We all hear the inspiring stories of brave men and women who give up possessions, homes, careers, and the comfort of the United States to move to an underdeveloped country. They go to serve the poor, the marginalized and the disenfranchised. Missionaries sacrifice much, and sometimes all, to spread the Gospel of Jesus; but what happens when the mission is over? When these courageous men and women come back to what was once called their “home”, do they acclimate back into their own culture with ease?
Culture Shock is defined by Segen's Medical Dictionary © as “a constellation of emotions including a sense of isolation, rejection and alienation which is experienced by a person or group when transplanted from a familiar to an unfamiliar culture—e.g., from one country to another; disorientation and confusion when visiting or relocating to [a] culture different from one’s own”. Reverse Culture Shock (RCS) is when you experience these emotions returning to your passport country after being on assignment that is over a long period of time.
Studies show that most missionaries return home and find that through it all looks very familiar, nothing is quite right; but they are not alone in their experience of RCS. The US State Department, the US Military, Multi-national corporations and the United Nations all struggle with this issue. The effects of RCS impact their staff and employees that work outside their home country and return home to experience RCS at every age. These organizations experience high levels of attrition from their repatriated personnel. As a result, these large organizations have dedicated significant resources to mitigate the effects of RCS in forms of pre-deployment training, pre-return and post return debriefing, free access to professional mental health counselors when needed at home, mentor/life coaching programs, and the like. The reality of RCS is that across all nationalities, gender, generation and religion, no one is immune.
My wife and I with our two young girls moved to the mountains of southeast Haiti for an agriculture-based mission. After three years we had begun to see substantial benefits and successes of all our hard work. We focused our efforts on agriculture per the community’s request. Some of our programs included cooking classes, farming techniques, scholarships for children in the local schools, we had brought the local churches (Protestant and Catholic) together to begin cooperating in the mission of community development which included bible distribution to churches that never had the book in their own language. We were making some amazing in-roads.
Then it happened. I received call from my brother letting me know that my dad passed away. When we left the US to go to on assignment in Haiti, I had two healthy parents cheering us on to go and serve. Now I was back in the US, having to care of my grieving, handicapped mother (she had a stroke 6 months after I left to the mission field), with no job, my two kids and wife and a few suitcases. This event cascaded into a free fall, spiraling downward. In a moment’s notice we stumbled out of a flourishing mission and began living a dark reality. It brought an end to a thriving gospel-centered community development program. We entered a season of loss. We lost family, friends, community, we even lost our pets. We kept realizing loss and then grieved and lost some more and grieved more. The season seemed endless and it change us permanently.
In the midst of this dark time in our lives, I started realizing that I was dealing with more than the grief of losing a parent. I could not fit back in to my old relationships. I became overly critical and uncomfortable with life here in the US. I was home but felt like I was in a strange land. I began to research and sought after other men and women who had done similar work but now are back in the US. I discovered that we were not alone. Every single person who serves cross-culturally has to deal with RCS at some level.
This lead me to Compass Ministries (CM). During my time of research and networking, I joined them in caring for missionaries and their college-aged kids. I found that many people suffer silently from RCS and have no access to care or at times do not understand why they are experiencing the effects of it. Some symptoms are: being overly critical, feeling marginalized, exhausted and stressed, self-doubt, depression, anxiety, constant need for pulling away from activity, resisting the concept of being “home”.
Compass Ministries provides professional care to men, women, and their families who experience RCS. Craig Storti's book The Art of Coming Home explains some important factors in experiencing RCS. In his "Figure 2.1: Some Variables Affecting Reentry," he states:
Voluntary versus involuntary reentry: involuntary is worse
Expected versus unexpected reentry: unexpected is harder
Age: reentry may be easier for older people who have been through more life transitions.
Previous reentry experience: the first time is worse.
Length of the overseas stay: the longer the sojourn, the greater the chance for adaptation; hence the harder it may be to leave and come home.
Degree of interaction with the overseas culture: the more involved you become in the local culture the harder it may be to leave it behind.
The reentry environment: the more familiar and supportive the easier the reentry.
Amount of interaction with the home culture during the overseas sojourn: the more familiar the returnee is with changes in the home culture the easier the reentry.
Degree of difference between the overseas and the home culture: the greater the difference, the harder the reentry.
Each of these variables are in play when a missionary comes home. It is the moral, spiritual and financial responsibility of churches and sending organizations to care for missionaries they send or fund. This care should last until such time as the missionary and family who served can come back to a functioning level of life. This burden should not be theirs to be carried alone. Compass Ministries provides services directly to the missionary in the form of pastoral counseling, creating community, and training while on assignment and when repatriated. Additionally, CM provides to both churches and sending organization access to professional training for their staff to prepare them to receive their own back home and to keep them in their community.
I am an advocate for this issue. My hope is to make sure the courageous men and women compelled by the love of Jesus to go and serve are received home in a responsible, kind and healthy way. No one has to go through RCS alone.