IMG_20160715_163854Recently I visited a village I had lived in when I was a child.  It was several decades since I had last been there, but I hadn’t expected much to have changed.  It’s a sleepy little village on the way to nowhere.  Our house was still there, though the big elm trees in the front garden had fallen victim do Dutch elm disease many years ago.  The two churches and my primary school were still there, the latter extensively rebuilt, the former completely untouched.  But everything else had changed.

The shopping parade had been converted into houses.  The post office had disappeared, together with the pillar box where I used to lean out of our car’s passenger window to post letters while my father drove past without stopping.  The large house at the bottom of our garden where the bank manager lived had become a housing estate.  Not even the village pub had survived.

I came away with the sad feeling that it’s a place I ought to have recognised, but didn’t feel at home in.  There were enough landmarks to orientate me, but not enough familiar sights for me to feel I still belonged.

This feeling may be familiar to many of us who have gone back to try to regain hold of the past, only to find it just beyond their reach.  This is what many mission workers feel when they return to their ‘home’ country, often after many years abroad, to find it has changed beyond recognition and they don’t fit in.  Many of us end up feeling more at home in our country of service, and wish we could go back – in fact some of us make so many return visits that we end up damaging our re-entry into our ‘home’ country, because we never really let go of the other one.

It’s an alarming feeling to be so disorientated, particularly because it’s unexpected.  We call this Reverse Culture Shock – and it’s a shock because we are often completely unprepared for it.  We prepare hard to go and live in a culture which is different to the one we grew up in, but we often fail to train to go and live in a culture which we think ought to be the same, but is different.

We have plenty of advice for mission workers in other blogs and in our Guide to Re-entry, but churches and families too need to understand this.  It’s not that returning mission workers aren’t delighted to see you, but so much has changed that they need time – often several years – to find their feet in their new ‘home’.  The reason they talk so boringly about where they used to serve is that it feels familiar to them, and they have a sense of belonging there which they haven’t yet found at ‘home’.  The reason they may be restless and grumpy is that they had a significant ministry there and haven’t yet developed one here.  And where they served, they were surrounded by other people driven by a passion for taking the gospel to the nations, and here they can’t quite understand why your new car, house extension or promotion are quite so significant to you.  Which can easily make them come across as arrogant, impatient, or judgmental.  They would hate to know you thought that, but it’s easy for them to create that impression.  So please be patient with them.  Friendship means sticking with them even when you don’t feel like it.  Allow them to talk.  Help them work out how to belong.  Connect them with other mission workers who’ve been through the same thing.  And please connect them to Syzygy, because we can help them – and you – battle through this to find a place where they can really feel at home.

Sadly, many mission workers struggling with re-entry lose friends in the process.  Some become estranged from family members and others end up leaving their churches and try, often without success, to find a church where they feel they fit.

We can never go back… but we can always go on.