by Clyde Austin
A substantial number of missionaries find the homecoming process to be more difficult than the initial adjustment to the field.
A substantial number of missionaries find the homecoming process to be more difficult than the initial adjustment to the field. Some ask, “Can we go home again?” or “What are the hazards of home shock?” A readjustment period of six to twelve months is normal. Reentry can be a “growth” process (Adler, 1981). Meintel (1971) sees reentry potential as “exhilarating,” with opportunities for personal and intellectual growth. Indeed, traumatic experiences during reentry sometimes help to strengthen returnees.
The formidable challenge confronting the missionary and the sending organization is to keep our missionaries whole throughout the international cycle. Key elements of the cycle-recruitment, training, adjustment to the new assignment, continuing rigors of service, and reentry are best established in the framework of man’s developmental process. The missionary needs a definite understanding of missionary service as it continues through young adulthood, middle age, and old age. Clague(1980) accurately says, “Expatriation and repatriation should be examined as parts of an integrated whole-not as unrelated events in a person’s life”.
Conspicuous characters in the many-sided drama of reentry are missionary parents, their children, and individuals in the receiving society (e.g., church leaders, relatives, and friends). The drama intensifies as the homecoming date draws near. Parents often agonize. “Should we have reared our children overseas?” “Where do we fit in the USA church scene?” “Can I endure the shock of rediscovering self in a changed setting?” “How will I deal with the affluence of ‘rivers of energy’ “?
On the eve of reentry the question “Who am I?” may perplex a missionary. Meintel (1971) argues, “The most significant ‘shocks’ potential in stranger-hood are those of self-discovery”. In any major transition in life, to question self intensively is appropriate. Reentry is no exception. With a more accurate knowledge of oneself comes a relaxed acceptance of self
A new identity emerges from the sojourn experience. One group of Peace Corps volunteers (Haan, 1974) underwent substantial change in self-definition. The women became more competent and assertive and the men more tender and emotional. For many teenagers, the Vietnam War drastically interrupted the processes of identity formation. The impact of the Vietnam War on the psychosocial identity of the teenage veteran was drastic. Likewise, the major problem for the missionary teenager seems to be the management of social identity (Downie, 1976; Gleason, 1969; Herrmann, 1977; Shepard, 1976; and Werkman, 1980). Just as the American people did not comprehend and give a responsive welcome to the Vietnam veteran, many stateside Christians do not grasp the importance of a homecoming celebration and orientation for the returning missionary family.
Werkman (1980) reported, “The self-concepts of overseas teenagers appear to be less positive, and they seem to show less of a feeling of security and optimism about life in general” He points out that these results do not indicate that overseas-experienced adolescents are “less psychologically healthy,” but rather that the sojourn does have an important effect on their values and attitudes. Useem (1981) adds the further word of caution that many overseas children are so protected that they experience “a very late adolescence.” Whereas the normal period of adolescence is 14-18, overseas children may experience an adolescence which ranges from 18-28. Therefore, one might expect a later period of adolescent rebellion.
Clashes in inner values may occur between home-comers and “receivers” in bewildering arenas: material possessions, family life, racial prejudice, national priorities in areas of ecology and politics, and Christian community conflicts. Sensitivity must prevail on both sides of what might be a considerable chasm in values if a “common pool of hurt” (Morrow, 1981, p. 19) is to be avoided.
Interviews with returning missionaries as well as formal studies (Bwatwa, Ringenberg, Wolde, & Mishler, 1972; Moore, 1981) indicate that missionaries experience the USA as possessing “an embarrassment of riches.” One missionary mother returning from the Far East said:
Everybody looks rich to us. We stayed with good friends in a Western state who complained about the high cost of living. Yet, they are overweight; live like royalty. Many people talk about inflation and how they are cutting corners . . . but most are wasteful and keep on buying. Why is air conditioning kept so low? We freeze everywhere we go.
Perhaps few value conflicts hurt so much as those in the religious area. Far too many missionaries are tempted to assume a “holier-than-thou” attitude. Stateside Christians are characterized as “being more tolerant of sin” and “not as diligent in their service to God.”
When missionaries enter the mission field, they expect to have difficulty with language, religions of the host culture, attitudes of national Christians, nostalgia for the USA, and maintaining their own spiritual adjustment. Who would ever expect to feel like a stranger in his own country? Yet, overidealized expectations about “home” are a puzzling paradox.
The groundwork for this obstacle is often laid during the initial phases of culture shock. When difficulties with culture shock arise, expatriates tend to “glorify” institutions and traditions of their home country. However, when missionaries return, they do not experience the USA as they had remembered it. Sapir (1979) states, “It is often precisely the familiar that a wider perspective reveals as the curiously exceptional” (p. 1). The psychological discomfort resulting from this conflict can be harsh.
One major expectation of most returnees is that people will be interested in their experiences. An unusually capable missionary from Oceania relates:
We were invited to a large family reunion shortly after our return. We discovered that most people were not interested in hearing the stories we were most anxious to tell. Oh, they listened about five minutes! Then they continued to talk about the Dallas Cowboys.
