I sat in the small local church trying to stay cool and struggling to pay attention. I couldn’t believe I had found a place more humid than my hometown of Houston, Texas. “A church without walls” took on a new meaning for me that day—no walls, no air conditioning, and an unreliable power source that sometimes ran the overhead fans. I looked around at the congregation made of up people who looked nothing like me and sometimes worshiped in a language I did not understand. I had never felt more out of place.
My husband and I were in the middle of an expat assignment through his job that began in 2010 and lasted for six years. What we thought would be a fairly short-term venture turned into a global experience that changed our lives. I remember well the wise counsel of my mentor as we prepared to leave the United States. Amidst the excitement and anticipation of the adventure awaiting us, her advice was the best I would receive regarding my overseas life: “Make sure you remember to take care of your physical health, your mental health, and, most of all, your spiritual health.”
“I came to understand the vexing feeling that missionaries often experience: longing to go home yet wanting to stay and continue to work towards the salvation of those they serve.”
Her words rang true that day in the small local church in the South Pacific. In time I would come to love the local church and especially the sweet local people I came to know. And it was there that I was introduced to the missionary community that would ultimately change the direction of my life and ministry. With a simple invitation to their weekly home group, the Lord provided my husband and me with the precious gift of fellowship and community we so desperately needed as aliens in a foreign land.
As healing as this community was for me, it was also a valuable training ground. In the years that followed, I learned much about the lives of missionaries: their struggle with isolation, fear, and separation from family, their love for the country and its people, the assurance of their calling, and the desire for all to know Christ.
And most of all, I came to understand the vexing feeling that missionaries often experience: longing to go home yet wanting to stay and continue to work towards the salvation of those they serve. Even though I was living overseas because of a work assignment, and that made my situation different, having a safe place to voice the paradox of the triumphs and trials of our shared experience was invaluable. We were a community who, together, understood the unique challenges and privileges of serving the Lord as global nomads.
Reverse Culture Shock
When we returned to the United States in 2016, the missionary community remained heavy on our hearts. My own reverse culture shock fueled an intense desire for the community we left behind. The struggles were different, but the paradox remained. I was happy to be home and close to my family again. I was thankful I didn’t have to wash and disinfect my vegetables and worry about parasites, malaria, or medical care.
But my feeling of isolation remained and my spiritual life was really out of sorts. My former relationships with family and friends didn’t meet my idealized expectations. Driving Houston freeways was a nightmare. Even shopping at our local grocery store and choosing from twenty different types of cereal was initially overwhelming and brought me to tears. Even church was hard. I wondered what my host country friends would think about our extravagant First World worship services. I needed to talk about it and there seemed to be nowhere to turn. And if I was struggling, then I knew others were as well.
Care, Connection, and Community
It was during this reentry period that I discovered the missions department at our home church was taking a fresh look at missionary care. The burden that God had placed on our hearts for the global worker was met by a young, energetic, missions department staffer who shared our vision.
It was confirmation that God’s timing and our experience had uniquely placed us in a position to provide support for our church’s global worker community. We had questions that burdened all of our hearts: What was our responsibility to our global workers? What could we do to support them on and off the field? After all, were we not God’s fellow workers, meant to be laboring in tandem with those who are actively called to work the fields (Phil. 2:4; 1 Cor. 3:9)?
Missionary care encompasses many aspects, but we knew the very first thing we needed was a place for global workers to gather together. Whatever their current situation, they needed the care, connection, and community that fellow nomads could provide for one another (Rom. 12:13–15). And so, our home group was quickly established. It didn’t take long for our home to fill with sweet wandering souls whose call in life was to serve the nations.
“Missionary care encompasses many aspects, but we knew the very first thing we needed was a place for global workers to gather together.”
That was two years ago. Today our home group continues to fill with people in different stages of their wandering life. How do they find me? It usually begins with an email.
“Hi, I got your info from a friend. I heard about your home group for people who lived overseas. I’d really like to come. Do you have room for me?”
Sometimes it’s just a knock on my door with a, “Hi, my name is . Are you Shirley?”
Most all have dedicated their lives to missions and they are either preparing to leave for the field or they have just returned home. They are single, married, young, middle-aged, retired, on furlough, support raising, home for medical or family-related issues, or just plain burned out. Our band of brothers and sisters is multigenerational and multiethnic with myriad international experience.
Present in each precious one is the Spirit-inspired wanderlust God has given to those he has called to go to the nations. As we worship, study, and fellowship together, we are doing just what Paul beseeched those in the first-century church to do: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing. Now we ask you, brothers, to give recognition to those who labor among you and lead you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess. 5:11–12 HCSB).
In this way, it is my hope that we are enabling the global worker community to complete the work of delivering the saving message of Christ to wherever God has called them to serve. And when it is time for them to return home they will, in peace, wander back to home and bed.