“Home is behind, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread. Through shadows to the edge of night, until the stars are all alight. Then world behind and home ahead, we’ll wander back to home and bed…” – JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Staring at the choices on the grocery store shelf is socially acceptable for a minute or two, but when it becomes paralyzing – it becomes super awkward. I know it may seem odd to be stumped by choice, but when you’ve just returned from a country where choice was limited, abundance can be overwhelming. It’s only one of the signs of reverse culture shock global workers experience when they re-enter life in the United States. I’ve come to learn that my own adjustments are shared by many who live through the returned life.
My husband and I returned to the United States in the midst of the vitriolic 2016 presidential election. Six years away had increased my appreciation for being a U.S. citizen and the freedoms we enjoy. Our first overseas assignment in the Middle East had been in a country where “Sharia Compliant” signs were displayed by local businesses. So the heated rhetoric and in-your-face division during the election left me disheartened.
The new found freedom of driving my own car was tempered by having to re-learn to navigate Houston traffic. The ribbon of red tail lights that stretched out in front of me on the Houston freeways would make my heart sink and my anxiety rise (it still does).
Even worship was a challenge. My beloved home church worship services contrasted sharply with the simple church without walls we left behind in our last assignment. What would my Papua New Guinean friends think about worship on such a grand scale?
Returning after six years away turned out to be very different than what I had envisioned. My deep desire was to readjust to American life. But on many days my return left me feeling anxious, isolated and alone.
Living and serving overseas is an intense, transformative experience. Interaction with other cultures expands your worldview and facilitates spiritual growth as you become part of God’s work in far-away places.
Returning to your home country is just as intense, in a different kind of way. It’s almost like time travel in a sci-fi movie. You leave one reality and return, feeling like an alien, to a changed world. You can love it and loathe it at the same time. The loathing part sounds particularly ungrateful, but the love/hate relationship is a paradox I’ve also learned is common among returned workers. We need a safe place to manage our re-entry in a healthy way.
In our previous assignment in Papua New Guinea, the missionary community had been that safe place for us. We arrived in country, not as missionaries, but as expatriate global workers. It didn’t matter to them. They welcomed us into their lives and provided us with the precious gift of fellowship as aliens in a foreign land. They taught me much about missionary life — their struggle with isolation, fear, and separation from family, their love for their adopted country and its people, the assurance of their calling and the desire for all to know Christ. Most of all, I came to understand the tension of wanting to go home yet wanting to stay. Having a safe community to voice the trials and triumphs of living overseas was invaluable. Together we shared the unique challenges of serving the Lord as global nomads.
The community we left behind gave my husband and I the template for life and ministry upon our return to Houston, Texas. We set out to re-create a safe place for returned global workers in our city – one of the most culturally diverse in the world. Through Houston’s First Baptist Missions Department, we became involved with the Missionary Care Ministry and their network of supported workers serving internationally. We started a home group that has become a gathering place for wandering nomads who have dedicated their lives to sharing the Gospel with every nation, tribe and tongue. Today we still gather to worship, study and encourage one another in the work around the world that God has called us to do.
Global worker, where is your safe place? I encourage you to find a supportive community that understands your experience. Whether you are coming or going, the people you surround yourself with can help you adjust in a healthy way as you continue with the mission He has given you.
“and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”- Hebrews 10:24–25
Shirley Ralston (MA Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a founding member of the Missionary Care Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the Pastor’s Research Team and teaches Life Bible Study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband Jeff now reside in Houston after several years living in the Middle East and the South Pacific.