Life among the pagodas
Thanks for following along with this blog series! (Click here to read Part One and Part Two) Today’s post is the final installment of testimonies from people who serve cross-culturally, sharing their experiences relating to friends, family, and the church back in their passport countries.
One of the things that compelled me to start this series was hearing other missionaries share some of the expectations people/churches had for them in returning to the US, and hearing in their voices how those expectations can take a big personal toll. A lot of times, cross-cultural workers come back to their passport countries quite exhausted, and find themselves back home without a real home to call their own. They look like they should belong, but they feel as if they don’t. Those who have moved back to the west permanently after working overseas, say it takes them several years to feel adjusted, and that even after settling in, they feel like perpetual misfits, often homesick for their other home overseas.
I want to reiterate that few to none of us could do what we do without the support of the community back home. To those who send, you are the hands and feet of Christ to us, truly. I wrote that here a few years ago and I still mean it!
And yet. I think the church needs to be asking if someone is ministering to the ministers; supporting overseas work ought to be more than sending a check and expecting a presentation every two years. I think it is important for the church to remember that a good deal of people who work overseas struggle with different types of loss, isolation, feelings of depression, and in some cases, PTSD. Returning to the West in the midst of all that is at times very challenging, because despite the tough parts of cross-cultural work, we love the people and places where we serve, and coming back “home” isn’t the same after what we have experienced. I feel strongly that the church needs to be especially interested in singles who serve abroad, as their emotional support system is sometimes thinner than that experienced by families/couples. I also think that the church ought to be proactive in reaching out to the people they support who move back permanently, helping them transition, acknowledging that being back “home” is hard and complicated, and being committed to helping them over that long haul, realizing that adjusting will take years.
So that is some of the motivation behind sharing these testimonies. Before we get to the testimonies, here are some thoughts from Marilyn Gardner, excerpted from her essay collection, Between Worlds. For those of you feeling lost and misfit, may this refresh you:
“Identity isn’t about a place you live at—but a Person you live in.”
“God does not ask us to forget…. He simply asks us to move forward and trust him. Trust him with our shifting loyalties to place, trust that he will allow us to use the gifts that were so naturally used in the past, trust that the hidden talents of language and cultural adaption will not be wasted. Trust that it is possible to love more than one place at a time, and that it is possible to sing songs of joy in both. That is my prayer for you—that wherever we may be we will learn to sing songs of joy in a foreign land.”
It’s okay if relationships change. All things in life have seasons. Clinging desperately to how things used to be actually illustrates a lack of faith for God’s work in our lives.
Some folks act as though being disappointed in my country is on the same level as renouncing my faith. I wish I could help people understand that in much of the world, the USA is known—and often celebrated—for its violence. I have been told many times by members of my host culture, “I love America! I love how often they get into wars!” Whether you and I agree with it or not, the U.S. is famous for its violence. I struggle with this all the time. It seems there are few safe people to talk to about this struggle; Christians tend to get defensive or angry when this conversation comes up. Because of this I feel somewhat alienated from my country and from a good deal of Christians. I wish things were different.
The changes in my person and personality are often even more surprising to me upon coming home (as I often first realize them upon the contrast of returning back home), than they are to you. Please have grace. Please remember that in the time that I have been gone, not only I have changed. You have as well. It just probably isn’t as noticeable to you as it is to me. Be responsible for your own change and growth, just as you would have me be responsible for my change and growth. Own it.
Having returned home to academia – I like to share ideas and to discuss issues. Often, I share articles (written by others) on social media. I try to do so from an objective perspective, or from the vantage point of learning. Perhaps this is naive. Sometimes, these are issues that are near to local people. On the one hand, I feel as though people at home need to know what is going in the world and do not know enough. I share such information because I care about the locals and the host country. On the other hand, locals may not want people to “air their dirty laundry” and may feel that me sharing such information is a judgment on them, their culture, their people. The tension is, when do I become enough a part of my host culture to be able to share the issues and problems that plague ‘our’ society? For locals, perhaps the answer is “never” and that is difficult for me to accept.
My dialogue and processing about my new home doesn’t mean I like you less. It means I like you so much that I want to share this with you the best I know how.
People were terrible about asking questions about our actual experiences. “Hey! How was Africa?” I’d try to tell a story or go into detail and they’d interrupt “Yeah, I know a guy who lives in Africa—he says it’s hot. So crazy!”
Sometimes answering unexpected questions in person can be hard, because painful things have happened, and they can’t/shouldn’t be shared. So if our eyes glaze over when you ask about a relationship or a mutual friend, we might just be struggling to say the right thing. Expat/ministry relationships can be wonderful and life giving, but they can also be really challenging. When another worker has lied about me or called me a failure, or when I know they are doing things they shouldn’t be doing, it is hard to know who to tell or how to talk about it, and a lot of times the only thing I know to do is change the subject.
