Recently I was out walking, and crossing some gravelly ground I noticed a neat round depression about an inch in diameter. “Antlion!” I thought to myself, before remembering that I left Africa 15 years ago and haven’t seen an antlion trap* since. Likewise, while driving in some rocky place like Wales or the Lake District, I occasionally catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of a large grey object and think “Elephant!” Sound, sights or smells can trigger a reflex response sending us back in time many years. For those of us who have lived abroad it can also trigger feelings of ‘homesickness’ for the place we once served, even though we may have left there many years ago.
This illustrates the fact that the subconscious changes that take place in us as we serve in another culture can often take many years to subside, if they ever do. I still find myself clapping my hands occasionally in a Zambian gesture of thanks, or using words from a language that nobody around me will understand.
This can be somewhat discouraging for those of us back in the UK on home assignment, or just to live in this country. In a recent workshop with mission workers we discussed such issues: the things we miss about our home abroad, the things we don’t understand about our ‘home’ culture any more, and why we find it hard to settle back in and feel we belong. We discussed the Syzygy confectionery model of cross-cultural adaptation, which many found helpful. And we worked through a number of ways to avoid becoming a bitter old grouch who is forever complaining that their church doesn’t get it. Here are our top tips for preventing re-entry becoming a horrible experience:
Don’t have unreasonably high expectations of your church. They may be incredibly supportive and caring of you, but may not understand exactly what you need. So when you feel they’re not there for you, such as when their eyes glaze over just 2 minutes into your conversation telling them about your amazing ministry, remember that they may not get the significance of what you’re doing. Many of them may wonder why you need to go abroad when there’s already so much to do here. So I recommend preparing one or two short, powerful stories that may intrigue them and draw them in.
Don’t have unreasonably high estimations of your own importance. Most mission workers expect to be given a platform to talk about their work though other people in the church aren’t. Others feel frustrated if they are not asked to preach when they would not have been asked if they weren’t mission workers. Some expect everything to be organised and paid for by their church, when they are quite capable of doing that for themselves. In a world where the prevailing message is that we are all mission workers, people often don’t understand why cross-cultural mission workers feel they need more support.
Remember to adapt cross-culturally. When we go to a different culture, we learn about its culture and work hard to fit in, but we often forget that we need to work equally hard when we return. Don’t just moan about the differences you can’t get used to, or why life was so much better where you used to live; find out why things have changed and work out a way of dealing with it.
Don’t judge. Those of us who have lived in a foreign country have had the amazing privilege of seeing how large and diverse the world really is, and we return to where we came from able to see our home culture with the eyes of an outsider. Those who have never stepped outside their home culture don’t find it easy to do that. Don’t condemn them for not noticing; remember that you too were once like them.
Treat the church as your mission field. Many of us return to be part of churches that don’t understand why we have to go abroad to do mission, or even why we need to do it. Don’t browbeat them. Treat them the same way you would those you’ve been witnessing to abroad; explain gently, persuade, demonstrate – all in a spirit of love.
Get some help! It can often help to talk to people who understand what you’re going through. Meet with people from your agency or wider community who’ve been through re-entry. Get some debriefing or go on a retreat to hear more clearly what God has to say to you in all this.
If you’re struggling to feel at home in your ‘home’ culture, do get in touch with us on firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to talk to you!
* Antlion larvae dig traps in sand to catch their prey – mainly ants – rather like the sarlacc in Return of the Jedi