Yesterday, a friend who's been working in Africa for four years, wrote about her upcoming transition back to New England. It was called Dark Days and it was rich and painful for all the paradox lurking in it.
I have some experience with this now, so I thought I might write a little guide for all the moms, dads, siblings, friends and churches who have a missionary coming "home."
I love my missionary. How do I help them?
It can be easy for us to think that because missionaries are doing something hard on the other side of the world, they are made of sterner stuff than us:
They have the hard bits of life all figured out.
Their connection to God is super sturdy and inviolable.
They aren't prone to doubt, depression and fear.
Their relief at coming home is greater than their grief over leaving the field.
None of that is necessarily true, but you could be forgiven for thinking so.
Because your missionary trusts God for their work, their salary, their housing, their future - something that seems impossible to you - you may have built them up as someone who is "SOOOO AMAZING."
As such, many missionaries only show the SOOOO AMAZING parts to their loved ones and supporters because they feel like it's expected of them.
You will do your returning missionary a huge kindness if you help them off that pedestal and let them be human as they transition. Here are a couple ways to do that:
You might not understand why a trip to Walmart makes your missionary a little sick. You probably won't understand why they are crying so much, especially since they are FINALLY reunited with their family and friends. It might confuse you when they stop mid-sentence and quit trying to explain something.
Hang in there with them. Help them by curiously and gently asking things like:
What's upsetting about that for you?
How did that make you feel?
That seems super important to you. Can you help me understand why?
What was that like?
When they answer, close your lips and open your ears.
Release any judgement over what they say, because it's not about you. Don't jump in with your own story. Don't try to fix their pain. Be ok with tears and big emotion when it comes because if they feel safe with you, it will.
Listening is an act of love, and most certainly a fabulous way to help your returning missionary. Ask open-ended questions that start with who, what, when, where, why and how, and then listen with presence to the answers as long as they need you to.
2. Spoil Them...
...But don't take it personally if your spoiling is conflicting to them. When your returning missionary is soaking in a warm bubble bath with a glass of wine, sit on the bathroom floor and listen if they want to talk. But don't be surprised if it sneaks up on them how incredibly unfair the world is.
They know and love people who live in garbage dumps and scrounge for discarded food to feed their families. Reconciling the unfairness of their immediate access to healthcare, good food and hot water is tricky. If they struggle with it, please know, it is not a statement about you or your home. It's about their broken heart for the condition of this broken world. Listen with curiosity and patience.
3. Give them space, but be nearby.
Generally speaking, African, Asian, Central and South American cultures deeply value community, interdependence and solidarity, while North American and European cultures value independence and privacy. If your missionary is leaving Africa and returning to the US, they may be shocked at the isolation they feel, as though they have been dropped into a tub of ice water.
Don't take this personally. Recall that they may be used to wandering outside and finding someone to hang with at all hours.
Help them by calling for coffee dates where you do a ton of listening. Free up your schedule to go for impromptu walks. Recognize that your missionary is feeling pretty lost as they adapt to "home" again. This is all normal. Don't be offended. They miss their other "home" and the people they love there.
4. Refresh their connection to Jesus.
If you are doing all the above for your missionary, you are being Jesus to them. Don't be afraid to pray for your missionary, out loud and often. "Can I pray for you about that" is a powerful question.
Let them rest in the shade of your tree. Let it be ok if their faith is shaky. Don't let your ideas of how your missionary's faith should look, make you opinionated. Find out how their faith actually looks by asking questions like:
Where did you see God show up the most in your work overseas?
In what, if any, ways did you feel like God didn't show up?
What specifically can I pray for as you transition?
Remember to listen openly and quietly to their answers.
Your missionary is a child of God groping their way to the light just like you are. If you live in the joy of the Lord in front of them, it will remind them that the Lord is good even in this hard transition.
Ultimately, the goal is to help them integrate their overseas experience into their new life, rather than compartmentalizing it and just starting over.
Even if you've never been overseas, even if you feel embarrassed that you don't know much about their host country, be brave, make space and ask good questions anyway. Your missionary will love you for it.