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.

~~~~~~~~~

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.

Questions for Jesus about Re-entry

by Anna Brotherson

Jesus,

Did you ever wake up in the morning and forget, for a second, where you were?

Did you ever get a thrill down the back of your spine when you realised you’d actually done it — actually come to earth and lived among us?

Does it all feel like a dream to you now?

Do you ever imagine the life you didn’t choose — the one where you didn’t come to us?

And if you do imagine it, how do you feel? Are you glad you chose Earth?

And now, Lord — do you miss it?

Do you remember the first time you ate warm bread dipped in olive oil?

Do you miss the feeling of sand between your toes?
(Have you made plans for sand in the place you’re preparing?)

Do hot tears run down your cheeks when you remember the ones you loved, who are no longer with you?

Is there anything there that reminds you of here?

Does anyone there talk about here?

Is there anyone there who has felt anything like what you have, who has experienced here like you have?

Does anyone there feel like you feel when the topic of first-century Judea comes up?

Did you know it would feel like this, after all had been done?

Do you miss it?

Despite the pain, despite the cost and the loss, the dirt and the sin — do you miss it in any way?

Do you have a few bits & pieces up there to remind you of it?

Do you wish you had more?

Or, are you able to just look ahead — look to the day when all the best of it is back — the bread, the sand, the warm hand of a friend on your shoulder, the affectionate hospitality of women, the laughter of children, the breeze, the birds, the splash of water on your face?

Are you busy rebuilding all that now? Does it take your mind off the loss?
(Is that what I’m supposed to do now?)

Were you, like me, relieved and yet desperately sad to leave, that day when you went “home”?

Does home feel like home to you now?
(It doesn’t, for me.)

Now that you’ve been here with us, eaten with us, touched us, loved us — can you bear the wait until we’re together again?
(I’m not sure I can.)

Would you do it all again?
(I would, in an instant.)

Was it worth it?

~~~~~~~~~~

Originally from Tasmania, Australia, Anna spent nine years living and working in a big city in Southeast Asia, along with her husband Derek and their three children. In early 2020 they moved to Sydney, Australia, where Anna spends her days taking care of her family, teaching Biblical Greek at Sydney Missionary & Bible College, and helping women as a childbirth doula. Anna is the author of Lewis’s Interesting Life, a picture book for TCKs.

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

You’ve been back in this country for a little less than three months and you’re just wrapping up another talk at one of your sponsoring churches. People walk up to you after the service and shake your hand to welcome you back. “You must be so happy to be home!” they proclaim with earnest and hope-filled eyes as they insert words into your mouth before you can even open it in protest.

Wait, protest? Protest and say what? How do you say all that you need to say while standing awkwardly up against the wall in the narthex five minutes following the service? No, that’s not going to happen. The truth is that deep down, you know that now is not the time for such conversation, and so you force the edges of your mouth upwards and nod in agreement as they continue to rain down accolades on you for a “job well done” and tell you how relieved and proud you must feel now that it’s over.

But what if it doesn’t feel like a job well done? What if you never got to see much of what you expected and hoped and prayed to see? What if you came back a little sooner than you were planning? What if the PowerPoint slides full of pictures from your last seven years don’t tell the whole story? What if instead of relief there is pain, and instead of pride there is shame? What if instead of joy there is anger, and instead of lightness in your heart there is a heaviness that is just too hard to explain?

I’ve been back in my passport country for six months now and this is my story, and unfortunately, I know that I’m not alone. Missionaries come back for many reasons other than a “successful mission completed,” and all too often, those stories never see the light of day in the wider church community. There is fear of being looked at like a failure, fear of not being tough enough, holy enough, dedicated enough. There is a fear of being misunderstood or labeled as “not a team player” or overly dramatic or charismatic or alarmist. There is guilt about those left behind and all the work that was unfinished. Also, there are just some things that can’t be talked about very easily in front of a crowded congregation, so they never get talked about at all.

And because they are never talked about, the church at large keeps on moving forward, thinking that their returned missionaries are ok, even when they aren’t. But we as a church can’t be ok with this. If we are going to put so much time and effort into sending missionaries well,  we need to do the same when it comes to receiving them well when they come back.

And so, for all the missionaries who are afraid or unable to speak up, I’m laying it all out for anyone who wants to hear because I know all too well how easy it is to keep quiet even when your insides are screaming out, looking for a soft place to land.

If you’re a sending church, here’s just a sampling of some of the things your returned missionary might be dealing with that they probably aren’t exactly comfortable sharing from a pulpit:

