As a young twenty-three-year-old, I had so many preconceived notions about how life in cross-cultural service should look. I left for my first two-year assignment with newly coiffed, permed hair, a pressed linen blouse, modest skirt, and two hard (and heavy) Samsonite suitcases. Why I thought I would easily fit in upon arrival to my West African destination is hard to conceive.
I think my first meeting with reality came the day I pulled a load of laundry from my French washing machine. My beautiful linen blouse was now more of a tie-dyed, shrunken piece of fabric. Within the first couple of months, a trip to the local hairdresser left me with lice and no curls. No quick call to Mom for laundry and other advice in those days. I was on my own and missing home.
I made many mistakes during those first two years, but I learned a lot about myself and how God viewed my desire to serve him in missions. Thankfully, I was able to take some of those lessons with me when I later traveled with my husband to serve in the Middle East and North Africa. My desire by this time in my life was to settle. After all, I was newly married, thinking of children, and wanting to make a home. Again, God had other plans, and though he blessed us with two sons, we ended up moving to six different countries over the next twenty years—not all of them on our schedule.
The longer we served, the more the Lord taught me about how to find home wherever we were, including during furloughs and a final return to the States. If you’ve struggled to be at home in your place of service or are looking toward service and want to be better prepared, here are five ideas that could help.
1. Know yourself.
Recognize your natural giftings, personality traits, and even weaknesses. Ask questions about how each of these will be affected by the stresses of cross-cultural service. Be sure of your spiritual foundation in Christ. When we are outside of our comfort zone, Satan loves to throw darts at our vulnerability and shake our faith. What can you do now to prepare for inevitable attacks?
2. Remember that you do not serve in isolation.
We all need others in service. That’s the foundational nature of the Body of Christ, and it carries through to any ministry in which we serve. Take the time to recognize and acknowledge your need for people, from your family, home fellowship, and larger Christian community, in support of, not just your ministry, but you. Be willing to let them hold you accountable and help you through times of struggle.
3. Get to know your people group.
Not only will stronger relationships with your home support groups help to mitigate your longing for home, but coming alongside the people you serve and with whom you serve will also build a greater sense of home in your new land.
4. Establish boundaries.
Understanding yourself and building these relationships will do wonders for helping to stave off the homesickness that can so easily distract us in service. These are the foundations in finding home, but there are also some boundaries we need to have as part of these relationships.
When we have misguided ideas about contextualization, we can sometimes lose balance in our life. We can also find ourselves growing bitter about where we live and the people we serve when we fail to set limits in relationships and keep a healthy distance. It’s not easy, and I’m not a great example by any means, but I have learned from past mistakes.
Nothing can suck the joy out of service more than sheer exhaustion because we don’t allow for personal space in our relationships. Once the joy fades, the longing for home increases and many will leave the field.
5. Schedule time for maintenance.
Just as home appliances require regular maintenance and repair, being at home wherever we serve means we have to maintain our spiritual, mental, and physical health. How are you doing spiritually? How’s your walk with the Lord? Have you talked to him about what you’re feeling? I encourage you to start with him and make sure you’re keeping your slate clean and remaining spiritually disciplined.
Life is full of changes, and the same goes for Christian service. Our feelings about home can shift when children start school or go off for college. Aging parents, sudden illness, or a forced evacuation can set off the homesickness bug for your native country and sometimes for your previous place of service. By God’s grace, we can learn to handle such changes and continue to be at rest right where we are.
When your world is shaken, and Jesus seems to have disappeared—wait. Wait and ask the Holy Spirit to come and fill your home-shaped heart with his peace and contentment, no matter the circumstances. Jesus is the one who keeps us centered with whatever life throws our way. May you find your home in him.
With thirty-plus years in missions, Carol Ghattas has made her home in over six countries and among a wide variety of peoples. She’s also had to rediscover what home looks like after returning from the field to her native land. A writer and speaker on missions, Islam, and other topics, Carol maintains an active blog site, lifeinexile.net. Her newest book, Not in Kansas Anymore: Finding Home in Cross-Cultural Service, is now available through online book distributors in e-book and paperback format.