I’m part of several missionary/expat networks because of what we do and I can’t tell you how often I have conversation with people or see threads online with articles posted about the challenges and complications, as well as the blessings and great things that can come with living this crazy life that so many lead. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about things. And, frankly, I’m kind of tired of hearing complaints about things because in any situation the best people to speak up about things are those that are most closely affected by it. The people to challenge expectations are the ones that live through the schisms that can happen because of those expectations. I was recently reading a thread on Facebook that came from a picture of a very inappropriate statement made in a newspaper about a donation for Haiti and a comment was posted, “I wish there was a way to share the truth in love.” My response? “There is. You just do it.”
So, here’s me sharing my heart, thoughts, opinions – whatever you want to call them – in love. There is no spirit of condemnation or judgement in anything that is going to come with these posts (because there are going to be several) but rather a spirit of hoping to share how missions is challenging, what has changed, and doing so with love. Some of this is hard to process and might be hard to read because I think we like what is comfortable and familiar, but let me tell you, anyone that has “gone” to the mission field is face to face with everything that is uncomfortable, and thus part of the struggle. I’m hoping that maybe these posts will give some insight and challenge thinking, promote prayer for those you know who are serving and encourage you to think about how you can better support those of us in the field.
So, lets get started, shall we?
When I realized I was being called into full time missions here in Haiti I was the first to admit that it was a hard decision to make. It was literally a two year process for me to get to the place of accepting that this was God’s next step for me. It was two years of internally battling everything that I thought was part of my life picture with this new “thing” that kept being brought to the surface. I had spent 4 years at a very missions minded Bible college and pushed against that because missions was not for me. Then I found myself in that place where that’s what God put in front of me. During that time I learned that God is so very patient with us and the processes we often need to go through to align with his plans for our lives.
None of the process was easy for me. It was emotionally painful at times. It meant taking all my hopes and dreams for what I thought life was going to look like and literally giving them up. And in that process, having no idea what would replace them. Imagine a big floating blob in place of visions of sitting on the sidelines of soccer games and family gatherings.
After talking to every single missionary that I know about what was involved in them coming into the field I can tell you that not a single one of them had an easy decision or process in walking this path. Even those that had felt a long term calling to missions work still went through a process with actually getting to the field, whether it was having to raise support or dealing with every personal possession that they have every owned. None of it is easy.
I know that it’s natural human tendency to want to find some sort of way to relate our own personal experiences with someone else because it’s what helps us connect with one another at a heart level, to feel like we’re in community. That said, while well intended, please know that trying to equate moving to the mission field with moving to a new town or even across country is going to leave a missionary feeling flat. They just simply aren’t the same things.
Walk with me here…
Imagine having to go through the emotional process of letting go of your hopes and dreams, just to start with. Then the acceptance of a new life picture. From there you have to go through the steps of that becoming a reality. These decisions don’t happen in a vacuum, only impacting ourselves or our spouses and children. They affect extended family. They affect friends. They affect co-workers, church communities, volunteer networks and all of the other relationships that we have ever had with people in our home country. Why? Because on the surface we’re making the very conscious decision to step away from all of that, from everyone, and leave.
And yet, in that process of preparing every aspect of leaving what has always been home, we are walking in a deep sense of obedience to God. And many times these decisions don’t make sense, especially to those in our lives who may not share our same faith beliefs. How do you explain what “calling” is, or obedience in these situations where people just see us leaving?
In the process of figuring out how to deal with the things of life, whether it’s selling homes, vehicles, raising finances, and the logistics of moving to an entirely different culture where you have no idea how to navigate everything, we have all gone through a grief process.
While everyone else is aware of the fact that we’re leaving and will be feeling all sorts of things because of it, so are we.
I don’t even know if I can clearly describe the grieving process that happens when one has to walk into what they know is right and in line with what God is wanting for them and how he wants to use us, at the same time as having to let go of so many things. Life plans. Dreams. Knowing you’ll miss so many family gatherings. The day to day things that happen in the lives of those we love. Changing seasons. Holidays. Milestones. Knowing that the very act of walking in obedience may leave those we care about most feeling abandoned, hurt, angry or confused.