  • Doubt. While there is definitely more openness in our Christian culture these days for people to express and explore their doubts related to faith and God, I’m not sure the same can be said for those in full-time ministries such as pastors and missionaries. How would it look when your missionary comes home and writes a blog or does a sermon on all the ways they doubt God and the way He is working in their ministry? How are donors going to respond to that?
  • Culture. While they may fill their newsletters and PowerPoints up with pictures of colorful dresses, tropical fruits, and exotic-looking cities and creatures that make the culture look beautiful and inviting, there are probably aspects of the culture that wear on them more than they say. Perhaps the way women or children are treated day in and day out has worn down your missionary’s spirits. Perhaps a lack of privacy or a culture of secrecy and corruption has exhausted them to their core. Culture shock isn’t just for the first couple of months or years; it can grate on you 5, 10, 15 years into your life abroad and cause continual cycles of shock and pain, which can add up significantly over time.
  • Trauma. 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.
  • Physical Sickness. When you become a missionary and you say yes to living abroad, you know that there will be many sacrifices, your health being one of them. Unfortunately, sometimes injuries, illness, or even just general climates abroad can do irreparable damage to your body, and you are left with the choice of using unreliable health care abroad, which could lead to more serious or more permanent damage, or returning back to your passport country for higher-quality treatment. Some sicknesses can’t be easily seen just by looking at a person in a church service, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.
  • Spiritual Abuse. Spiritual abuse can take on many forms, but it often looks like someone in authority using scripture or beliefs to embarrass or humiliate, pressure, or obligate, coerce or control the behavior or words of someone else. This spiritual abuse can come from teammates, board members, sending churches, or even partnering churches on the ground, and oftentimes when victims try to speak up or question what is going on, they are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or made to think that they are actually the ones with the spiritual problem, not the abuser. I’ve heard this story of spiritual abuse on the mission field far too often, and I hope it’s something more people start asking about, writing about, and calling out because missionaries can’t end this culture of abuse on their own.
  • Loneliness. Guess what? You can still experience loneliness even when you are married, even when you have a whole flock of kids around you. Why? Because we were made for relationships beyond just our spouses and our families. Loneliness is associated with increased chances of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death. But can missionaries really tell their congregation they came home because they were lonely? What if that loneliness continues or gets worse even after you are back as no one can quite understand what you’ve experienced?
  • Marriage Stress. This is one you’ll probably never hear a missionary admit to in their blogs or from the pulpit, but it’s one that I can almost guarantee you that your missionary couple is undergoing if they’ve been living abroad for anything more than a month. Moving abroad is hard for individuals, but for married couples, it sometimes also means adjusting to a whole new dynamic, particularly if one spouse who used to be working is now staying at home full time or if the cultural gender role expectations of your host country are the complete opposite of what you’ve been practicing.
  • Children’s Health. You might hear missionaries talk about how their children’s health has been affected by the move abroad as they ask for prayers in their monthly updates. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about them than it is about yourself and your own struggles. However, if the reason a family moved home was for a child’s physical or mental well-being, you might not hear that mentioned at all because parents might not want that child to feel a burden of guilt or shame for being one of the reasons their parents left the mission field earlier than planned.
  • Hidden Sin. Missionaries struggle with sin, just like everyone else. And while they may have been good at keeping that sin hidden from their spouse or their mission board for a very long time, the mission field has a way of bringing those things to light. A missionary and his/her family might make the decision to leave the field in order to seek help and healing for that sin, or a missionary might be asked to go home by their board without having a say in the matter.
  • Finances. Finances, or lack thereof, are another big reason missionaries come back home, though they might not ever talk about it because of the level of shame they could be experiencing from it. Why didn’t the church give more? Why didn’t God provide for us when he provided for those other workers? Were we not worth it? Was the mission not valuable enough? Did we mishear our calling? Did we disappoint God? Sometimes God uses a lack of finances to bring people home, not because the mission and the missionaries weren’t effective, but because He has His own other reasons for wanting them home. Still, finances can be hard to talk about.
  • False Accusations. Depending on the country your missionary lived in, they might have been dealing with some false accusations from the community that in the end became too much to handle. Foreigners can be an easy target for communities to blame when something goes wrong, and their lives may easily become at risk. Also, in very corrupt societies, foreigners are seen as a great source from which to try and extract extra funds. The relentless requests for bribes, threats of going to jail, or unwarranted searches can really wear an individual down.
  • Spiritual Warfare. While spiritual warfare is something that some church denominations may be comfortable talking about in the pews on Sunday, for many churches in the West this is just one of those weird things that the Bible talks about, but that we don’t really understand or want to discuss. Many areas where missionaries serve are full of overt spiritual warfare, demonic worship, and wickedness beyond what many of us can fathom, and this can take a toll on the soul that is hard to articulate or share with friends, let alone strangers. Missionaries know that God is protecting them and providing for them in these situations, though sometimes coming home is still where God is leading them. But will others really understand?
  • Teammate Conflict. Like it or not, this is one of the most common reasons missionaries come home, but you probably won’t ever hear them talk about it. To leave a mission field early because of personal conflict or differences with teammates, may seem trivial to some, but when you are continually in an environment where you feel unheard, disrespected, undervalued, silenced, or diminished this is not only damaging and degrading to you as an individual, it can also be confusing and disorienting to the community seeing this play out. Some missionaries are sent by and return to churches or organizations that still have people on the ground there, so how do you open up about that with your congregation? How do you mention or get help without going into details about those people or making it sound like you are just being petty or immature?
  • Burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Missionary fields are environments of prolonged stress. Sometimes burnout looks like a mental breakdown, sometimes it looks like anxiety, sometimes it looks like depression, and sometimes it looks like an internal hollowness that cannot be measured. Whatever it looks like, sometimes your missionary might not even be able to realize it or acknowledge it until they are on the other end of it. And even if they do recognize it, they probably aren’t speaking about it to the congregation on Sunday morning.

Are these all the untold stories of our returned missionaries? Definitely not. But hopefully, this list can get the church started thinking about how we can better receive and support missionaries once their time abroad has come to a close, no matter the reason they find themselves back on this side of the world. Just because a missionary leaves the field doesn’t mean they leave their struggles and pains there. Some of these hidden pains and stories know no borders. As senders, it is our responsibility to care for our missionaries long after they come back from the field, to listen closely to the stories that they choose to share, and to pray for ways to support them even in the stories that they choose to keep close to their hearts for now.

 

Dear Re-entry

by Katherine

Dear Reverse Culture Shock,

I have not enjoyed spending time with you. You are a sneaky thief. Beyond that, your identity is ambiguous. You have made moving back to my passport country horrible.

I’m never sure whether I should call you Reverse Culture Shock or Re-entry. And if Re-entry, how do I spell it? People can’t agree if it’s Re-entry or Reentry.

Even though I have had many dealings with you, I still don’t know what to call you. That says something about your nature. You’re elusive, invisible. 

I wish you were more like your brother Culture Shock. Although also unpleasant, I appreciate that he is obnoxious. Like you, he steals, but in a more obvious way.

Or why can’t you be like your namesake Spacecraft Re-entry? He is loud. Everyone knows he is the most dangerous part of a space journey. Getting back into Earth’s atmosphere is a vulnerable time, and it can be disastrous if is not done carefully.

