What the missionary sector can teach us about handling re-entry

What the missionary sector can teach us about handling re-entryWouldn’t it be nice if the corporate world took care of its repatriates the way missionary folk do?

My family was lucky when we moved abroad: Chef Boyardee’s employer sent us to Singapore for a look-see visit, provided cross-cultural training and Mandarin lessons for the entire family, and arranged settling-in services once we’d arrived. It was wonderful.

When we returned home, however, the silence was deafening.

When Missionary Kids come home
My friend Heather, an adult MK (Missionary Kid), tells me that this is not the case in her ministry. Over fifteen years ago, the Assemblies of God realized that returning missionary families were sorely in need of guidance as they struggled to readjust to American life. They set up a fabulous programme (two actually: one for adults, another for children) to address that need.

For the past five years, Heather has been serving as one of the Re-Entry Youth Coordinators for returning MKs. The children descend on AOG’s Missouri headquarters for a three-day session, and… well, I’ll let Heather tell you the rest:

“We talk about leaving, transition, and entering: going from being settled, to chaos, to that place where the new normal starts to happen and you’re settled again. We let them know that whatever emotions they’re feeling — anger, arguing with parents, bursting into tears for no reason — it’s all normal.

The first day we talk about leaving: what is home, the RAFT cycle, that sort of thing. Days two and three are transition and entering, respectively. We talk about our memories by doing an exercise with backpacks. When you unpack your bags, what do you find: trash or treasure? Do you refill it, recycle it, or do you repack it?

We split them into small groups of 3-5 kids with a counsellor*. That’s really key. It gives them a safe space to express themselves, to vent if they need to. And we talk about expectations constantly, because it’s so important for a good re-entry. We do an exercise with elastic bands to illustrate that the further expectations are from reality, the more it hurts when reality snaps. I know it sounds awful [she laughs as she says this] but making it concrete like that really helps them get it.”

It’s all about the kids
Doesn’t that sound freakin’ awesome? Every aspect of the program is tailored to the ages of the children, with great care taken to use language and examples they understand — including Bible stories. “Ruth left everything she knew to go away with Naomi,” Heather says. “What was Ruth feeling? What was she thinking? The kids need to realize they’re not alone in this.”

Some of the children Heather works with have been in the field so long they don’t remember much about their homeland. For the ones who have been living in developing areas, the busy, hyper-commercialized society they return to is an assault on the senses. “The US is a foreign culture for them, so that’s the way we treat it,” she says. “We take them to an all-you-can-eat buffet, for example. There’s so much food, it’s overwhelming — especially for kids who’ve been living in places where food isn’t as abundant. They ask interesting questions: “Is the buffet timed? Is there a plate limit?” Most of them walk around in a daze — it’s a huge culture shock for them, and it’s fascinating to watch them process it.”

Paying it forward
Heather has a lot of empathy for these children, because she’s been there herself. She was a teenager living in Austria when repatriation turned her happy world upside down. Especially disturbing for her was the speed with which it all happened: her family was given just six weeks notice. “I was in the middle of my tenth grade year, and it was traumatic,” she says. “I wish I’d been able to go through a program like this. It would have been helpful to have those tools. That’s why I think it means so much to me to work with these kids, because I had such a difficult re-entry.”

The great reward for Heather is seeing her young charges give themselves over to the process and come out the other side whole and well-adjusted. Because she keeps in touch with many of them on Facebook, she’s able to watch their re-entry experiences unfold in real time. Last summer, she read something by a former attendee that made her day:

“I’m happy in both places, but of course I can’t live in two places at one time. No matter where I go, I’ll be happy, but I know I’ll never be 100% happy.”

“She’s accepted that weird dichotomy of wanting to be in the host country and the home country at the same time,” Heather says. “She’s made her peace with it. That’s why programs like this are so important.”

Like I said: Wouldn’t it be nice?


Heather introduced me to this rap video, made by and about MKs (and PKs: Preachers’ Kids). Enjoy!

* Note from Heather: Most of the counsellors are MKs themselves. It is truly a special place to be and be a part of!

* Note from Maria: For more information on the programme, check out the website of the International Society of Missionary Kids.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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14 Responses to What the missionary sector can teach us about handling re-entry

  1. artsygenius says:

    That’s really cool. My volunteering abroad was self-organized, so I had no re-entry services, but I totally agree that culture shock is a big deal. I’m glad missionaries have someone helping them out.

    • Maria says:

      You’re not alone — most people don’t have any help when they return home. I’d like to think that’s changing, but it still seems to be something that isn’t considered necessary.

  2. Sine says:

    Oh God yes, that does sound absolutely amazing. I would so love to have been in one of those classes myself. I almost feel like going through that backpack thing right now. Maybe church IS the answer after all:-)

    • Maria says:

      Or you could just hang up those photos leaning against the wall. 🙂

      • Maria says:

        I hope you’re referring to the young rappers, and not my carefully-crafted post!:) Having said that, the amount of work they put into that video is humbling. And I love the gentle reminder that MKs are normal kids who do normal kid things.

      • Maria says:

        Ah, never mind. You’re talking about Sine’s shocking lack of housekeeping skills. 🙂 I keep telling her the repat rainbow will appear if she’d just hang up those photos!

      • Sine says:

        I did, last weekend, because it rained non-stop! But perhaps I should keep one leaning there perpetually, like you, so as to remind me of my expat/nomad identity…

      • Maria says:

        Brava! Have the butterflies arrived yet? BTW, the photo leaning against my wall doesn’t remind me of my expat identity; it just reminds me that I need to hang the damn thing up already.

  3. cvheerden says:

    I wish everybody in the ministry was being looked after like that! When I started 8 years ago as an assistant pastor in a South African church there were only expectations to immediately know the language, customs and simply function according to the needs. I found myself struggling, not so much in the ministry area but the cultural expectations of arranging baby showers, ladies teas and such. It was either not conservative enough or too outlandish, … it took a while to find the right tone. When there is no professional help in transitioning back either, the totally natural struggles can be interpreted as a character fault. it is so important to help kids settle in so they wont receive a negative stigma and even identify with it.

    • Maria says:

      I had always assumed pre-departure preparation was the norm throughout the ministry, until I met an American Mormon during my first week in France who told me he’d had no preparation, not even language training. I asked him how he was going to have meaningful conversations with people who didn’t speak his language, and he simply said that the Lord would provide. I think about that young man often, and wonder how successful his mission was. As you say, the cultural aspect of moving to a new country is hard enough; imagine not being able to communicate at all with the very people you’re supposed to be helping. Sending workers out to do a job without providing them with the proper tools seems an ineffective way of doing things. Thanks for reminding me that the missionary sector doesn’t have all the answers either.

      • cvheerden says:

        🙂 Guess it depends if you are going with an organization or independently. And it also depends where you are going.

  4. anniedm778 says:

    Although I am not an expat (I would love to be one, actually, but my daughter soon will be), I can appreciate all that is being done for those who go through these struggles. I grew up in the Midwest, on a farm (my grandparents’ farm), across the street from a subdivision in the 1950’s & 1960’s. The house directly across the street was the minister’s house for the church I attended. Every time a new minister moved in, we could watch their lives across the street and in church, and see how their children behaved, reacted, etc. Their children became our friends and they confided in us. They almost always were troubled and we hurt for them. I think it’s so important to have programs like this for families & their children. Well done.

  5. CMT says:

    Wow. I just loved this. The video was amazing.

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