This past weekend, Matt and I were reflecting on Malawi and America and the past year of wild transition. “How do you think Malawi changed you?” he posed.
“Well. I mean, I drink a lot of tea now. And I can’t drink it without milk and sugar.” I went on, “Oh. And I never ever look at my speedometer.” (My brain was never advanced enough to grasp kilometers in Malawi. Plus, I didn’t mind the cops. Thus, I gave up on ever checking my speed ever again.)
“So you drink tea with milk and you speed now? THAT’S IT?”
Obviously, that’s not it. Also, unsurprisingly, that’s precisely when the floodgates opened, and all the things just spilled right on out. But topping the list- way over and above my tea-with-milk habit- a fiery passion to protect, care for, and love our missionaries well.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO THIS. I have been asked by a number of people recently, “Hey Catherine- so-and-so is coming back to the States soon. How can we love them well? What should we say? Tell us what to doooo!” And, listen. There are few questions I love more these days. Because I HAVE THOUGHTS. And I know a whole ton of people who I care a whole ton about who will be landing on American soil in the very near future. And I just love my people, you know? And want them to feel that love when they come back. So, that’s what this is. A collection of my (SOLICITED thankyouverymuch) thoughts and sometimes fiery convictions on how we can love our returned missionaries well.
Here we go.
First and foremost- JUST BE COOL, YOU GUYS. These faces you’ve been staring at on that prayer card for the past three years? They’re just people. Believe me- I know them. I am (was?) them. I think there is sometimes a lack of engagement with people who have returned from overseas because they might seem too different… too fragile… too busy. Don’t get me started on how the hero worship of missionaries has plays into this (!), but allow me to just assure you and reassure you again. These missionaries? They’re normal. Oh my gosh THEY ARE SO FLAWED AND GREAT AND NORMAL. So, maybe just… chill out? Talk to them like normal people. Be interested in the ordinary. I know that missionaries have a tendency of shooting themselves in the feet by writing home with the big, exotic “I wrestled a cheetah barehanded and won!” stories. We have done this to our own dang selves. But I just encourage you to remember that, for as many exotic days and stories they have to wow you with, they have hundreds more that are entirely mundane. Days filled with laundry and coffee with friends and Netflix. Again, see them for the whole person they are rather than the place they live and the stories they bring.
Don’t assume that they’re thrilled to be back. If they’re apathetic or if they’re grieving, don’t take it personally. Rather, celebrate that they’ve put down such enduring, strong roots overseas. That they’ve made such great friends. Understand that they have left a whole life- and if they’re coming back long term, quite possibly a whole dream- behind. Alternatively, if they’re gung-ho stoked to be back stateside, don’t let that convince you that they haven’t been thriving overseas. It’s complicated.
Ask them what they need to truly rest while in America. And then? Allow them to rest. Overseas, many missionaries feel like they’re constantly “on.” The work expectations. The reality of being forever conspicuous as the white American. It can wear on you after a while. Allow them to blend in and just BE. But also, make sure they know they’re seen. SO EASY, RIGHT. Let them be inconspicuous! But make sure they’re seen! I get it. But how about this- just reach out to them. Say hey. Invite them over for dinner maybe. But be cool if they turn you down. Include them in hangouts, but be aware of the fact that they may feel like complete weirdos in social situations for a while. I cannot tell you how many times I thought, “HUH. I have absolutely zero I can contribute to this conversation right now” but was still so glad that I was there.
Ask who they want to see and how they want to see them. Maybe it’s getting everyone together after church one Sunday to see all the many people and kill all the many birds with a single stone. But, for some, that might be too overwhelming. Maybe it’s smaller groups at a time. And maybe– hang with me here- maybe this isn’t even a time for them to be expected to see and please the masses at all. Don’t make them do all of the work and thinking and planning- throw the options out there and let them choose.
Read up on reverse culture shock. It’s a whole thing. Be patient and gracious. Understand that people coming from African contexts, for instance, are likely used to a deeply communal culture. Slower pace of life. African time. Overscheduling them might be too much. Costco? Also too much.
Along these lines… America has changed a lot in the past few years. Covid. Culture. Covid culture. If you’re welcoming someone back anytime in the near future, be cognizant of the fact that the America they’re returning to is so different from the America they left. This might take some time for them to navigate. Few things made me feel more foreign than trying to navigate American Covid culture after having only “done” Covid in Malawi.
Ask them if they’re in therapy yet. Use the word “yet” because every missionary and cross cultural worker of any sort needs it. If they say “no,” ask them if they need any help to make it happen. Then, make it happen. Find contacts. Pay bills. Any barrier you can remove, the better.