You are not obvious or loud; you hide away like an afterthought, silently stealing from me.

You stole my house, my job, my friends — lots of tangible things like that but also my skills and identity. You turned me into an incompetent invisible immigrant. On the outside, I look like a normal Australian, but I don’t know how to do anything. At least in Asia, my white skin announces that I will need help talking or eating.

You stole my ability to do things people expect me to be capable of doing. I look like everyone else, so drivers assume I will know how to cross the road. People in the supermarket expect me to be able to buy a box of breakfast cereal.

You stole my ability to do things I expect myself to be capable of doing. I’ve lived here before, so I assume I know how to do all those simple things. Like feed myself and take part in conversations. Like buy and wear shoes after wearing flip-flops for many years.

You stole my ability to be settled in like people seem to expect. “Have you settled in yet?” It sounds like a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But it sometimes sounds like, “You should feel settled now that you have been back for almost a year.”

You stole my ability to sleep as much as I need. Every little thing takes so much more effort, so I’m extra tired. But the bed is too soft, there is no hugging pillow, and it’s so cold I need to use a blanket. I even need to relearn how to sleep.

You stole my ability to have fun and relax. In a new environment, my hobbies and habits that kept me sane can’t happen. So not only do you create extra stress and work for me, but you also take away my ways to cope with stress. 

You stole my ability to understand that I’m in pain. Until I met you, I felt like I was at home, but you took that and replaced it with sadness too big see. Homelessness is the air I’m breathing, but I can’t see that air.

It feels like confusion and helplessness. 

It feels like a problem I need to fix as soon as possible. 

It feels like if I only relearn how to live in Australia, I will be able to function as a normal person.

You make those feelings so overwhelming that I can’t see what is really going on. And if I can’t understand I’m in pain, how can I start processing it? You can’t heal from something unless you know it’s there. In fact, sometimes the simple act of naming emotions is healing, but you stole even that. 

It’s going to end up pushed aside, out of sight, out of mind. Like a bacteria in the permafrost, it will end up frozen and inactive. The unnamed and unacknowledged pain could stay dormant until the next heat wave. When the permafrost melts, the bacteria can start causing destruction again. Not only did you create loss, but you also stole the ability to cope with it. 

I can’t blame you entirely – pain in general is hard to deal with. We prefer to find the silver linings and write gratitude lists. Even people in visible pain are sometimes met with, “At least it’s not as bad as it could be.” 

Perhaps it is hard to see another’s pain, especially if we haven’t processed our own. Or perhaps because it is uncomfortable to see someone in pain ,we try to sweep it away. It’s more convenient to say some “comforting words” than listen to another person scream and cry for five hours. 

So Reentry, my inability to process pain is not all your fault. But if you weren’t so invisible, there would be more chance of acknowledgment. That might not sound like much, but it actually goes a long way. In fact, you can’t get anywhere without it. 

But you stole my ability to do almost everything, including explaining to people that I don’t know how to do anything.  If only I could wear “Learners” plates everywhere so people would know. 

This letter is too short to tell you all the reasons I’m not fond of you. But I hope it gives you a glimpse of some of what you have done to me. 

This letter has no power to stop you from silently stealing from me and your other victims. But what I hope this letter can do is to bring you out of hiding. If you were visible, your victims would have more chance to give their pain space to breathe.

Painfully yours,
Katherine

~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. She wrote this letter as a response to two years of re-entry and reverse culture shock in 2011 and 2012.

Return to Life

The 2000 film Return to Me is a family favorite. The movie features Bob and Elizabeth, who have been together since high school and who are still very much in love. One tragic night Elizabeth, who was an organ donor, is killed in a car accident. We watch as doctors transfer her heart to Grace, a woman who’s needed a new heart for a long time.

Grace goes nervously into surgery, hopeful for a new life. Bob, blood still on his clothes, goes home to an empty house. It’s an agonizing scene.

Months later, Grace has recovered from surgery. Bob, meanwhile, is having trouble living without Elizabeth and has buried himself in his work. Friends continually try to set him up with other girls, but Bob wants nothing to do with anyone new. He can’t get over the loss of Elizabeth. Then one night during one of these blind dates, Bob meets Grace at the family restaurant where she works. Sparks immediately start flying.

In the following weeks and months, Bob’s heart opens up to new love. But Grace is guarding a secret. Although she doesn’t know that Bob’s wife’s heart beats inside her chest, for some reason she can’t bring herself to tell Bob she’s had a heart transplant. Eventually the two of them figure this fact out, and the revelation is traumatic for both of them. Bob disappears; Grace flies to Italy to paint.

While Grace is gone, Bob realizes he loves her and can’t live without her. He looks for her at the restaurant only to find that she’s gone. He acknowledges, “I miss Elizabeth. I’ll always miss her.” Still, he’s ready to embrace a new life with Grace. He goes in search of her, and their reunion is sweet. The audience can see them building a future together.

One year after having traumatically evacuated Cambodia, I think I understand a little of what Bob meant in his restaurant confession. We left Cambodia in March, just as the pandemic began closing borders. We were relieved to have made it to U.S. soil, and for several weeks we assumed we’d be able to easily re-enter Cambodia in the fall as planned. But by May our visa and passport plans began unraveling, and by June, life as we knew it in Cambodia was over.

I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

2020 became one long grieving session. This might sound strange if you knew me in the early 2000’s when Jonathan felt called to missions and I didn’t. You might remember how I fought the call for so long. But now I felt like Mr. Holland from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which aspiring composer Mr. Holland longed for fame and renown, but instead ended up teaching music to high school students. At the end of his career, when budget cuts forced him to retire early, he observed, “It’s almost funny. I got dragged into this gig kicking and screaming, and now it’s the only thing I want to do.”

Like Mr. Holland, I didn’t initially want to move to Cambodia, but once I got there, I found a life I loved. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye — but covid said differently. For weeks, I woke up crying. Opening my eyes each morning was a painful reminder of where in the world I wasn’t. In Cambodia I had a strong support system. I lived every day with a sense of meaning and purpose. I had a place in the community and rituals and routines that brought structure to our chaotic cross-cultural life. We had raised our children there, and Cambodia was all they knew.