I wish people would say/ask: “I know ___ is a big place. What was it like in your town?” or, “What do you miss most about ____?” or, “What’s been difficult about coming back/leaving?” or, “What did you miss most about America?”
I like when people engage me about life overseas. I love it when people realize that the country I serve in is my home and that those are my people. I love it when people in the US say, “You must miss your friends and family back in ______ while you are here.” Some people refer to my overseas life as a trip. But it isn’t a trip or a vacation; it is my life.
Sometimes short term “workers” can be awful experiences for us, and I would love it the churches/individuals who sent them would ask us how it was having them. There is not enough accountability, and the result is often that locals and long-termers have to pay the price for the indiscretions of those who are only here for a short time.
When people ask normal life questions, I have the chance to tell them about my experience through the normal emotions of life. For example, when someone asks me, “do you live close to work? How do you get there?” or “So who are your closest friends there, and what are they like?” Those questions give me room to express myself in my responses, they are the kind of questions that give me a chance to voice my individual experiences.
I find it so refreshing when friends who live stateside ask me personal and deep questions, as any good friend would if we saw each other more often. For example, go ahead and ask me if my husband and I get enough alone time. Ask if disciplining the kids is going well or if parenting has been hard lately. I don’t get to connect with moms here in the same way as with my peers in the states, so I enjoy sharing honestly about what is hard/good in family life.
Here are some of my favorite conversation starters:
– What’s something that God taught you in your time living over there?
– How did you see the Biblical concept of common grace expressed in the culture there?
Sometimes we get lonely when we visit North America. Invite yourself over and have coffee with us, we like coffee. Where we live, people are constantly inviting themselves over, so we are used to it!
Consider coming to me, even if that’s a 45-minute drive. I flew around the world. Just change up your daily routine and meet me.
I don’t want to do big group parties or presentations. I would love for you to introduce me to at least one person in your circle who would be interested in God’s work on this side of the world, someone you are almost certain would want to get my newsletters and potentially partner with me. Invite us both over for dinner at the same time.
Our church is awesome! We always get emails and packages from our home group and pastors. So when we are back there, it is like time never passed. It is so special to be able to be plugged right back into our group, to see how the kids have grown, and spend some time together in a tight community. I love the resources that the church provides for parenting as well and the children’s program…I am excited for my son to experience it. Our pastors have been to visit us, so it is fun to have them ask questions of how the friends they made while they are here are doing and things like that. They understand us.
I value the churches that are interested in the work going on overseas; they encourage me that I am not completely alone in a country not my own, where I am doing work with little discernible results. But when going back home, I must always remind myself to keep my eyes on Jesus and not on the church. I can’t have a high expectation of how the church will respond to me when I am back; I believe that I should not have the mentality of going back to tell the church what should matter to them. It is important to go back to build relationships and when I have the opportunity and the right audience, to tell them about the amazing things that God is doing.
We have been sent out to work and live among people who are wildly different from us; we have these people in our homes, we go to their weddings and funerals. We don’t share all the same values, but we share our lives, we share meals. It has been discouraging to see that some of the western church is not all that interested in engaging on a personal level with people who are even a little bit different from them (politically, culturally, ethnically, etc.). They like to hear our stories of the “different” place in which we live, and cheer for us as they send us off to live in those places. But when they start talking about people of other races or cultures who live in their own community, I perceive that they would not think to invite a Muslim, a LGBT person, or someone of a different political standing to their table. But isn’t that what Jesus did? Engaging with people who are unlike us isn’t dirty work, it’s God’s work. He calls us all to do that sort of thing, to be curious about and eager to listen to and engage with “the other,” no matter where we live.
We enjoy catching up with you one-on-one or in small groups. We treasure the mutuality of getting to exchange stories and hear from friends in America, something that can only happen in small group settings; newsletter updates and talking to big groups is okay, and necessary at times, but we love getting to be with you and hear about your life, and we value the time you spend to be with us. We aren’t trying to pound the pavement for support; we want to be the body of Christ with you.
I am often caught between two worlds. At home, I am set up as this ‘hero’ in churches and in Christian circles, while overseas, I are sometimes seen as the enemy, and a destroyer of local tradition, culture, religion, and communities. That’s a very hard thing to balance, especially as I am constantly journeying between these two extremes (neither of which are completely true but neither of which are also completely untrue). It is a challenge to be in between two groups of people who have these completely opposite views of me, and trying to convince them that I am neither of these, or at least, I am not trying to be either of these.
There are people from our church who ask how we are doing on a monthly basis. Every year they send us a parcel at Christmas. When we visit, my husband preaches in the service, then we have a potluck lunch and after that we have an hour or more time to share about our work. So when we come it is a special day at that church. We feel encouraged to be “their people” working overseas and we know that they pray for us. That is such a good experience for us; I wish and hope that every overseas worker could have this kind of support. It is so good to have a supporting church in the background.
Thanks for taking the time to read along with this series! Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
A big thank you to everyone who took the time to share their voice here. You made this whole thing possible, and you encouraged many others along the way–thank you!