A missionary friend here has talked on her blog about the grief on all sides that occurs because of this life that we live. As much as it is a choice for those of us who go, it isn’t. It isn’t because we know that not doing so would mean we weren’t walking in obedience and that there would be no peace until we do. While the first year or so may be filled with the newness and the challenges that come with adapting and trying to figure out life, in the quiet places we’re all grieving the things that we can’t be doing or part of.
We’re away from the people who have been the closest to us. We miss how holidays are celebrated and feel the challenges of trying to maintain something that feels normal and familiar in places where it’s often anything but because of cultural differences. We experience things that are so incredibly hard to explain in any way that will make sense to someone who isn’t in the culture full time, and often can’t which leaves us feeling alone because YOU are the people we want to share these things with. When we come home for any kind of visit we’re fully aware that life goes on for everyone and in the same way that it’s hard for people to relate to our life, it gets harder and harder to keep up to date with what’s going on for everyone else. Technology passes us by and we feel proud of ourselves for catching up or trying to stay current in any way that we can. In many ways we feel lost. Maybe the better way to describe it is that we feel like we’re straddling two worlds that can be so completely different from each other that we literally feel like two different people co-existing in the same body.
And it’s hard.
The person that I am in Haiti would probably surprise many people that know me from my pre-Haiti life. Before I moved here I hated confrontation. I wasn’t a really assertive person. I sure didn’t speak two languages. I think my willingness to stand up for what was right was fluid and based on my comfort level. Here in Haiti… Wow. The culture in general is much more in your face and aggressive and in order to get anything done here you have to learn to adapt to that. Sometimes that means I get loud and in peoples faces. Sometimes the situation calls for schmoozing and stroking egos. Having the wisdom to know which way to go is always needed. I am more confident as a person now that I think I was back home. I drive a heck of a lot differently than I did back in Canada, that’s for sure. As a woman I’ve had to learn certain things for my own safety, and also to be taken seriously. And in all honesty, if many people from back home saw me having to be the Haiti Leslie I’m not sure they would be comfortable with it all of the time, simply because it’s not who they know me to be. But, all of it is me now.
For those of you we leave behind, please hear me when I tell you this:
We miss you. We love you. We feel like we disappoint you in many ways because we can’t be there. Every family gathering that we’re not there for, or special event, we feel it. There are tears and long conversations about how hard this is. If we could be in two places at once most of us would choose that in a heart beat.
I’ve been here for 8.5 years, and it doesn’t get any easier in many ways. The longer I’m here the more aware I am of the things I’m missing. Or, of the things I may miss. In the time I’ve been here I’ve had several family members pass away, and I haven’t been there for a single funeral. Last summer when I was home me and the kids went to see my Grandad and I knew from his behavior that it was the last time I was going to see him. I went to my Granny’s house and cried and talked and even as I write this tears are coming because I was right. And it’s still hard. There have been multiple family reunions, and I haven’t been there for a single one. Weddings. I was able to go home for my brothers wedding, but Chris and Olivia couldn’t because her adoption wasn’t finished. Birthdays. Big anniversary celebrations. I had to wait 4.5 months to meet my nephew and I still haven’t met my niece. She was born last September. It grieves me to know that our parents can’t have as much time with our kids as I know they all want because we’re here. It physically hurts to know how different all of these relationships and life moments are from what I thought they would be when I was younger.
But, I can say without a shadow of doubt, that this is where I know I’m supposed to be. Where we’re supposed to be. And there is peace in that.
I share all of this so that you can know – for a missionary, or even an expat in general, while on the surface we might smile and tell you all the great things about life, we also experience a deep sense of loss. Not once or twice, but rather in an ongoing basis. Every time something happens that we can’t be part of, we are reminded of the sacrifices on all sides and we grieve. We grieve knowing what we’re missing and we grieve knowing that our calling means others go without our presence in some way and the impact that can have on relationships.
As missionaries go into the field there’s also the process of coming home. I say coming home because really, that’s what it is. We leave one place, calling it home, and go to another and work at getting to the place where we can call it home. I think there are several phases to this process too, and knowing about them might help you understand what’s going on for us, and may provide more grace all around.