It was a difficult life, sure, but it was also an exceedingly good one. And I wasn’t sure I would ever stop crying over this loss. I lived in the “if onlys.” If only we didn’t have passport problems. If only we didn’t have visa problems. If only covid hadn’t happened. If only, if only, if only. I thought if I could just get back to Cambodia, I could recapture all my former happiness. In reality, even if I could have returned, I couldn’t have recaptured my old life. Covid made that impossible for seven billion of us.

Then one day my near-constant crying stopped. I thought I had accepted my new circumstances. And I do believe I had accepted that I couldn’t get my old life back. But reflecting now, I realize that I struggled deeply throughout the fall and winter. I had said goodbye to my old life — though not in person and not on purpose. But I still didn’t know exactly what my new life would look like, so it was hard to root myself here. Everything seemed bleak. I didn’t think I could ever be happy again.

We were looking for a home at the time. We knew we had to be out of our temporary housing by the end of December. After several housing disappointments (a story for another time), I began to fear becoming homeless (emotions may exaggerate facts, but the intensity of the feelings are real). We didn’t have a church home yet because of covid, so I didn’t have local community to help me through this transition. I knew I couldn’t get my old life back, but I still desperately missed it.

Finally, finally, we found a home that fit our family that was also in our price range. We signed the papers mid-December, which was a bit closer to the deadline than we would have preferred. Still, we were thrilled to have a place of our own. I had no idea it would be such an important milestone in our repatriation process.

We’ve been in our new home for three months now. It fits all six of us so perfectly. I live in the daily disbelief that we could have found such a fantastic place for our family to live. We are making it our own, slowly writing our name in the land. Jonathan is tending the lawn. Pictures are hanging on the walls. We have rituals and routines, and I’m slowly re-building a support system. Living in our home has helped get me “unstuck” from the grief and helped me to move forward. It has given me a glimpse of what the next season of life might look like.

Cambodia is still a natural part of our conversations, and we frequently talk about our old life. The six of us have so many shared memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. Occasionally I even long for life in Southeast Asia. But I no longer think I can’t live without Cambodia, that life simply cannot go on without Cambodia. I’m beginning to understand what life can look like here on the other side of the ocean. I feel like Bob, who knew that he would always miss his old life, but who now knew that he could also live a new life with Grace.

My old life and my new life, side by side

I Never Thought I Would Miss the Spiders

Earlier this year, my kids and I were still in Tanzania, and while driving home, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand. 

I asked for a huge bunch of bananas, handed the seller my money, and she passed the bananas through the window to my pre-teen son, sitting in the passenger seat. This was routine; we did it several times a week.

I pulled back onto the street and had driven just a few yards when I heard my son give a horrified yell. Alarmed, I looked over and saw an enormous spider, about the size of a silver dollar, crawling on top of the bananas in his lap. The yell turned into a guttural yelping, as my son stood up, dropped the bananas on the seat and proceeded to clamber over all of the seats and into the trunk of our minivan. 

Meanwhile, I was still driving, and meanwhile, the spider was also running for his life in my direction, so I joined in with the cacophony of noise in the car. The spider then decided that hiding underneath my seat was a safe place to get away from all the screaming. 

I gathered my wits about me and considered my options. I could pull over, but would I really successfully manage to find and destroy the spider while on the side of the road? Or I could drive home and pray that he decided to stay put until I got there. 

I chose to keep driving, tense as a turkey in November, while imagining a giant spider crawling up my leg. Thankfully he did not, and when we got home, I relieved my tension by emptying a can of bug spray under my seat. 

Last week, I was in the grocery store in my new home in California, and I picked up a bunch of perfect, spotlessly yellow, pristine bananas and plopped them into my shopping cart. 

Comparatively, it was a very boring experience.

After 16 years overseas, I’ve lived back in the States for several months now, and what I miss about Tanzania isn’t entirely what I expected. 

America is so convenient. I get a thrill going to the grocery store, and not just because the bananas are spider-free. If the recipe calls for pepperoncinis, guess what? I can buy pepperoncinis! If I have a hankering for chive and onion cream cheese or tzatziki Triscuits or Apple Cinnamon Oat Crunch Cheerios, there they are, just like that! In Tanzania, I would have actual dreams about American grocery stores–not just daydreams. And yet, convenience can quickly turn into monotony when there are never any surprises.

I miss how excited I used to get when I would find Root Beer on the shelves of my grocery store in Tanzania. Or that time I called my best friends to tell them to get down here really quick because there’s a bin of dried cranberries for sale! Sure, cooking here is much easier, but I’m also not as motivated to cook when everything is pre-made. I love how Tanzania pushed me to develop skills I didn’t realize I had. I love how it taught me to be grateful for small things. 

In America, the garage doors open by themselves. The dishes wash themselves and the clothes dry themselves. The electricity never goes off and the water is always hot coming out of the tap. 

But yet, there were many evenings in Tanzania when I would stand barefoot in my backyard, pulling clothes off the line. The palm trees would rustle, the heavy air smelled of the ocean, and the crickets would rhythmically trill. The dryer I now have in my garage is a lot easier, but it just doesn’t carry the same magic. 

America is comfortable. With a flip of a switch I can regulate the temperature. Almost everyone around me wears the same clothes and speaks the same language and shops at the same stores. All the streets are paved and everyone follows the rules on the roads. The sameness is comforting and predictable and stress-free. But it’s also not always interesting. 

In Tanzania I struggled through diverse relationships, where my co-workers saw life very differently than I did. It was sometimes stressful, but it opened my eyes to a broader perspective of the world. I often grumpily complained about poor internet or crazy drivers or constant humidity, but the discomfort toughened me. It made me stronger, more resilient, more flexible. It helped me find my satisfaction in God. I miss that.

