It’s been a while since we first started on this adventure together. There’ve been ups and downs just like everyone said there would be. There’s been a lot of laughter, a lot of tears. Many learning experiences and cultural faux pas. It’s been good and I’m thankful for this opportunity, but there are a few things I wish you had told me before I boarded that first plane. So I’m writing you this letter with the hope that the next person to join you will know some of these things beforehand. And that those already with you will know that they are not alone.
Rebecca and Renette
Dear missions, I wish you had told me. . .
…that the culture shock comes and goes.
The first year is full of new faces, systems, jargon and challenges. It feels like you joined a different world as you navigate learning the culture, which is actually a culture within a culture within a culture within a culture. There’s your culture, the culture of the country you are living in, the culture of the people you work with, the culture of the organisation and the missionary culture. Mix them all together and you have a bunch of people who are never sure who they are, what the right way to greet someone is and what the appropriate table manners are. You’ll think you’ve finally mastered the culture and then something new will pop up that makes you rethink everything you already learnt (or thought you’d learnt). And that’s all right. Keep going. Keep learning and embracing the culture surrounding you.
…that support raising never stops.
You will always be working on raising support — both prayer and financial. Some supporters may only be committed for the first year or for specific things. Every new person you meet is someone who can journey with you, be it by prayer or through financial giving. Never stop sharing your passion and your stories. They don’t know you have the story, so don’t wait for opportunities; create them. Learn to start the conversation. People will recognise your enthusiasm and respond to it.
…that it will always feel like more can be done.
Your eyes will be opened to many needs. Many of them, you knew existed, but you never understood to what extent. You will see the need for business training, translation, better education, finances, farming tools, Bible interpretation, job opportunities and many more. You will feel guilty when you think of how many of these things you have in excess in other parts of the world — maybe even where you’re from. You will feel guilty for not doing/teaching/sharing/speaking up more. The needs can be overwhelming, and you may find yourself in a situation where you feel like what you are doing is not enough and you can’t fathom where to start fixing all the world’s problems.
Remember to respond not to the need, but to the Father who knows all the needs in the world. God is asking you: “What is in your hand? Can you use that for My people?” Ask Him what the needs are that you should respond to. And those needs that aren’t yours to respond to? Continue praying about them.
…that debriefing is a real thing and you will soon ask for it (and if not, you should).
In an organisation focused on meeting needs, serving sacrificially and working cross culturally, you will have things that need to be processed. It will feel silly and unnecessary, but if you keep the lid closed on these subjects, the bottle will explode, and you will scare people. Relieve the pressure by regularly opening the can of worms and setting them free. Sometimes it will be a five-minute conversation on how hard it was to fall asleep with all the noise from the street below and other times it will be a two-hour conversation on the inner conflict you experienced when you saw how a team member was treated by someone.
Don’t be shy, find someone you trust and start talking.
…that people will keep asking when this gap year/wanderlust will end.
It’s sometimes hard to understand why someone chooses to work for no salary and live in a foreign country. When you are in your 20’s, people assume you’re taking a gap year; when you’re older, people think you’re just taking a break. People will come up to you, asking you when this will be over, when you will start looking for a real job, and aren’t there churches that can do the work?
Stick to that verse God gave you, that promise He made, that peace you are experiencing. This might be only for a short season, but it might also be the next 30 years of your life. Be true and honest with yourself. Keep praying about how — and where — God wants you to serve.
…that missionaries aren’t perfect.
It can feel like all missionaries pray 24/7 and know the Bible by heart. You feel like you are far behind on your Bible knowledge and that you need to extend your thirty-minute devotion to a three-hour one. Calm down, missionaries are not perfect. They make plenty of mistakes. Some might know a lot of the Bible by heart, others may use Google to find that one verse. Missionaries are human; they have seasons where they do not feel God’s presence, where they feel lost. If you want to talk about real faith struggles, start sharing your struggles. I promise you half of your colleagues have faced what you are going through and totally understand that sometimes praying is hard.
…that the goodbyes never stop (but that doesn’t mean the investing has to).