When we first get to the field, everything is new and fascinating as well as hard and not what we expected it to be. I usually equate this with becoming childlike again. We have to learn to walk, talk and just do life all over again. Cultural differences complicate things, and often the basic amenities look very different than they do back home. We might go without a lot of things, but that actually helps us appreciate those things even more. There is also typically a phase that involves becoming critical of what people live in back home. Let me assure you, it’s part of the adaptation process and it happens because we’re trying to make sense of coming from a culture with so much to a place so vastly different, and trying to figure out where we fit in all of that. What’s right? What’s wrong? How would Christ want us to live??? So many questions.
A while in there seems to be a transition that happens with people who dig in for the long term. I’m going to define long term as more than 3-4 years. When you live cross culturally for any less there’s still a sense of it being temporary, so you don’t settle in the same way. When you get to the 3-4 year mark you’ve invested (hopefully) yourself enough that you feel like you’re starting to figure things out. You’re learning language, you can do things more easily because you’ve started to understand how systems work, you have a better grasp on the culture, and you sort of arrive at a new level of comfort in that you don’t feel like everything is new and crazy. In Haiti this point is very distinct. It happens after the “honeymoon” where everything is great and fun and everyone is so nice wears off, and after the anger and frustration, as well as the cynicism seem to fade and you get to a level of acceptance. Sure signs here are when you see an expat or missionary asked a question about why things are the way they are and they shrug their shoulders and do this weird hand slap thing which is a non-verbal way of saying “I don’t know” here. And if you think this process closely resembles the grieving process you would be right. And please refer to everything before this paragraph.
Those of us who are here past that stage start to go through this shift. It’s a shift where we realize that we need to start setting down roots in a new way. For many there is some sort of process that involves stepping back from ministry a bit to find more balance between ministry and having some sort of doable life over the long term. Yes, God calls us to minister, but Jesus also set the example of rest and time with those he cared about. He did that because we need it. For those of us living in places with very basic amenities, we often get to a place where the exoticness of “camping” all the time wears off and it’s just plain draining. We realize that to be truly effective over the long term means we might need to have more creature comforts that we did initially because not having them is sucking energy, sleep, emotional reserves and making us less effective. (I’m going to touch on this more in another post, so I’ll stop there). We realize that having things that make life here feel like home isn’t such a bad idea after all.
For Chris and I this has been an ongoing process. What we needed when we were single was different from when we were newlyweds. As single people it was okay that we had other people living in our spaces and sharing a house. Obviously that was very different after we got married. As we welcomed Olivia into our family things changed again. Space felt more confined. I noticed that my sense of privacy shifted. When Alex came along our need for family time increased. It meant making changes to how we did life. Asking ourselves the question, “What do we need to do this long term” on a regular basis helps. Over time small things like screens and full time power have made a big difference. Things that we thought we would never do, we’ve started doing. Things we were critical of, we now do. Our home has evolved from a place where we lived to a place that truly feels like home.
And that’s where I’m going with this. For any missionary there is a process that we all go through that has us go from identifying the places we come from as “home” to the places we are as “home”. And, in that, our definition of what “home” means change too. My brother in law, who’s three kids mostly grew up on the mission field once said, “Our kids have come to define home as our family, not an actual place.”
Missionary families have to work hard at establishing a sense of home in a place that feel so foreign. It means working at relationships, whether it’s with nationals or other missionaries/expats – or all of them – to build up an in-country support network. People who understand the challenges of living cross-culturally. We have been so blessed over the years to be part of a network of missionaries in our local area, but even within that there were many years where Chris and I were the only young married couple, then the only young family. In the past year and a half God has brought a bunch of wonderful, long term minded people into our area that have young families and I don’t even have the words to tell you how that’s changed life for us. Ministry life can be very busy, so even finding or making the time to be part of regular bible studies or even social gatherings can be challenging, or maybe logistically because of distance or other issues just getting to each other can be hard. That’s why some missionaries look so attention starved when they’re on home visits :)
One conversation I’ve been having a lot in the past year with some of my friends here, people who are long termers as per the definition I gave earlier, is about actually making our homes feel like home. At the same time we’ve all gotten to this place of realizing that not only is this IT for our families for the long term, that we also want it to be our home – that place of rest where we can step away from everything and just be. You know who got the conversation started in our home? Nope, not me. It was Chris. And it started with some picture frames that I had been given. Last summer he told me that we needed to just spend some money and print some pictures to put in the frames and finally hand some on our walls. Yes, we’d been married for over 7 years at the time, and had not one single picture of any family member in a frame on our walls. Crazy, right?