I feel safer in America. My white skin does not make me stand out, so I can walk along the streets at dusk and not worry about getting my phone stolen. I never worry about men breaking into my house with machetes. I sleep better. 

And yet, I take my safety for granted here. I don’t pray about it as often; I don’t often call to mind my true Prince of Peace. In the realm of the sovereignty of God, I’m not any safer in America than I was in Tanzania. I just have a misplaced trust in my government to keep me safe. 

I knew I would miss the relationships, the beauty, the culture, and our fulfilling ministry in Tanzania. But I find it interesting that I also miss the very things that I was most looking forward to leaving behind. Like jagged glass that is slowly smoothed by the pounding waves, those things that grated on me, frustrated me, compelled me to browse the internet for cheap plane tickets–those things formed who I am. They made me a different person than if I had spent my whole life in America. I wouldn’t want to change that. 

For many years, if you had asked me what I would not miss about Tanzania, I would have assured you that spiders fit into that category. Now, I’m not so sure. After all, without them I would have always thought that buying bananas was boring. 

Leaving Early Has Complicated All the Complicated Emotions of Re-Entry

Haven of Peace Academy, overlooking the Indian Ocean

My youngest has been fascinated with finding places on Google Earth. He recently brought me the iPad and said, “Mommy, help me find HOPAC.” 

My son is in third grade, and Haven of Peace Academy is where he went to school for kindergarten through second grade. But even before that, HOPAC was always a part of his life. It’s where my husband and I ministered for sixteen years. The last three years, it was where I was the elementary school principal. 

I showed him how to type in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “Here’s downtown, right?” I pointed out. I traced the main road that led to the north of the city. “This is Shoppers Plaza; that’s where we would buy chicken on Saturday nights; this is the White Sands roundabout. Then you turn right here, and see? There’s HOPAC!” 

Together we then traced the road down a little further until we could pick out the house where we had lived for ten years. We zoomed in on it, and a hundred memories rushed out. My eyes grew misty. My finger stopped, hovering there, suspended above our home. Ten thousand miles away, yet so close I could almost touch it.

“I like my new school,” Johnny tells me. “But I like Tanzania better.” Me too, Buddy.

***

I knew there would be grief in leaving. We had planned our departure a year in advance; we knew it was coming. We knew it would be hard. Tanzania had been our home for sixteen years.

But what I can’t figure out is what part of my grief is because we left, and what part of my grief is because we left the way we did. 

***

In July, we found ourselves needing to furnish our new apartment in California. We had very few possessions to our name, which meant we were looking to buy just about everything. Thrift stores, OfferUp, and garage sales became our new pastime. But our favorite were estate sales. There was something particularly thrilling about walking through an entire house, picking out the things we needed. 

Yet I couldn’t help but think about the strangeness of estate sales, this sifting through what felt like the entirety of someone’s life. “It must be so hard for the person that lived here,” I said to my husband, “knowing that strangers are haggling over everything they owned. It’s good that they can hire a company to sell all of this for them, and don’t have to watch it happen.”

And then it struck me: We had that exact scenario happen to us. But we did watch it happen. 

On March 20th, I had come home from my last time at HOPAC to find strangers in my house, opening my cabinets and looking for things to buy. We had been told to buy plane tickets at 1 am the night before, scheduled to leave because of COVID just four days later. Word traveled quickly, and eager buyers wanted to get a head start on the things we were selling. My husband had allowed them in, assuming I had sent them. I freaked out. “Get these people out of my house now!” I hissed. 

The next three days were a frantic whirlwind of sorting, packing, and selling. I sold the dishes out from under the children and the kitchen containers still filled with flour and sugar. We never did get rid of everything, leaving the house with a friend to finish sorting the chaos we had left behind.

At the last minute, I gave away all of my kids’ baby things that I had been carefully saving, taking pictures of them instead. I didn’t have time to overthink whether or not that was the right decision. Recently it occurred to me that I never took my curtains down. I don’t know why that bothers me; it’s not like they were amazing curtains. But I had looked at them every day for over a decade, so it’s strange not knowing what happened to them. 

The night before we left, I was in a tizzy at midnight, trying to find my only pair of closed-toed shoes, which I intended to wear while traveling. I tore the place apart, frantically looking for them. I finally found them outside in a garbage bag; someone had inadvertently thrown them out. I was relieved to find them, but nagged by the worry of what else had been accidentally thrown away.

When my husband’s birthday came around in August, I realized that our traditional birthday banner must have been sold accidentally. I mourned over that birthday banner, and then felt stupid for caring about something so silly. But even now, I get stress-filled nightmares where I’m trying to pack. And there’s never enough time. 

So I guess you could say we experienced our own estate sale. And yeah, it was strange. Traumatic, even. 

***

I keep thinking that I’m over the worst of the grief. We have so, so many good days right now. But then there’s a trigger.

Friends from Tanzania came to visit us last week. It did our soul good to see them. They brought us some things we had left behind:  Yearbooks, certificates from teachers, the name sign from my office door. Special things.

 The flood of memories, again.

I found myself awake at 2 am, tears rolling down my cheeks. Again. I pounded my fist on God’s chest crying, “This is not the story I wanted!” I did not want to leave that way. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. How desperately I wish I could go back and re-write that story.

I can see God’s hand in it, of course. I can see how leaving early was the impetus for my husband getting the job he has now. That might not have happened if we had left in July like we planned. But sometimes, it doesn’t matter; I’m still just sad. It’s good, I guess, that the human heart is capable of holding both sadness and gratitude at the same time.

***

HOPAC started their first day of school at the end of August. I greedily stared at the pictures posted in the parent WhatsApp groups, craving glimpses of my students. A few days later, I reluctantly left the groups, knowing I needed to let go. 

