Returning to the States after serving overseas was a hard time for my wife and me. We were grieving our losses and were struggling with the difficulties we’d already faced and those we saw ahead. We prayed and prayed but didn’t receive clear direction from God. In our spiritual malaise it was hard to slide back into a church service and cheerfully sing praise songs. So we often stayed seated while others stood, and prayed silently while others sang.
While we didn’t hear the audible voice of God in answer to our prayers, we did read the words of David in communion with our prayers:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1-2a NIV)
We still sometimes find ourselves sitting and praying during our church’s worship service, and we still sometimes call to God with the opening words of the 13th Psalm. So when I saw syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly’s post at On Religion last month, “Open Bible to Psalms: What Messages Are Seen There but Not in Modern Praise Music?” it caught my attention. And then as I read on and saw him quoting Craig Greenfield, a past contributor to A Life Overseas, I was pulled in.
In his essay, Mattingly discusses Michael J. Rhodes’ analysis of the 25 top Christian worship songs (from a ranking by Christian Copyright Licensing International). Rhodes finds that in their lyrics, justice appears only once, enemies “rarely show up,” and there is no mention of the poor, widows, refugees, or the oppressed, even though those are common themes in the Psalms. “Maybe most devastatingly,” he writes on Twitter, “in the Top 25, not a SINGLE question is ever posed to God.”
Craig, who has spent years living among and working with the poor overseas, responds by lamenting the lack of lamenting in our worship, the absence of mourning with those who mourn over the state of a world that’s “all messed up.” He writes, “Sometimes it’s a broken, evil place and His Kingdom has not yet come in full.”
The Psalms often express lamenting in blunt questions posed to God, questions such as “How long?”
That’s how long we served overseas. And next month, that will be how long since we moved back to the States.
This year, this month, is also a milestone for Joplin, MO, where we live. It’s the ten-year anniversary of the F5 tornado that devastated our city on May 22. I’ve mentioned the tornado here before, including in last year’s “Coming or Going during Turbulent Times,” but it was in reference to our repatriation. Now I’d like to talk about it in another context: dealing with difficulties that happen “there” when we’re “here.”
My memory’s not really clear on all the details, but I think one of our coworkers contacted us on the morning of May 23 (we were 13 hours ahead) to tell us to go to the Weather Channel online, that a storm had hit Joplin. He, his wife, and kids had also lived in Joplin and had family there, so this was much more than just “news” for them, as well. When we got on the Internet, we saw reports of major destruction. News anchors were saying that one third of the city, home to 50,000, was gone. Surely not! we thought. They showed video of the high school, saying it was “gone” too. But we could see it. There it was! They had to be exaggerating. And yet a storm chaser cried as he stood where houses had once been.
We tried to call our son who was a sophomore at the university in Joplin, but cell service was overwhelmed. He’d been at the house of our forwarding agents nearby when the storm hit. One of them was at work at the hospital but couldn’t get home because the cars in the parking lot were stacked into piles. When we finally got ahold of him, we’d seen more of the damage than he had, because of internet and electricity outages in Joplin. We were hesitant, though, to give many details for fear we were wrong.
As it turned out, the high school was gone, even though many of the walls were still standing. Also destroyed or damaged beyond repair were five other schools, the hospital where our forwarding agent worked, a Wal-Mart, the Home Depot, and Academy Sports. The city of 50,000 suffered a horrific amount of devastation from the rain-rapped, multi-vortex tornado—up to one mile wide and on the ground for 22 miles: 161 people killed, 4,000 residential dwellings destroyed, an estimated 9,200 people displaced, 553 businesses destroyed or severely damaged.
My wife and son and I are now taking tentative steps to return to in-person church after being away for most of the past year. Last week I attended an outdoor gathering and this past Sunday we all went to the worship service and a picnic after. It does feel good to be starting back again—but it also feels very odd and awkward and overwhelming. It’s not the first time we’ve felt that way, though. It’s strangely similar to what we experienced ten years ago, when we moved from living in the capital city of Taiwan back to southwest Missouri, when we found ourselves dealing with “reverse culture shock.”
If you’re not familiar with “culture shock,” let me explain. in 1951, as the concept was being applied to expats around the world, anthropologist Cora Du Bois defined it as a “malady” you face when you arrive in a new country, “precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues.” She writes,
All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of cues, most of which we do not even carry on a level of conscious awareness. . . . Now suddenly remove all, or most, of these cues—and you have a case of culture shock. No matter how tolerant or broad-minded or full of empathy you may be—a series of props have been knocked out from under you, and more or less acute frustrations are likely to result.