You see, we had to go through this emotional process of realizing that even though we’re surrounded by people that have very little, it was okay for us to do something familiar to us, like hang family pictures on the walls. As we’ve learned more about Haitian culture we’ve learned that the outside of a home might be very basic, but inside the family will most likely have some way of storing every single item that is of any importance to them. It may be as simple as one small table where they display a few nice dishes, or maybe they have a wood cabinet with everything of value shoved in it. The point is, at our human core, we all appreciate things that are beautiful and we want to have those around us, no matter how meager they may look to someone else. We came back last summer and I hung pictures. Then I made some shelves for more pictures. And I put up stuff on our walls. And you know what? I overheard my husband talking to others about how much our house felt like a home. Since then I think we’ve settled into this life a bit more, dug a bit deeper. It’s not just something we talk about, it is us.
This is our life. This is our home.
The places Chris and I are from will always be home in some way. It’s where our families and friends are. But Haiti is where our little family is. Our kids may be Canadian/American by what their passports say, but they identify home as Haiti. No matter what Chris and I tell them or how many times we travel back to our homes, Haiti will be home for Alex and Olivia. That brings with it a whole different set of complexities, something I want to talk more about in another post as well. But, it is what it is, and I think I’ve only really learned to accept this in the past few months. This is their home. And, as time goes on, this is where Chris and I have come to identify home as too. This is where we were newlyweds, where we became parents for the first time, where our kids took their first steps, and many other things. It’s where we’ve developed our identity as a family.
We love going on vacation, back to our homes for Chris and I, but we also love coming home to our work, routines, beds and life here. I’ve learned in the last year that it’s okay to not straddle both all the time or feel stretched between the two. I can thoroughly enjoy the times where I go home, but this is where we do our day to day and I need to be fully present here. As we’ve worked through plans for the new house at the new mission property I can’t help but be excited for how our family will be able to live there, but I think what really settled something deep in my spirit is what a friend said a couple weeks ago, “This is going to be your “forever home” for your family. This is it. Unless God does some crazy thing where you know you need to leave Haiti this is it until you retire. This is where your kids will become teenagers and leave for college from. This is it! And I’m so excited for you!” Her point was that it was okay and right to be thinking through details because it wasn’t just a house, it would be our home in the same way it would be if we went through the process back home. It didn’t matter that it was a mission building, it was going to be where we spent the rest of our ministry life as we see it at this point.
I want you to know that writing this is not easy. It stirs things. I’ve cried repeatedly through it. Some of this is still raw, and probably always will be because it will always be there, just in slightly different forms as time goes by. That said, I can also see how God has cared for us and provided for those deep losses over the years. Chris’ parents were here 10 days after we brought Olivia home on what was already a planned visit. My parents were here for Olivia’s first Christmas, and during a fire that had me watching Chris run out of a burning building. Chris’ Mum and sister arrived a day after my miscarriage, and his dad and other sister were here to see Olivia take her first steps. We were in Canada with my family when we received Olivia’s Canadian citizenship papers and were able to celebrate with them. Both families got to meet Alex after he was born. We got to spend his first Christmas with my family, as well as his first birthday. We have had family walk beside us through some really dark times, in very practical ways. Our families are regularly advocating for what we do as a ministry and sharing that with others. It all means the world to us.
I don’t want to just leave these posts as a series of things to throw out there and leave. What I would love to do is ask you to pray these things over people that you know who might be serving in the mission field. At the end of each of these posts I want to include a really specific set of prayer items and I ask you pray them specifically as a means of supporting those of us, and those we leave at home.
- For the grief process that can take years as we go into the field. For the losses, the missed things, relationships and all that we feel we miss out on.
- Pray for family and friends back home who go through their own losses and grief with us not being there. For our church families, social networks, etc.
- Pray for great relationships in our adopted countries – relationships that can provide support, love, people to celebrate holidays with, stand in aunts and uncles and grandparents for our kids, and overall understanding of the challenges of missionary life. These are often one of the most needed things for any missionary to be in the field over the long term, and often not prioritized when establishing oneself in the field for the sake of ministry work.
- For the struggle between where we come from and where we are, and that we find a place to settle and set roots. It’s complicated to explain, and adds to the grief process in many ways.