I know how this works. I was the Stayer for many years, so I’ve watched many people leave. I know that it’s hard to be a Stayer and say good-bye, but that life goes on pretty quickly without the Leavers. It has to. So many leave in an expat community, every year, that you can’t sit and stew about it for very long. So now that I am the Leaver, I want to move forward, and to let the Stayers move on. 

Except, I didn’t get to hug those kids goodbye. “Moving on” feels like running in soggy sand when you didn’t get to finish well. There are loose ends dangling all over the place.

***

Whether I like it or not, the earth turns, the sun still rises and sets, the seasons shift. Each day pulls me farther away from that life, pulls me deeper into this new one. I can grieve it and yearn for it and wish that it didn’t end that way, but life continues to go on. 

Time is a healer, and that is a gift. Almost imperceptibly, the scars become a part of who I am. One day, some time from now, I will look back and not want to change the story. I’ve lived enough years to know that truth.

The Pink Bike

by Rebecca Hopkins

In April of last year, I moved away from Indonesia—my home of 14 years—and sold almost everything. And so, in June, someone gave me a pink bike.

I’m not exactly sure who. My aunt and uncle did the very loving thing of collecting used and new items from their friends to restock a home we didn’t yet have for a life of whose shape we weren’t sure.

I’m pretty sure they mentioned the giver’s name. But the problem was, there were so many names and gifts, and I was disoriented from all the changes that the gifts were still hard to take in. I’d traded one set of overwhelm for another.

On the first truly warm week of summer in Colorado Springs, I pulled the pink bike out of the garage of my parents’ house where we were staying. It took some adjusting to get the seat the right height and to figure out the gears. I had to remind myself that traffic flows on the right side of the road in America. But soon enough, I was moving and the wind was flipping my pony tail and my legs pushed strong.

And then, as I rounded the corner, I realized I hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years.

The last time I’d ridden was when I was pregnant with my first child, living on a tiny island in Indonesia where my husband worked as a humanitarian pilot for a nonprofit organization. I remember trying to convince myself that the tropical heat, terrible bouts of morning sickness, rough roads, crazy motorbike traffic and neighborhood harasser weren’t adequate reasons to stop riding for a time. But my new motherly instinct won out over my normal risk-taking personality.

I didn’t give up jogging or writing or teaching English to neighborhood kids. But for reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t really ride much once I gave birth. And one day—three kids into motherhood—someone stopped by my house and asked if he could buy my now rusty bike. Without thinking much of it, I said yes.

Life filled with kids and culture and small airplanes and jungle adventures and serving and I didn’t really miss the bike. The next time I touched one, I was holding the back of my son’s bike, holding it steady, urging him to pedal, telling him to be brave.

It broke all our hearts to sell my kids’ childhood bikes that last week in Indonesia. The two small crates we were allotted filled up fast. We had a million choices to make, and the bikes just didn’t make the cut.

They’re just bikes, I told myself, while holding my son, watching someone leave our yard with his bike. It’s just a dollhouse. It’s just their baby clothes. It’s just their school table. It’s just a cat.

It’s just a house we’ve loved and a life we’ve built and friends we adore and the only country my kids have called home.

When I learned my uncle had found bikes for my kids, that knowledge kept me going through all the decisions we had to make. I guarded the news from my kids like a state secret so that we could all watch their excited faces at the unveiling once we got to the States. I hadn’t known, though, about the bikes he’d found for my husband and me. But when I saw all five of them lined up, I could see, for the first time, the building blocks of a new adventure.

Getting back on a bike several weeks after our arrival in Colorado was… like riding a bike…except…when it was harder than that. The angles on the roads felt too sharp, my agility less than I remembered it, the air too dry and thin. And when I needed to stop, I couldn’t seem to both jump off the seat and keep my feet from becoming entangled on various bike parts. I dumped it a couple of times, both times while others were watching.  I brushed the dirt off my hands, put on a smile and waved. “I’m OK. Just fine.”

“You always have a lot of energy to move forward,” my sister recently told me. “You’re good at it.”

She has a way of mirroring back who I am in a kind, affirming way.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole nomadic life honing what is probably also a natural part of my personality.  I can keep my eyes on my next step, look for the good in people and places, find ways to connect and put energy into building…building relationships, building a home, building a life. I’ve developed what may seem like a conflicted relationship with putting down roots and uprooting. I’m a wanderer and nomad at heart who intentionally grows roots wherever I land.

I’ve read much about “third culture kids,” this category of highly mobile people who’ve moved in and out of countries and cultures in their childhood. As an Army kid, I was one. Now I raise them. These past few years, I’ve been listening to what others are teaching about them, what I’ve experienced and what my kids are saying.

For all the beauty that a third culture kid lifestyle brings (understanding of and appreciation of a broader world, ability to adapt, a near-absence of prejudices, foreign language aptitude), these kids (and later, adults) know so well the world of loss. Sometimes the losses feel real and present, like loss of bikes and houses and friends and pets. Sometimes the losses are hidden and ambiguous loss, the unseen, hard-to-put-into-words losses such as dreams, confidence, identity and belonging.

For me, it’s actually easier to keep moving, keep building, keep Pollyanna-ing my way through hard things than to stop and grieve. Both taking the necessary time to mourn and also putting energy into moving forward can feel like a balancing act.

In late summer, I joined my dad on a bike ride on Cottonwood Trail at sunrise.  He’s so much better at biking in mile-high altitude than I am. I followed behind his smooth, quick pedaling with my own pumping heart loud in my ears. Soon, I had to shed my sweatshirt, and I stuck it in my backpack with my water and phone. I was still carrying so much else, too. All that was now missing from my life felt heavy. In so many ways, it felt hard to breathe.

“Watch the corners,” Dad coached. “Sometimes there are pedestrians out here, too. Also, be careful of sand.”

The ride was hard and tiring, but also freeing and empowering. And I soon found my own rhythm between pushing myself and pacing myself.

I found a way, too, to both keep my eyes mostly on the trail and also notice the beauty around me. Everything was pink—sky, mountains, rocks, my cheeks. And my bike.

