By Charles Baldis | May 20, 2021 | Return to Blog
How do overseas workers feel when returning "home" for a visit? Charles, one of our GPPD Associates in Slovakia, shares a missionary’s story and some of his personal experiences navigating culture and change.
Not Home Yet
After forty years of faithful service to the Lord in Africa, Henry Morrison and his wife were returning to New York. As the ship neared the dock, Henry said to his wife, “Look at that crowd. They haven't forgotten about us”. They didn’t realize that the ship also carried President Teddy Roosevelt, returning from a hunting trip in Africa. As Roosevelt stepped onto shore, people cheered, flags waved, and the Morrisons walked away unnoticed.
Over the next few weeks, Henry tried and failed to put the incident behind him. Sinking deeper into depression, he said to his wife, “This is all wrong. This man comes back from a hunting trip and everybody throws a big party. We give our lives in faithful service to God for all these many years, but no one seems to care.” His wife said, “Henry, you know God doesn't mind if we honestly question Him. You need to go to the Lord and get this settled now.”
Henry went into another room and poured out his heart to God. After about ten minutes of fervent prayer, Henry returned to the living room and shared: “The Lord settled it for me. I told Him how bitter I was that the President received a tremendous homecoming, but no one even met us as we returned home. When I finished, it was like the Lord put His hand on my shoulder and simply said, 'But Henry, you are not home yet!'”
Adapted from a story by Ad Dei Gloriam
My Experiences with Culture and Change
What does it feel like for a missionary to return to the States after living abroad for many years? In my experience, it can be difficult. We talk about ‘culture shock’ when we travel to another country, but there is a kind of reverse culture shock when returning to our culture of origin. We have, to some degree, assimilated into the new culture and have gotten used to living in it. But even then, it is impossible to fully assimilate. It is why MKs (missionary kids) are often called Third Culture Kids.
As we try to get along in whatever culture we’re in, we often fail to realize that all cultures are changing and evolving into something new. The easiest way to see that is to leave a culture for a number of years and see what it is like upon returning. Also, we need to keep in mind that we ourselves are changing. As one teacher said, “Only God is the One, True Being. All the rest of us are ‘becomings.’” We are constantly being influenced by what we watch, listen to, and read, and that changes our view of the world.
In this time that we are living, change is happening more rapidly than ever before. People are able to disseminate information instantly, and therefore they have a greater influence on one another. As my family and I have been in another country for almost 30 years, each time we return to the U.S. we see a contrast. It is different from Slovakia’s local culture we have gotten used to, but it is also different than we left it 30 years ago. But not only is the culture dynamic, we keep changing as we learn new things and grow spiritually, morally and intellectually. While living through those transitions, it is hard to readily see them. There may be some moments when we realize it, but generally changes creep up on us and we assimilate them without quite realizing it. In time, we can see that things aren’t how they used to be. We call it nostalgia, but really it is the culture changing according to the various influences upon it. And it also affects us as missionaries.
Here is an example of one of those changes we've observed. In our adopted country when we visit a family or they visit us, we have learned that we will spend at least a few hours talking, sharing our thoughts and opinions, and enjoying the fellowship (this usually involves good food as well!). Most of the time, no one seems to be in a hurry to move on to the next thing. When we come to the U.S., people seem to be so busy that they don’t seem to have the time to sit, fellowship, and just catch up on one another’s lives. When we come back, we long for true fellowship with other believers.
Finding Common Ground
The connection can be made between the missionary and the people in the States when we both have our focus on the same things: our consuming love for God, commitment to His Word, and love for our neighbor as ourselves. We will connect and be on the same page, no matter the changes we both have experienced, because we truly belong to the culture of the God’s kingdom.
We appreciate all of the brothers and sisters in Christ who do take the time to meet with us when we come to the States. They want to know how we are doing, are interested in what is happening in our country, and they want to meet our needs any way they can. But many people have difficulty relating to missionaries because of the differences that have developed between us over time. Another difficulty arises because we missionaries spend most of our time traveling around when we come to the States. It would be helpful if there was more time to sit down and share with one another the things that have become important to each of us. It would be an exercise in helping to reestablish shared values.
All who have accepted Jesus as Lord are in the family of God. We have a special relationship between one another. Wherever we go in the world, we pray that each of us recognizes that we are all related through our Lord Jesus. Like Henry Morrison and his wife, we are not home yet. So even when revisiting our roots in America and feeling somewhat ‘out of place,’ we know that our permanent home, like all believers, is in the kingdom of God.