Meet practical needs, yes. But also meet their wants, too. Insist that they make Amazon wishlists, and then buy the things. Even if “the things” consist solely of Hot Cheetos and Twizzlers. Load them up with gift cards to their favorite clothes store because MISSIONARIES WANT TO WEAR CUTE CLOTHES TOO. Buy them the new pair of Birks they want but would never ask for. Hook their kids up with tickets to a theme park for a day.
Feed them. Heavy on the Mexican. Fill their freezers. Heavy on the processed foods they might never get overseas. Flood them with gift cards to every American food place you can think of.
At the risk of sounding like your missionary friends soley care about being wined and dined and showered with new shoes and snacks, let me just let it be said that if you asked any one of my missionary friends right this moment, “How can we bless you and your ministry?” they’d come at you with “OH I know this widow” or “there’s this kid who needs a doctor” or any number of completely selfless, others-centric requests. Hear those out too. To your missionary friends, those are more than just stories. Those are their people. And loving their people loves them.
(….but, uh, buy up their Amazon wishlists too.)
If they’re on a team, ask them how things are going with their team. If they’re with an organization, ask them about their relationship with their sending organization. Listen well. Ask follow up questions. And then ask more. These can be lonely, weighty topics for missionaries to broach, and so often, these are the big conversations that never come up but so desperately need to be hashed out. Give them the space to do the hashing.
Don’t refer to “their trip.” This is their lives that they’re living overseas. This is where they have friends and houseplants and pets and memories and holidays.
Don’t make comments about “ohhh it must be nice to have a house helper!” Try living with haphazard power and water and zero convenience foods and then get back to me about how easy they have it. (That said. I would do anything to have Amayi Ephace in my kitchen right this second making her unbelievably delicious chicken tenders and homemade tortillas. THERE ARE PERKS TOO.)
Don’t tell them you know what it’s like because of that 10 day mission trip you went on once. I’m so pumped that you have been on short-term trips, but your week and a half doesn’t translate to their lives.
Don’t put them on a pedestal they were never intended to stand upon. I already mentioned this, but the hero-worship of missionaries has caused grave damage- to missionaries, to the church, and to missions as a whole. Acknowledge them, yes. Celebrate them, absolutely. Dub them a hero or superstar or anything of the like? Hard no.
Finally. (Ish.) If I have one major soapbox, it is this:
ASK. GOOD. QUESTIONS.
Be curious. Curiosity communicates interest which communicates care. Care for your missionaries well.
Ask to see pictures. And videos. ENGAGE WITH THE PICTURES. Don’t you dare let your eyes glaze over. Ask even more questions. Ask them the names of their friends in the pictures. Probe for stories. Most people want to talk and share- they have this huge repository of stories and experiences that has been accumulating for years- and it can feel indulgent and selfish to bring it up ourselves. Many people just need someone to bear witness to their experiences, their stories, their trauma, and the beauty of their lives overseas. Be that somebody.
“Well HUH, Catherine. This sounds hard. Where should I even start?”
WOW LOOK AT YOU ASKING SUCH GREAT QUESTIONS. Here are more to get you going!
Possible questions to ask your favorite returned missionary slash expat slash cross-cultural worker:
What wins have you had over the past few months? What’s been really easy and lifegiving and great?
What’s been the hardest for you lately?
Who are your people right now? What does community look like? Do you feel like there are people who have your back here in the States and in your host country?
Tell me what you love about your host country. What do you miss the most right now?
What’s most overwhelming these days about living in your host country?
What does rest look like for you overseas? Are you making time for rest? What are you doing for fun these days? Any great vacations recently?
Have you had any friends leave the country this year? How has that experience been for you?
What are you most excited about, ministry-wise, over the next few months?
Let’s just be real for a second though, shall we...
If you don’t already have a relationship with these people, now’s probably not the time to gaze deep in their eyes and ask “no, how are you really?” questions and to expect vulnerability. Now is the time to start building that relationship. To start walking alongside them. But then, keep walking. And as they continue on in their lives, wherever that might be, and you continue on in yours, and you both continue in one another’s… trust will build. Conversations will deepen.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. And my missionary friends? They absolutely need cheerleaders along the mile markers, cheering them on and offering them a cup of cold (unfiltered!) (parasite-free!) water. But they also need people who are going to stay in step with them along the way. Throughout the entirety of the marathon they’re running. God gave us both over the years. The cold-water cheerleader people and the marathon-running “how are you really” people, and I cannot even begin to tell you. It made all the difference.
We’ve been back for six months now, and the truth is- this life to which I’m speaking is no longer my life. These specific issues and needs? No longer my needs. But these people for whom we are caring? 100% still my people. Let’s care for them well.