Maybe I was starting to fit here. Maybe, too, I was finding my way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

I Got a Job

by Rachel K. Zimmerman

I got a job. This is a big deal. Is this the step that means I have reintegrated (in some fashion) back into my home culture? I don’t know. But I do know that this job seems like a really good fit for me and my priorities post ‘mission field’ (i.e. greater flexibility, lower stress, benefits, etc). I will have actual American benefits — 401k, medical insurance, the whole shebang. 

Why am I so excited, you ask?

Well I wasn’t at all excited about getting a job when I moved back from overseas. I pretty much hated a lot of things about my home culture, mainly because I was grieving the many losses during my life overseas and the loss of my life overseas (i.e. living in Haiti). 

I knew I needed a break when I returned, so I took a sabbatical and interned with a missionary care organization. During this time (more than 6 months), I gradually redefined my faith, reintegrated my values, and remade my life in a way that fit me, my home culture, and the country where I served.

I lived minimally, thanks to the graciousness of others, in order to explore my heart and my passions, focusing on me for the first time in a long time. I knew that coming back to my home country and immediately returning to a full time job in my professional career in healthcare would not be good for my soul at that time.

So I entered back into the workforce slowly. I applied for a few per diem jobs in healthcare that allowed me tons of flexibility to say yes or no to work, to travel as much as I wanted to, and work as much or as little as I wanted. Granted, with less job security and no promise of income during slow times. 

While interviewing for these jobs, I had one particularly formal interview process. During the first formal phone interview I told loads of Haiti stories. Gosh, Rachel, don’t be such a weirdo! I thought to myself. I even told the story of when a woman had a baby at our medical clinic… that didn’t deliver babies.

Behavioral interviewing is the common interviewing technique in healthcare (and beyond) in the States these days. These are typically 1-3 hours long, asking specific questions that start with “Tell me about a time when… 

You faced a difficult situation? (umm did you miss the part about me just living in a foreign country for a few years?.. Isn’t that enough said? Blank stares…)

You were in conflict with a coworker and how you resolved it? (umm you mean the 12 Haitian colleagues that I was supposed to lead and had no idea how to?)

You faced a seemingly impossible scenario? (umm you mean the time that we delivered a baby our medical clinic in a foreign country?)

You get the point. Behavioral interviews target storytelling from your real past to try to see how you will actually respond in stressful situations. While these interviews went well (and no, I did not give the above answers), it can be challenging to pull from previous life experiences other than the extremes of a life overseas.

It’s been almost two years since I returned from Haiti, and it’s time for me to settle into American culture just a little bit more. I’m in a new season, a new transition, a new state, a new professional license, and applying for new jobs. It was still daunting but less so this time. I made it through an entire two-hour long behavioral interview and only told one story from Haiti. I drew other stories from my previous work experience before and after Haiti. 

It’s not that I want to minimize my life overseas. I loved my life overseas, and it was very complicated, as most are. I feel like my life overseas is finally more integrated into my everyday life. Not all the stories I tell involve my life in Haiti, and I don’t suppress them like they are years and stories I want to forget. It’s a natural part of conversation, but it doesn’t have to come up.

I’m excited about this job. In corporate healthcare America. I never thought these words would come out of my mouth. I love my profession. But I’ve found, through living in another culture and self-discovery, that I love a lot of other things too. I like teaching yoga and participating in missionary care. I like being in the kitchen, cooking, and making kombucha. I like writing, keeping up a blog, an email list, and I’m working on writing a book.

So I found a job that allows me to practice my profession while leaving time for me to continue to explore my other interests. I never thought it would happen.

What I want to say is that it’s possible to feel more integrated. I’m sure my story is different than yours; everyone’s is. But I got a job. And I felt confident and comfortable in the interview process. I’m hopeful and excited about this job. AND it’s not the only thing about me. I can still be a global citizen and travel (though that schedule will be a bit more limited) and practice yoga, and missionary care, and many other things.

And I can work within the limits and boxes of corporate America and reap the benefits of a steady income, health benefits, and retirement benefits. 

I got a job!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rachel K. Zimmerman is a physical therapist who spent two years working alongside a capable Haitian team to establish a community health center outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A self-proclaimed ‘geographically confused’ individual with a Texas license plate, an Oklahoma license, and 40 Haitian stamps in her passport, Rachel currently resides in Washington where she enjoys coffee, teaching yoga, and gasping at the majestic view of Mount Rainier. She is a recovering perfectionist, lover of cross-cultural workers, and student of trauma and healing subjects. You can read along at her blog, catch her on Facebook, or follow her on Instagram.

When Re-Entry is Hard

by Lauren Neal

No one can prepare you for re-entry, not even your closest friends and family who have walked alongside of you through this season. Neither can a countless number of books and podcasts nor accumulated hours spent in therapy. Oh, or copious amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and rum (Barbancourt to be precise).

Re-entry, often disguised as the word “transition” (but dear Lord, if you ever catch me using the t-word just slap me across the face), is like re-birth. But this time, you’re not a screaming, crying infant; you’re a screaming, crying adult, and you come out of the womb with the expectation to walk and talk, and spell out your 5-year-plan to the acquaintance you run into at the grocery store, not out of interest, but out of obligation. Except you’re tongue-tied and heart broken and wondering how to choose from the umpteen flavors and brands of ice cream that will actually remain frozen in the trunk of your car on your ride home.

Home.

That’s a funny word now. Well, no. It’s not really funny at all. It’s actually rather frustrating and confusing and debilitating because the aisle, where you’ve just experienced this uncomfortable encounter, feels foreign in spite of its familiarity. Former normalities just don’t feel normal anymore. I personally envision home as this imaginary place where I could somehow supernaturally pull Haiti’s coastline up to the border of Cincinnati, along with all the other places that have claimed the people I love, and squish together my two houses and merge together my two lives and live happily ever after, together. But alas, that seems like a rather lofty task and unfortunately, Ohio’s geographic coordinates might prove to make that an unfeasible reality.