We often refer to missionaries as short term (up to a year) or long term (one year +). People are always coming and going, and that makes for a lot of introductions as well as goodbyes. It’s hard saying goodbye to people who have become like family and experienced the ups and downs of the mission field with you and are now leaving you behind as they move on. It’s hard when you’re the long termer who wants to get to know and invest in the short termer while knowing they will leave you soon. And while it may be easier to hold those who will soon leave at arm’s length, you will miss out on making a friend. Someone who might need some pouring into. Someone who might pour into you. Someone who can bring new ideas and perspective into your home and ministry. Goodbyes are hard, but so is being alone.
…that friendships look different.
Friendship in the missions world is a weird thing. You will meet so many people that you will only know for an hour or a day or a week. If you meet someone you get along with (regardless of the age difference, nationality, background or stage of life), be intentional to connect with them and stay connected. Months may pass before you see them again but messages and emails can be exchanged that will strengthen the relationship. Don’t expect a traditional friendship, but do expect a deep one. Say yes to receiving each other’s newsletters, say yes to exchanging numbers and emails. Stay connected.
…that it’s ok to say ‘no.’
I think we want to be ‘yes’ people, filling in the gaps and helping others 24/7, but you can’t be and do everything. It’s hard saying no when you want to help or feel like it’s expected of you. It is important to know what your red flags are in order to avoid burnout. A burnt-out person can’t effectively help a team or community.
Pray about when and how to help, talk through it with your support team. Filling the gaps is admirable, but it may be that it’s taking you away from what you are really supposed to be doing.
It’s ok to say no.
…that I would acquire skills I never dreamt would be necessary.
Making popcorn on a fire. Remembering where the best chairs for sleeping are in each airport. Braiding grass necklaces. Saying how are you in five different languages. Knowing when to bow, clap, look down and/or shake hands when greeting an elder. Following a recipe while substituting 75% of the ingredients because they’re not available in your country and still have it turn out ok. These are all different skills and travel tricks you learn when joining an international missions organisation.
Write them down and keep track of every odd skill and fact you learn — they are great conversation starters!
…that my fashion sense wouldn’t improve (in fact, it got worse).
Have you seen a group of people at an airport or bus stop who look like they backpack through life? They just may be missionaries. Your missionary life will shift many of your priorities, one of them being how you view fashion. You will go from fashionable to practical (depending on which country you are serving in).
Does it wrinkle easily or need to be washed separately with special soap? Don’t buy it. Does it fit tightly, show your shoulders or your knees? Leave it behind. Does it match every colour? Buy it. Can it be worn at a meeting as well as in the village? Definitely a keeper! Can it be used as a towel, blanket, pillow and/or a skirt? Treasure it.
Your fashion priorities will change and that’s ok, but don’t expect everyone else’s priorities to change as well. Depending where you are in the world, you may feel like an outsider or a few years behind, but keep clinging on to the reason why your fashion style is different and stick to it. We should all stick together and help the world realise that practical is fashionable!
…to keep a journal.
You may not think it’s possible, but you’ll forget things. It seems unimaginable that you could possibly forget the conversation you had with a drug user if there was cocaine on his face, or the time you met the biggest chief in the country, or when you had to walk from town to the airport because you misunderstood the bus driver. New memories will unintentionally replace the old ones as time goes on. And while that is not a bad thing, you might one day wish for a better record of these days. Write down the struggles so you can look back and see how you overcame them. Write down the victories — big and small — so you can praise God for them. Write about the friendships forged over cups of tea, the new food you were barely able to swallow down, and the unexpected God encounters that left you breathless.
Originally published at OM, reprinted with permission.
Both serving with Operation Mobilisation (OM), Rebecca and Renette met while housesitting for a colleague. Over many cups of coffee, they realised that they face similar challenges and have a similar world view and should be friends. Coming from cold Canada and hot South Africa, they have enjoyed visiting six countries together and have learnt that you should always travel with chocolate, coffee and wet wipes.
Rebecca is a photojournalist for OM International and Renette is the Marketing Services Manager for OM in Africa.