Given time, most of those anxieties subside (at least to an extent) and you become acclimated to your host country, your new home. But that means upon returning to your passport country, you find that you’ve changed—and your old home has probably changed, too, while you’ve been away. You’ve adopted a new set of “familiar cues,” cues that now clash with the people around you. Many find going through this “reverse culture shock” even more difficult than what they experienced relocating overseas. It’s more or less expected that the first trip would be disorienting, but coming “home”? That should be easy, right?
My family changed a lot of our behaviors while spending time as missionaries in Taiwan. We learned to take off our shoes and put on slippers when entering someone’s house. We learned that hugging as a greeting was usually too bold a display of public affection. We learned that we should wear a mask when we weren’t feeling well to keep others from getting sick. We learned that at McDonald’s leftover food needs to be separated from the rest of the trash. And we learned that traffic signals can sometimes be treated as interesting suggestions.
Then we came back, and we learned that those lessons needed to be re-navigated.
Other Americans who move to different countries bring back their own sets of practices and attitudes and face their own brand of reverse culture shock: They may have gotten used to less personal space and wonder why Americans seem so stand-offish. They may have covered their heads and dressed to follow local customs of modesty and upon returning are uncomfortable with the styles they see all around them. They may have walked every day among extreme poverty and find the wealth in the US difficult to come to terms with.
Do you see the similarities to the adjustment to post-COVID life? Just substitute home with normal in the above transitions, and you’ll see how reverse culture shock can describe the disorientation that many are experiencing. Should we wear masks or not? Should we sit close together in large groups? Do we hug, shake hands, bump fists, tap elbows, or just say Hi at a distance? Should we follow the advice of the CDC or social media?
Some of the adaptations we’ve made over the past year we’re eager to get rid of. But some have become habit, and some we might simply prefer. Will those who’ve switched to homeschooling make it a permanent change? Will we continue working from home? Absent our usual face-to-face interactions, have we found new groups we identify with? Will we keep on attending church online? Will our churches continue to offer virtual services? Have we become more comfortable worshiping in small groups? Will we continue to Zoom into meetings? How long will a bookmark for a COVID dashboard sit at the top of our Web browsers?
And what about our children? Families who move abroad raise “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids), children who are molded by living between the world their parents grew up in and the world they themselves have grown accustomed to. It can be hard for them to find a place where they fit in, especially when, as “hidden immigrants” in their passport countries, they look on the outside as if they belong, but inside, they feel out of place. Similarly, some are labeling the children who are growing up in the shadow of COVID, or who are born into a post-COVID world, as “Generation C.” How much of an effect will the pandemic and all the restrictions associated with it have on them?
There’s something else that missionaries and other cross-cultural workers know about cultural transitions, whether coming or going: they bring a fair amount of loss and grief. They also know that this grief can become “disenfranchised” when it stays hidden inside because it doesn’t fit what others (or ourselves) think we should be feeling. Many around us have lingering health issues from COVID. Many have lost loved ones under extremely difficult circumstances. Many couldn’t be with family members as they suffered. Many had to hold memorial services over the Internet. Many have worked countless hours on the front lines. Many have lost jobs or businesses. Many are struggling to get by.
And yet the return to normal tells us that we should move on. We should celebrate. We should go to all the weddings and birthday parties and graduations and vacation getaways that we’ve missed over the last year. It can be too much for some . . . though not for all.
Many have already returned to their old lives without missing much of a beat. (Some cross-cultural workers are able to do the same.) But for those who haven’t, for those who are slow to come back to in-person worship services or who sit on the back row when they do—arriving late and leaving early, feeling more like observers than participants—there’s a need for patience and grace. That patience and grace needs to be extended from those who are comfortable to those who are not, and those who are hesitant need to extend it to themselves, and others, as well.
Please understand that not all of us who are holding back, in whatever form, are living in fear. Not all of us are judging those who take a different approach. Not all of us are trying to make a statement. Not all of us are lacking in faith.
But even for those of us who are. . . .
Patience and grace.
And in the future, if you ever see a returned missionary family sitting quietly on the back row at church, even after they’ve beenaround for a few years, please remember where they’ve come from.
By far, my post with the most views on a single day is “Eight Years Ago, ‘The Impossible’ Happened,” published the day after Christmas in 2012. In it, I write about the movie The Impossible, in which Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor portray a couple whose family is vacationing in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami hits. For some reason, that post got into the gears of Google’s machinery and for a time showed up on the first page of search results for the film’s title.