So now, I’m stuck holding a basket full of overpriced luxury food items in a grocery store smack dab in the middle of the Midwest, trying to muster up the strength to tell said acquaintance that I, in fact, have no plan. Yep, you read that right. Zero plan. Talk about an utter disappointment. (If you’re reading this and realize we’ve had one of these encounters, don’t worry—it’s not you, it’s definitely me).

After recovering from my conversation, I get in my car and turn the key in the ignition, and drive back to my residency in a mere three minutes, all without hitting any potholes or laying on my horn five times or receiving the middle finger accompanied by a slew of profane Creole expletives. Then, I park and I climb the stairs of my apartment only to feel the rush of the air conditioner as I open the front door, a reminder that Haiti is so far away. Finally, to ease that hole in my heart, I reach for the ice cream pint, a trusted emotional remedy, and eat it straight out of the carton because, come on, ice cream fixes everything (at least momentarily).

Dessert aside, it’s been a whole year and a half since I returned from Haiti, and yet I still feel caught in the phase of re-entry, filled with a million questions.

Who am I?

What is my purpose now?

Does anyone even care about me anymore?

Why don’t people ask?

Do they even know how hard this is?

Will I be stuck in Cincinnati forever?

Will I ever live in Haiti again?

When will I get over this?

You know how when you come back into the United States after being abroad and you go through customs, there are those TSA security guys who do one final check of your passport, like a just-in-case precautionary measure? They typically ask you where you’ve been and why you’ve been there. And after they’ve confirmed that the photo and information on the passport is, in fact, you, they’ll close your little book of adventure stamps, your pass to international freedom, and hand it back to you as they proclaim, “Welcome home.” Two simple words, yet unparalleled gravity.

Welcome home.

While I lived abroad, this expression delighted me. It was exhilarating like I’d just accomplished something genuinely extraordinary. But on December 20, 2017, this once uplifting gesture felt numbingly defeating. Soul-crushing. An audible end of an era. Welcome home. Home? Where is home now? Little did I know then, as I held back tears in the international quarters of the Atlanta airport, that it was only the first of many comments to come that would provoke feelings of failure.

No one can prepare you for re-entry. No one can prepare you for when you’ll feel the emotions or why you’ll feel them. (Thank God my computer monitor is large enough at work to shield those moments of vulnerability.)

There’s no formula. No step-by-step guide. No “Re-Entry for Dummies.” No 5 Ways to Conquer your Re-Entry for Ultimate Success articles or webinars (is it just me or is there a list for everything now?).

The intensity of a purpose-filled life was so real. The thrill. The excitement. The notion that every day was new. Don’t get me wrong. Even now, in Cincinnati, Ohio, every single day has purpose, and I’m such an advocate that every twist and turn, every choice and every missed opportunity, is woven into chapters to form our individual journeys and collective stories, each uniquely whole.

But it’s just different now, and in a way I struggle to articulate. There are high-highs and lower-lows. As an introvert, I often choose to hermit myself because sometimes I feel like my presence can be a burden. They don’t want to hear about Haiti again, right? Bless my sweet friends who put up with my tireless venting.

Many days, I feel like I’m aimlessly treading into an unknown abyss, like I’m moving forward but with no real direction. The precision of my former “calling” has now all but dissipated entirely, and I feel like I’m piecing together a puzzle with no resolve.

I miss my life as I dwell on the memories and scroll through social media. I forget about the stuff that ultimately led to my burnout and romanticize the good and wonder, was it really that hard? Though I know in my heart that yes, it really was that hard.

Now, even after a year and a half, I spend my short commute to work vocalizing my need for a grateful heart, praying that God would help me to get through another day, that I might find contentment right where I am, hoping his hand will guide me as I piece together this complex puzzle.

Throughout this season, I’ve, no doubt, experienced significant, life-giving healing and restoration thanks to a community of people who have carried me when my feet could not support the weight of my body. But it doesn’t discount those moments of pain and struggle and grief. Sometimes, the guilt and the deep wounds I harbor inside unexpectedly surface to remind me that perhaps this process will last a lifetime.

Sometimes, I go to happy hour and I shop online and I eat ice cream out of the pint and I enjoy my life.

Sometimes, I wallow in self-pity and I feel overwhelmingly discouraged and I cry and I loathe my life.

Yet, in spite of all of that, God is sovereign. And I choose to trust that his purpose always prevails even when my hope grows dim and my faith is distant.

It’s okay to feel all these things at once and it’s okay not have everything figured out. It’s okay to trudge through the barren wasteland. And when you’re tired, it’s okay to stop and to sit and rest. And then, it’s also okay to fall flat on your face and sob uncontrollably. But, on the other hand, it’s okay to be happy and to feel proud of your progress, to relish in the small victories and to forget about the pain. After a long season in the desert, it’s okay to feel rehydrated and refreshed. And finally, it’s okay to question and doubt and feel angry about former theologies and beliefs you once had, the same ones that even led to your second home in the first place.

My friend, wherever it is you find yourself, let me shout it from the rooftops: It. Is. Okay.

And next time you’re in the grocery store and you have one of these awkward run-in’s, give yourself a little extra grace. Whether it’s been a week, a month, a year, or ten years, you have the permission to feel exactly what you are feeling. The departure from your second home doesn’t devalue or diminish your love and affection for it. It just makes the separation that much more difficult.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out when you need to, to share the feelings weighing on your heart, and to confide in those who have loved you along the way. They may not may understand all the pieces of your story, but they’ll remind you that you’re not alone. Because after all, we’re in this together.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lauren Neal is a writer, a photographer, and a recovering missionary. Though her heart is in Haiti, her feet are planted in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she’s learning to pick up the pieces of a new life. An introvert, she enjoys spending time with her family and close friends. And of course, on occasion, she indulges in her favorite, Graeter’s mint chocolate chip ice cream. You can find her online at www.laurenneal.com and on Instagram.