Nathan and I both served as journeymen. He lived here in Toliara for two years; I lived in Madagascar for five years–both as singles. I loved my time–I had a long honeymoon phase. Nathan, not so much. He really struggled to adjust and with his purpose. In time, though, he gave himself fully to the work of God here and in his life, and he thrived. But, different as our experiences were, we would both agree: the hardest and worst part was going back home.
Why? What was hard about it?
At least for us, three things were extra hard: pace of life, purpose, and community. The pace of life here in Toliara is different–much slower. We weren’t ready for the extreme busyness of life in the US right now. Also, living here, our entire lives were focused on one purpose: God’s work among our people. When we went back to the US, we were trying to find jobs, praying about marriage, looking at school . . . wandering a little, with no clear direction about what was next. Finally, life here in Toliara drove us into deep community with our team. We needed each other every day. In the US, people don’t live like that. People handle their own stuff–they aren’t in each others’ homes and business as much. We missed that.
The reality is, we weren’t really healthy for at least a year after we got back. During that year, we hurt a lot of people–including each other. These are facts, not excuses.
I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, and I don’t want to make generalizations. For me, though, moving to Madagascar meant giving myself to a new culture, language, and group of people. When you go overseas as a family, you bring the core elements of your identity with you: husband, wife, father, mother. You also bring your most significant relationships. When you go as a single, maybe you have a chance to give yourself more fully–not as a virtue, but more as a necessity. You have no identity, you have no relationships. Leaving creates a huge vacuum, and you’re driven to fill it with language acquisition and cross-cultural and team relationships.
I found this drive to be a blessing–I was deeply transformed by my time in Madagascar. But, then, when it was time to leave, I felt myself uprooted–torn abruptly from relationships I had worked so hard to build.
Please don’t misunderstand–I was so thankful to return to my friends and family in the US. But, when I returned, things were different. People were different. People had changed–me included. I had missed experiences that I could never get back.
I used to think, “No, it’s no real sacrifice to go.” But that simply isn’t true. No, we don’t go overseas on ships in our own coffins, and we yes, we do have much greater access to family and friends at home than any missionary generation before. What we experience pales in comparison to the struggles of those earlier generations. But still, there is a sacrifice. You can’t be in two places at once. You, and your friends and family, change while you’re apart–and you can’t go back.
When you come back, also, you have to find your purpose again. And decision-making is affected too. You’ve spent the last two years teaching yourself to question your assumptions and learn from a new culture–well, that makes you second-guess your own inclinations for a while.
We’ve talked to many others who share these struggles. We’ve felt the deep, loving care of those who stuck with us, even when we were at our worst–thank you. The one thing I can say for sure is that when I was really, really struggling, I knew with all my heart that Christ was calling me to Himself. He was calling me to find my identity in Him, to run to Him with my uprooted heart and confused feelings; He was calling me to cling to Him. And for some time, I refused. It was His fault I was feeling so bad, anyway–I wasn’t going to let Him back in. He called and I resisted, for months. Even years.
So, if you’re the friend or family member of someone who’s served overseas, trust them. Listen to them. Invite them into your home. Love them even while you’re not yet sure who they’ve become.
If you’re the one who’s come back–if you feel God calling you, don’t resist. Run to Him.