Though I don’t expect anything near those kind of results, it’s with a little bit of déjà vu that I’m now writing about Watts’ 2020 Netflix movie Penguin Bloom. Again, Watts plays a woman vacationing in Thailand with her husband and three young sons when tragedy strikes. This time, though, it’s not a region-wide disaster, but a personal one, with Watts’ character, Ann Bloom, falling off a rooftop and breaking her back, leaving her a paraplegic.
Bloom’s story following the accident is ultimately an uplifting one, with much of the inspiration coming from an odd source, an injured Australian Magpie, named Penguin, that is adopted as part of the family. You can probably see a series of clichéd plot points writing themselves, but the film is actually based on real life—with a real-life magpie—written about by Ann’s husband, Cameron, in Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family.
The first portion of the film centers on the devastating effects, physical and emotional, of Ann’s injury, with things looking much more hopeful by the end. This progression comes through in two small scenes, one early on and one much later.
In the first, Cameron comes home from work and asks Ann, “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she answers.
But then as he helps her into bed, she voices her frustration: “Never ask me that question in front of the boys again.”
“What question?” he asks.
“How am I?” she replies. “I don’t want to have to lie to them,” and he answers, “OK.”
In the second, at a more positive time in Ann’s healing, she invites Cameron to ask “that question.”
“Which question?” he asks.
She answers, “The one I told you never to ask me.”
“How are you?” he responds.
Here’s a trailer for the film, followed by a two-part story on Penguin and the rest of the Blooms from 60 Minutes Australia.
In October of 2001, my wife and I boarded a flight and moved our family from the US to our new home in Asia. Nearly ten years later, in June of 2011, we moved back to our old home in Joplin, Missouri. Those dates may not jump out at you, but the first was one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second was one month after an F5 tornado destroyed about a quarter of Joplin, killing 161.
When you relocate to a different culture, your world is turned upside down. How much more so when the earth itself seems to be tilted off its axis.
Some of you are making a cross-cultural transition right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a global recession, and far-reaching upheavals confronting racism. So much emotional multitasking. So many unknowns. You’re not only tackling culture stress or reverse culture stress, but you’re trying to get used to a new normal when the old normal is challenging enough already.
There’s another term for new normal. It’s abnormal (at least for a while).
Speaking of culture, you have your own “cancel culture”: cancelled flights. cancelled church services, cancelled good-bye gatherings, cancelled welcome parties, cancelled support, cancelled camps, cancelled vacations, cancelled retreats, cancelled trainings, cancelled conferences, cancelled debriefings, cancelled classes, cancelled job opportunities, cancelled leases, cancelled assumptions, cancelled plans.
And when you get to make your trip, your first experience after you land is to self-quarantine for two weeks.
I saw a headline a couple weeks ago that pressed down on my chest like a heavy stone. It read, “‘Don’t You Love Us?’ Millennials Say Their Parents Are Making Them Feel Guilty for Turning Down Invitations to Come Over for Passover and Easter.” While the lead-in question is directed at young adults, asked by parents who don’t understand why they won’t be sharing a holiday meal together during the pandemic, it could just as easily be asked of health-care workers or grocery-store employees by loved ones wondering why they are putting themselves at risk by going to work every day.
So this is another thingthat cross-cultural workers face that is similar to what’s been brought on by COVID-19: the questions.
Hands up. When you decided to work overseas, did any of you hear “Don’t you love us?” or something similar, from parents, siblings, children, or close friends? How many of you have heard it more than once, maybe each time you say goodbye?
When we make decisions based on our convictions, when we decide to do something difficult or out of the ordinary because we believe it to be right, our actions often affect others, especially those closest to us. And they have questions, and those questions can land with a thud.
Lately, my wife and I have been video chatting with two of our sons, their wives, and our four little grandkids. That’s what you do when your children are serving in a faraway land. That’s what you do, too, when your children, like ours, are close by but COVID-19 protocols tell you to stay home.
When we started out overseas, our parents didn’t have computers and Skype hadn’t even been invented yet, but I know how important video conferencing has become for ocean-separated families wanting to stay in touch. And my recent experiences back in the States have got me thinking about what cross-cultural workers (CCWs) can teach the rest of us about life under the cloud of a pandemic. While people all over the world are scrambling to overcome challenges in a matter of days or weeks, CCWs have been tackling similar problems for years.
Now I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’d like to consider the things that CCWs often take for granted that those “at home” can gain from. It’s not too common for senders to seek your input. “What is there to learn from people who do abnormal things because they live in abnormal places?” But as we all get used to a new normal, at least for a while, we all have things to learn.
