It was 2001. My family had arrived in Kazakhstan in 1996, the first American family in our town, and been joined by other Americans and Aussies over the next several years. It was a fairly isolated place, and we certainly didn’t have Facebook and Zoom to remain connected to friends and family in our sending countries. Instead we became each other’s family. We shared laughter and tears, welcomes and goodbyes. As we ran an educational center and built relationships, the first Kazakh church was also being planted. Overall, we had good relationships with local leaders, and having arrived back from furlough in 2000, expected to be there another three years.
Early in 2001 the investigation began. Prompted by the president’s call to crack down on “foreign religious extremists,” the officials looked for fault in the running of the educational center, demanding files and citing new regulations. With little against us there, they showed up at the preschool where the Sunday worship service was held, locked the doors, and videotaped it (“catching” a team member playing guitar), and soon issued court summons. One family already planning to go back to the USA and some short-termers managed to leave the country voluntarily. The rest of us were stopped at the airport when trying to leave a week later. The men were put on trial, and sentenced to a fee and expulsion within ten days. It was a surreal week of doing what was possible to settle affairs and say goodbyes, a painful departure ending with news cameras and harassment by the officials at the airport, and a couple days outside the country to catch our breaths before returning to the US.
The very weekend of our return was a missions conference at a church that had supported some of our team members. I went to part of it, facing a thousand mixed feelings when hearing stories of others and reports of our own experience. But some of the most painful moments were the well-meaning comments:
“You must be so happy to be back home.”
“We were praying you’d get out safely.”
“I’m sure you’re glad to be out of there.”
I had just left home. Our team family was scattered, no longer available to support one another. We didn’t have people around us to relate with us and listen to us. I don’t think we really knew how to process together early on and listen to each other as we each coped in our own ways. Although there was a day of debriefing, I was excluded from the “adult” session, because I was “just a teenager.” A teenager who had participated in all the adult meetings for our team, the only teenager on the team.
The American church was just as foreign as the one overseas, if not more so. The youth group seemed wrapped up in what looked superficial to me. I’m sure I was too judgmental, but as a “hidden immigrant” I felt lonely and at times overwhelmed and confused. I struggled with the theology of suffering and why God allowed all of this to happen; weren’t we serving Him? Weren’t we praying fervently?
Ultimately, God in all His graciousness used that difficult period to shape and equip me. (For more of the story, check out my book.) One outcome was being able to relate to others who have such painful experiences. From a clearer perspective, one thing I am aware of right now is the many missionaries who have come back to their sending countries in unplanned, painful circumstances. Do the churches see their perspective?
A Church’s Self-Assessment
Today I see a much better awareness in many churches, with a dramatic growth in member care resources and intentionality for supporting reentry for missionaries over the last couple decades. It is so encouraging! Yet I believe it can also be helpful to reflect on how well the church understands their missionaries and is responding to their needs. If you are part of a church that has had missionaries come “home,” I would encourage you to evaluate your current response with the following questions:
1) Do you know why they came back?
Facing the COVID-19 situation brought forth difficult decisions, with many factors to take into considerations and many unknowns cluttering the “strategic” steps to take. No one knows the exact timeline of when country borders will be open and travel will be feasible. If they left the field, they wouldn’t know when they could return. If they stayed, they couldn’t predict when they’d be able to get out. Think of the countless issues at hand: high-risk relatives who might need care; children’s education, particularly those who have had challenges; medical concerns with limited care or medication in the country of residence; future significant events that are high priority; visa issues (those that need frequent renewal); local unrest with varying degrees of risk; emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs that are not being met and are currently directly leading toward burn-out. There are many other possible issues that may need to be addressed. Have they had a chance to share their thought-process and decision-making? Do you know the ongoing questions and uncertainties?
2) Taking their reasons for leaving into consideration, are their needs being addressed?
They are back in a country that may or may not feel familiar, after different lengths of time and levels of acculturation overseas. Society is always changing, not to mention the drastic adjustments everyone is facing with social distancing and many services no longer available. Who is helping the returnees address the issues at hand? It can be overwhelming to manage the compilation of what may seem like a formidable mountain of details, each complicated with much of the economy shut down and healthcare influenced. Emotional and spiritual needs are just as significant. In a place of limited interactions with family and friends, some might be hesitant to reach out and take initiative in re-building relationships from a distance. Who is calling/Skyping/emailing/texting them?
3) Can you feel empathy?
Your own challenges in the midst of COVID-19 may actually provide a slice of insight into some of the difficulties felt on the field on a regular basis. Now you might be able to feel what separation from family and friends is like. Now you might have tasted the frustration of limited resources (yes, even if it’s toilet paper). Now you could imagine living with constant uncertainty with finances or government systems or health risks. DON’T ASSUME YOU COMPLETELY “GET IT.” But do take the opportunity to let yourself share in some of their struggles; it might even put your own into perspective. Everyone is different, so it is important to first allow them to share their own experience. Then, put yourself in their shoes and validate their emotions. (Read more on showing empathy.)
4) Are the kids receiving care?
With the evolution of internet connection and social media, some youth might find it easier to stay in touch with peers from the sending country. But many have just left a place that was home and people that they care about, and most don’t know when/if they’ll go back. Others might feel relieved to be out of a stressful context. Most will have ups and downs, gains and losses, excitement and let-downs, and a slew of other emotions. You won’t know until you listen. They too need to be heard as they process their own thoughts and feelings.
The Main Point: Listen and Love
This is not an all-inclusive evaluation, but perhaps you’ll notice a theme: the importance of listening. We all need to be heard and it’s healing to feel understood. Answers aren’t always readily available, but active listening is critical, even without offering solutions. Make it a safe place to share emotions and struggles, ask open questions, and show that you are hearing and relating to what they share. Live their story with them, encouraging them to not only state the facts, but their also their thoughts and feelings.
It can be easy to assume someone else is available for the returnees, but that’s not always true. Having more than one listener is also valuable, especially if that person is coming in an attitude of humility, openness, and unconditional love.** This is the fulfillment of the church’s responsibility to care for its members, but on a broader scale, all of us have the calling to demonstrate love to one another. The needs aren’t to be met just by church leadership; the congregation should also share the role of investing in the lives of those they have sent out to the field. That participation also helps the church become more missions-minded and appreciative of the support offered to these families and individuals serving overseas or when nearby.
So whether you are a leader or a member, I would encourage you to reach out to the returnees. If you don’t know any, it might be time to meet them!
**Sometimes it is important to notice when a returnee would benefit from a more formal debriefing. If you see issues coming up that need to be addressed, it can be a blessing to encourage seeking additional help, whether through an organization or professional care.
If you want to become better equipped for debriefing and caring for missionaries, consider some of the resources:
Other resources are available on that site: www.ReturningWell.com/resources
Visit: Care Resources for Families