Paul Bäumer was a ghost when he left the trenches of World War I. Returning to his family and town, which had changed little, he was welcomed back as the same beloved boy who’d grown up there. But he was no longer that boy.
“I breathe deeply,” Bäumer reflects, “and say over to myself: ‘You are at home; you are at home.’ But a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I can find nothing of myself in all these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there is my case of butterflies, and there is the mahogany piano—but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us.”
In Erich Maria Remarque’s famous novel All Quiet on the Western Front, Bäumer is only a fictional character. But his ghostly experience of being in the physical presence of loved ones and yet not really seen or known—it haunts me because I’ve been there too. Not as a soldier. I’ve been a returning missionary.
What’s a Returning Missionary?
A returning missionary is a cross-cultural worker who reenters his or her home culture whether temporarily or indefinitely. The possible categories for such a return include furlough, transition, and retirement. Although these categories are straightforward, the underlying reasons for such returns are numerous and complex. They may include the need for rest, financial support, healthcare, conflict resolution, family visits, children’s resources, or coming to terms with things like culture shock, trauma, or moral failure.
Eleven years ago, I was one of those returning missionaries. I came back to marry my fiancée. Our plan was to be in the U.S. for one year and then return to my former country of service as career missionaries. The trouble came, however, when I realized that dream wouldn’t materialize. I suddenly felt like a ghost, even in my marriage. I was home, but home wasn’t home anymore. I was Brad, but Brad wasn’t Brad anymore. All these years later, I still feel it sometimes.
If they were honest, I think many missionaries would say that no one seems to care.
The pain points of a returning missionary are profuse—too many to account for and too specific to generalize here. But as a pastor and friend to many returning missionaries, I’ve observed a common thread that makes their collective griefs profoundly worse: no one really understands. If they were honest, I think many missionaries would say that no one seems to care.
What’s the Role of the Local Church?
A local church is meant to be a harbor from which missionaries can set sail on their journeys abroad. With some intentionality, the local church can be the central sender and sustainer of its missionaries. We’re introduced to this vision through the church at Antioch, which in obedience to the Holy Spirit sent Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1–3). But those two great missionaries also returned to the believers in Antioch (Acts 14:24–28; 15:35; 18:22). A local church is also meant to be a safe harbor to which missionaries can return.
Unfortunately, many churches don’t know how to do this well. As American Christians, we reveal our ignorance when we ask returning missionaries questions like, “So how was your trip?” and “Aren’t you so glad to be home?” We mean well. But we have no idea how insensitive the question sounds to people for whom “home” has come to mean “elsewhere” or “nowhere.” Our lack of curiosity to ask deeper questions and truly listen doesn’t make the harbor unsafe—just unhospitable. The returnee quietly becomes a ghost in a gospel environment. Somehow, the hospitality he or she received from non-Christians overseas can feel more meaningful than ours.
What We Can Do
I think the most significant step toward embodying a harbor is becoming compassionately aware of the need. Whether you first sent them out or they’ve simply chosen to moor at your church, returning missionaries “have gone out for the sake of the name” (3 John 7). You’ll do well to honor them by taking interest in their journeys. If you can do nothing else, invite missionaries over for a meal, ask them to tell their story, and listen closely. This will do more than any article or book to stir your desire to help.
I recently had the opportunity to do this with a returnee in my church. He and his family were among the thousands of missionaries who abruptly came back to the U.S. when the COVID-19 pandemic began. They didn’t even get to pack up their house or say proper goodbyes. I asked him, “What’s the main thing a church could do for you?” He said, “Assign someone to follow up with us, to see how we’re doing and what we need. Just don’t leave us all alone.”
If you can do nothing else, invite missionaries over for a meal, ask them to tell their story, and listen closely.
I’d encourage your church to go further. Gather a team of people to offer the three things returning missionaries need most: planning, presence, and provision.
By “planning,” I mean preparing ways for the church to help in advance of the missionaries’ return (housing, childcare, transportation, financial support, etc.). By “presence,” I mean the critical act of relating to them through debriefing (verbally processing their experiences and emotions). By “provision,” I mean meeting their ongoing needs to the extent you’re able. These are the marks of safe-harbor hospitality.
This past week the women in my small group held a baby shower for one of our returning missionaries. I heard later what really carried the night wasn’t the games or the presents but the extended time in which the mother shared the traumatic experience of having her first child overseas. There were keenly listening ears in that room, along with many tears. The haunting distance was pushed back, and for one meaningful moment, that woman was understood and truly cared for. She was “home.”