One lady interrupted me to tell about their bus program. People want to know a little about the Philippines . . . not a lot. I must remember that. Answer questions briefly.
A returned missionary wife from South America laments:
I wish that people had assumed less about us and helped us more. I went through this first year alone and I’m just now making some friends. It would have been nice to have someone to talk to about these things; someone you felt you could ask dumb questions like, “Is this a good price?” or “How do I change an air conditioning filter?”
In the area of personal grooming, a wife who has served many years in the Middle East observes:
How I looked was a problem to me. Some women at church said, “Your hair is too short,” some “too long.” Someone said, “Everyone goes to a beauty shop.” I didn’t want to be pushed into a mold. Finally I said, “I’ll do what I want.”
A final therapeutic observation seems to be in order. This author is aware of a number of cases where the readjustment symptoms of severely troubled teenagers were relieved substantially by a return trip to the country of prior service. During the trip, these teenagers were guided lovingly through a reexamination of their over-idealized images of that country. Upon reentering the USA after this “journey of clarification,” parents, therapists, and the children have more realistically addressed the mental health problems confronting the family. Church officials might object to the high cost of this procedure. However, if many other therapeutic approaches have been attempted unsuccessfully, such a trip might be the “missing piece” in the therapeutic “puzzle.” More thought and prayer need to be given to this particular intervention.
Another prevailing motif of reentry is a sense of loss. Moore (1981) discovered, in a study of 288 returned missionaries, that the second most difficult problem listed was “nostalgia and homesickness” for the mission field. Jansson (1975) graphically sketched what she calls a “sense of powerlessness” (p. 139). Useem (1981) affirmed, “The loss of an elite status is very difficult for parents.” Zimmerman (1970) mourned, “What is most disturbing is a sense of loss. Where is the America I left four years ago? What has happened to Washington? The changes are so terrifying that it is hard to accept reality as real” (p. 38).
The sense of loss is pictured in an expressive manner by several representative missionaries:
I am still not comfortable shopping here. It’s not so much the variety, which some returned missionaries find daunting, but the lack of what I want. I can’t stand canned things. I like to buy just fresh fruits and vegetables.
I wish we could walk more. It’s no wonder everyone has trouble with their weight here. So many of the streets don’t even have sidewalks. Why is this such a motorized society?
I’d forget to sweep the floor. It never occurred to me. I’d not cleaned house in the Middle East for eight years. It almost felt degrading to clean my home. I looked for a maid-couldn’t find one.
I miss taking time for people.
In the summer of 1968, my father was involved in an automobile accident on his way home from a tent campaign in the northern hill country of Antonio. Unfortunately, the accident accelerated his kidney disease. We returned to the USA. Leaving that country was a traumatic experience, especially for a 13-year-old boy who was not fluent in English and was leaving everything he loved. By the age of 10, the only thing that distinguished me from a citizen of Antonio was my blue eyes and blonde hair. Adjusting to the American scene was extremely difficult; it was as if I had completely missed seven years of my life.
Other perplexing loss problems for the missionary parents are: (1) the big-fish-in-a-little-pond syndrome (One generally becomes a medium-sized fish in a bigger pond); (2) an underutilization of the skills and experiences gained on the field; (3) the loss of some degree of independence; and (4) a feeling of being in the old “rat race” again.
Prayerful preparation in all stages of transition helps to cushion the impact. A renewed commitment to Christ and the maintenance of a wholesome home atmosphere form the bedrock of a fruitful homecoming. In a dissertation of much practical importance, Sensenig (1980) stresses the invaluable role of the missionary father. Too often the father is a “phantom.” Herrmann (1979) further underscores the importance of the role of the family.
“MKs who have experienced these three elements of a basic sense of identity-belonging, worth, and competence- within their family, indicate having an easier time with identity formation in late adolescence and early adulthood. They are ready to adapt to new situations as they arise” (p. 5).
When mother and father are at the helm of an adequate family communication process, several further steps are suggested as they contemplate reentry.
1. Begin preparation at least six to twelve months in advance.
2. Review reentry materials as a family.
3. Make a list of one’s use of time overseas and then examine what needs to be changed or maintained on returning.
4. Develop a tentative USA family budget based on information from various stateside sources.
5. Examine possible difficulties you might encounter in family and friendships, as well as professional relationships in the areas of verbal and nonverbal behavior.
6. Use correspondence with friends, relatives, schools, and employers to communicate your future needs and learn what to expect.
7. Read USA magazines, journals and newspapers. Talk to recent on-the-field arrivals from the USA about current events. Ask for a “refresher course” on slang.
8. Be aware that you may experience depression, loneliness, fatigue, and illness as reentry symptoms of stress. You can be stressed either by happy or sad events. It will be normal for your family to go through a grief process.
9. Be alert to your own expectations and the expectations of others. Value conflicts are inevitable.
10. Be sensitive to a new discovery of self. Seek hobbies and community/church activities that fit new interests.
11. Reevaluate parenting procedures. Do not retreat from problems or other people. Monitor television offerings carefully. Our family didn’t have a TV set overseas. When we returned, in a family vote, TV lost, 6-0. Bring back special belongings of children.
