that when MKs grow up in environments where they are not witnessing these types of potentially traumatic events, their families are healthier overall. 

Read part two: What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Resources referenced:

The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) (TCK Training)

Moral Injury

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Photo by Nimrod Persson on Unsplash

 

Demolishing the High Places of Self-Blame

by Amy Peterson

In my last night in the city of a closed country, I crept out of my apartment after dark.

I lived on the top floor of the building, but I’d noticed that where the staircase ended, there were iron rungs attached to the wall, leading up to a hole in the roof. I’d been wanting to get up on the roof of this building all year, but “unconventional” wasn’t culturally lauded here the way it was back home. I had a sneaking suspicion that the university would not look favorably upon me hanging out on the roof. This was my last night, though. Up I went.

It was nearly midnight. The moon had been full earlier in the week, but was still big and yellow, hung low in the sky. Summer lightning struck in the distance. I found the Big Dipper in the sky. But mostly I looked across the city, wondering what it would be like to go back to the States. Would it feel like home? Or would I feel like a flower picked from a garden and moved to a vase for ten months, then taken back to the garden and planted again, unable to re-root? Ten weeks seemed too long to be away from this sweet place.

I had no idea, that night, that I would never come back.

For months afterward—no, for years—I would catalog my infractions, the things that might have been the cause of what happened next. I still do it, catalog and flog. There were so many things I didn’t know, so many things I took for granted, so many ways I wasn’t cautious.

  1. I shouldn’t have forwarded an email about the execution of Christians in our country.
  2. I shouldn’t have let a student keep the Jesus film over mid-semester break. I should have warned her.
  3. I shouldn’t have taken the girls to that coffee shop for our last Bible study. We’d sat on the second floor, the only customers there, and I thought we were safe. I thought it was a special celebratory ending to our year together. But we had prayed and read the Bible in public. Why had I been so foolish? I should have been more careful.

I should have been more careful, I should have been more careful, I should have been more careful.

The word translated “high places” (bamah) is repeated 102 times in the Old Testament, mostly referring to Canaanite places of worship, altars on mountaintops and under “every luxuriant tree” (1 Kings 14:23).

When the Israelites prepared to enter Canaan, Moses exhorted the Jews to “demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:52). It was hundreds of years, though, before young King Hezekiah actually put an end to idol accommodation in Israel. Hezekiah enlisted the help of the Levites and made sure the high places were destroyed, and that true, God-centered worship was restored in the temple (2 Chronicles 29–30).

The Jewish temple had a high place, a bimah, of its own, a raised pulpit from which the Torah was read. Scholars are unsure whether bimah derived from the Hebrew bamah or from the Greek word bema, meaning platform. Bema, when found in the New Testament, is usually translated “judgment seat.” I used to hear pastors use the Greek word in sermons: “When you find yourself at the Bema seat,” they’d ask, “what will Jesus say to you?”

It occurs to me now, as I rehash my mistakes, that what I’m doing is not what Jesus would do if I were to meet him at a high place.

It occurs to me now that obsessing over my own failures and what-might-have-beens is a way of creating my own altar, a bamah to me, a high place where I worship myself as the ultimate sovereign, responsible for whatever happens, good or bad.

Mistakes were made. I made mistakes. But obsessing over my mistakes elevates them as more powerful than God. God is sovereign, and God is good, and God has forgiven me.

It would be at least a year before I was able to believe any of those things again.

 

Excerpted from a new edition of Amys memoir, Dangerous Territory, and reprinted with permission. Amazon affiliate links help support the work of A Life Overseas.

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Amy Peterson is a teacher, writer, and priest in the Episcopal church. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two kids, three cats, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before her call to the priesthood, she taught ESL in Southeast Asia before returning stateside to teach in California, Arkansas, Washington, and Indiana. To read more of her thoughts on faith, language, culture, and creation, visit amypete.substack.com.