There’s a lot of dialogue going on now about how to cope under “social distancing,” “sheltering in place,” and “quarantines.” I hope those of you working abroad are invited to give your input. You have a lot to share.
Here are some examples I’m thinking of:
You and your loved ones have dealt with extended separation and have navigated holidays and special events at a distance. You are masters at video chatting online, wrestling into submission Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, and the list goes on. And you’ve developed your own ways of connecting grandkids to Grandpa and Grandma when face-to-face isn’t an option.
A group of five women, all daughters of missionaries, recently went on NBC’s Today to share their stories of sexual abuse in New Tribes Mission boarding schools. One dorm father, whom the women from Fanda Missionary School in Senegal name as their abuser, left the school in 1988. Another dorm father, named by the women from a school in Aritao, the Philippines, was removed from his position in 1993.
It’s been more than 25 years since the latest of their abuse took place, yet these women are still bringing it up. Why?
In their interview, Today‘s Kate Snow asks the five to pick a word to answer the question “What’s this about for you?”
“Truth,” they say. “Justice.”
When Snow commends them for their strength in speaking up, Kelly Emory, who is not only a victim but also a daughter of the accused abuser at her school, says,
I’m strong for the little girl that was never able to say anything, and I’m strong for her, and I’m a strong woman. And I’ll do my best to protect anybody who sees this and wants to speak out. You can come and talk to me. Come and talk to me. I will protect you.
Another of the group, Jaasiel Mashek, in an article at NBC News, says, “If we don’t speak up, it’s going to keep happening. And we’re going to pass on that mentality of covering it up to the next generation. It’s got to stop.”
That’s why they’re still talking. They don’t want it to happen again. They don’t want the rest of us to forget. They don’t want us to think that silence is a remedy.
After the interview aired, Larry M. Brown, CEO of Ethnos360 (formerly New Tribes Mission) responded with an apology and a thank you, writing,
We wish to express our deepest gratitude to these women who came forward and others who have raised awareness of abuse. It is because of their willingness to share their painful stories that . . . preventative measures have been put in place, and we want to publicly thank them.
I want to thank them, too. I know I still need to hear their voices. Their stories are not new to me, but I’d already swept them to the corners of my memory, stripped of faces and details, kept where I can know that they exist without having to acknowledge them often. But I need to remember, really remember, because otherwise it’s too easy for me to give in to my tendencies to ignore hard things, to avoid confrontation, to give the benefit of the doubt when faced with suspicious activities, to hope that things will take care of themselves, and to protect the mission. In this I’m not alone.
And sadly, children in New Tribes Mission haven’t been the only ones to suffer abuse—sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, or spiritual abuse—from missionaries. In 2008, the production company Good Hard Working People produced the film All God’s Children, focusing on accounts of abuse that took place from 1950-1970 at Mamou Alliance Academy, a Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) boarding school in Guinea. The film is available online in 10 parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.
In the following video from The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS—now thirtyone:eight), Wess Stafford, president emeritus of Compassion International, tells of his own experiences as a victim of abuse at Mamou:
Beverly Shellrude Thompson, one of several former Mamou students we hear from in All God’s Children, gives another reason for speaking out, saying that “truth-telling is an integral part of my healing, because as a child I didn’t have a voice.” In 1999, she helped launch MK Safety Net to provide a forum for MKs and TCKs to share their stories, to network, and to learn how to bring their concerns to church/mission leadership. Former Fanda students have contributed to a similar site titled Fanda Eagles.
As part of the process of addressing the problem, New Tribes Mission and C&MA have produced public reports detailing the abuse at Fanda and Mamou and examining how the organizations responded. The investigation of Fanda was conducted by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment):
In calling attention to this information, I want to make it clear that I am not on a vendetta against missionary boarding schools. I know many fine people who serve overseas in such places, selflessly and righteously watching over and educating the children in their care. But while writing this post gives me pause, I am convinced that these accounts still need to be heard.
I understand that not everyone agrees. “Some,” say the writers of the Presbyterian Church report, “strongly believe that the Church would be better served if those who believe they have been abused or are aware of past abuse would keep such information to themselves.”
They then go on to present and dispute three myths:
The current mission of the church will be hurt by revelations of past abuse on mission fields.
The reputations of former missionaries, current staff, or advocates will be damaged by the investigation of allegations against them.
What is in the past is best left alone.
That is why those five women aren’t staying quiet. It’s because the truth needs to be told, and because these myths aren’t true.