12. Begin an adequate vocational information program for the children. Many nations do not permit children to work. Acquaint them now with the world of work in the States-part-time and full-time jobs. One of the missionaries in your team might become a vocational resource person for all of the missionary “cousins” in your group.
13. If possible, allow time for a gradual “decompression period” of two to four weeks on the homeward trip in order to relax and make adequate mental preparation for reentry.
14. Remember that reintegration will take time, possibly a year. Be resilient and keep a positive outlook. 15. Search for ways to meet others’ needs (Philippians 2).
Asuncion-Lande (1980) suggests four “distinctive patterns of response” to reentry shock: excitement, re-establishment/frustration, sense of control, and re-adaptation (p. 4). The initial phase involves the joy of greeting relatives, friends, and former colleagues. Proud mothers and grandmothers prepare your favorite delicacies. In the re establishment phase, you attempt to develop neighborhood friendship “roots,” become reacquainted at church, and assist your children in adapting to school. Inevitably there will be conflict and frustration. The “honeymoon” is over. The family members may then strive to control friends or fellow workers in various conscious or unconscious ways to eliminate dissonant feelings they are experiencing. A sense of control lowers stress levels. The homecomer may question his decision to return. Finally, returnees look for ways to cope or adapt. Intercultural communication, verbal and nonverbal, plays an important role in readjustment.
Since there are “no absolute, universal consequences” of reentry (Segal, 1981, p. 13), returnees need a repertoire of coping strategies to meet different demands. Useem (1981) differentiates between “adjusting” and “coping.” She says that although learning how to cope with American life is important, a child may not adjust. In some cases individuals may not be psychologically “at home” in the USA.
A refrain of reemphasis and caution is appropriate. Reentry stress is normal. However, reentrants do form a minority. As with other minority groups in our culture, certain prejudices or stereotypes are exhibited toward returning missionaries. Jansson (1975) has suggested that reentrants may acquire a “deviant identity.” Returning teenagers are most susceptible to a heightened sense of not deviating from social norms. Werkman (1977) has stressed the principle that high school culture places a premium on excluding “unusual” people. Since established students are locked into groups or cliques, some returning children may be tempted by those teenagers living on the fringe of moral existence. According to Opubor (1974), “In both the host and home cultures, the individual will be something of a deviant. The most edifying choice for the individual, and the goal of all constructive strategy, is how to make the individual a responsible deviant” (p. 29).
A support group can serve as a forum for exchange of information and expression of feelings (Jansson, 1975; Werkman, 1980). Returned missionaries claim that the following individuals, groups, and/or activities were most helpful to them upon reentry, in descending order: spouse, friends, relatives, former missionaries, church members, college missions department personnel, reading materials, personal counseling, church leaders, debriefing with overseeing church personnel, psychological testing and evaluation, reorientation program, and family counseling (Moore, 1981, p. 45). It is important, but sad to note, that few churches sponsoring these missionaries provided personal and/or family counseling, psychological evaluation, or debriefing and re-orientation programs. One missionary wrote the author after a program on reentry:
Your presentation last year was very timely in our lives. We were just returning from 16 years of mission work in Latin America. We were on a very bad guilt trip. We felt we were abnormal. We consulted a professional. You helped us put our lives in perspective.
After a counseling session, a young single lady declared:
After reflecting on what we discussed, I realized that you shed a lot of light on my confusion and you encouraged me. I guess I just wanted to hear you say I was ‘normal’ for feeling such things.
One Christian professor (McMillon, 1982) has characterized the importance of tradition as follows:
Tradition is important to the life of a family because it reinforces and sustains ideas, values, and practices that are valuable and meaningful to them—-Paul encouraged the Thessalonians, (2 Thess. 2:15), and Corinthians, (1 Cor. 11:2), to maintain the ‘traditions’ delivered to them. . . . Every family needs its own traditions. They become a subtle reinforcement to the cohesiveness of the family as a unit (p. 18).
The benefits flowing from the traditions described by McMillon could be of inestimable value to the readjustment of a returning family in terms of: identity, roots, security, continuity, and celebration.
To the best of the author’s knowledge, no longitudinal study (before, during, after) has been conducted on missionary families. Further, there seems to be no comprehensive, in-depth study of serious mental illness among former missionary adults or children. Why do some families return with relatively few problems? Assumptions can be made, but no definitive research has been conducted. One missionary has wisely observed that a study should be made of families returned longer than a decade. He is convinced that only after a lengthy period of time can a family determine objectively what transpired in the first few years after reentry. Brislin (1981, p. 295) confirms the importance of later measures which show delayed effects. Special attention also needs to be given to the homecoming of singles. Loneliness has often been their unrelenting foe.
The home church or other sponsoring organization must be engaged in a continuous process of care, prayer, and inquiry on behalf of missionary families. The missionary family must be kept whole.
Copyright © 1983 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). Vol 19 No 4 EMQ Oct 1983. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ.