At the end of The Return of the King, the four hobbits that have saved mankind sit in the busy pub at home. Around them swirls the normal course of life in Hobbiton. No one understands where they have been, the wars they have fought, or how they have changed.
In many ways, the global working woman who comes “home” to start life anew is much like the returning hobbits.
Some years ago I wrote my friend Cara when she was about to move back to our town. I explained that coming “home” isn’t easy. Painfully, part of you never returns and the world you come to isn’t the same. The friends you knew have gone on with life and you have lived a very different life.
“When I read your letter, I cried,” she wrote back. “No one understands the pain of having only the rest of June to live in this rhythm of life. My friends; the market with my favorite olive vendor; the colors of the sea and rocks; the light and clouds and sky which are so different; the steep narrow streets; the stress; the bread; the incredible coffee; my love and despair relationship with language.”
Global working women return to their home country for many reasons. Some leave at gunpoint, caught up in tumultuous civil war. Some are married to men who move to leadership positions in their organization. Some return because of family issues. Though some women transition with seeming grace, others struggle deeply. Understanding those struggles can turn the scars into healing for the next friend who comes back.
These are the voices of real women who served around the world and now are back in their home country. These are women who struggled with return. Their names are changed but they are alive–and healing.
The shock of return
“We had three weeks’ notice that we had to leave the field and return home,” said Gwen. “It was a crazy time of rushing around, saying good bye and packing our things. There was no time to think. We were heart broken because we were leaving a work that we loved, but we loved our son and needed to do what was best for him.”
Ellen wrote, “Because our situation had been on world news we found we were celebrities. In the ten days just before our evacuation we had rescued 30 Americans from remote situations, brought them to our home and housed and fed them. We were totally exhausted.”
Sara was also evacuated from flying bullets. “I was a relief worker in the civil war. That stress, coupled with a lifetime of unhealthy mental and spiritual habits, sent me into major depression.”
“As I left I knew that I would never return,” Marilyn poignantly wrote. “I said good bye and closed up twenty-three years of life in ten days. At midlife this was bewildering. My home church, adult children and extended family found it confusing too.”
“My husband and I had always been a team. Now he went to the office and I was a spouse,” said Wendy. “I didn’t feel like I was even part of the global work. I applied for a substitute teaching job and when I got to the line ‘Previous Employer’ I burst out crying. Was I a global worker? I was sent into grief, illness and depression and I didn’t even know how to find a doctor.”
The practical issues of return
Women often face practical issues they didn’t anticipate. If their husband has a job and their children go to school, they are left handling many of the transition problems.
“I had a homeless, refugee feeling. We did not own a home and this wasn’t a home service.” “We had big money issues.” “I expected the sending office to be like a receiving field. We had oriented new global workers for years. Who would orient us?”
“I didn’t realize how much of my heart I left behind. I had found it difficult to live overseas but now I miss my friends. I wish I could sit down for a chat.” “My biggest challenge was to live as a lay person in the church.”
“We dropped right into suburbia where everyone had so much stuff they had yard sales to get rid of it! We found things we needed at cheap prices but the stuff was overwhelming.”
While some re-entry situations were very frustrating, others were almost humorous.” “I felt unsure what clothes to wear. Several friends gave me bags of hand-me-downs. OK, I was a bag lady—but it helped. The clothes were warm and more in style than anything I owned.”
“Overseas I greeted everyone with a kiss, but now it was hard to know how to greet people. Who should I kiss? Who gets just a handshake or a hello?” “I was flustered trying to entertain. When does one serve a beverage or snack? Overseas it was a signal that the business was over.”
“Some friends gave me a birthday party. I was aghast that they expected me to open their gifts. For years I had waited till the giver was gone to open a gift. Fortunately my friends were understanding and let me choose which culture to follow. I took a growth step toward American culture and opened all the gifts even though it didn’t feel comfortable.”
“It took me a while to understand shopping for clothes. I learned that things are eventually marked down. Now I look at things at the beginning of a season and wait for the clearance sales at the end of the season.”
What about the global worker call?
For some women, return played havoc with their cross-cultural work “call.” Wendy, whose husband moved into leadership, said, “This was the major focus of my struggle. I was called to cross-cultural work before I’d even met my husband. Now he still had the ‘call’ and I didn’t.” But Barb’s situation was different, “My call was actually a call to be at my husband’s side. I’m still ministering with him. However, the first global work conference at our home church was weird. I felt like a non-entity.”
“Transition ended my global work call, but not my call to Christ,” said Sara. Ellen wrote, “Ours was definitely a call to a country, and now we could not return. Who were we now? Where should we go?”
God gave Gwen a specific new ministry, “We found a large group of internationals right at our door step and we reached out to them.” Barb wrote, “I realize that I can have a vital ministry to global working women and MKs right where I am.”
Marilyn noted that God used a specific message to convict and change her heart. “God shined His light into my heart. I was convicted of putting too high a value on taking the Gospel cross-culturally as a global worker and too little value on just being part of His plan regardless of calling or geography. God rebuked me and showed me that to be alive and part of His plan is great. I had minimized and devalued being God’s person where He has put me today.”
What helps most in transition?
Knowing that transition is hard, what can global working women do to plan ahead? And what can churches and global work personnel do to ease some of the pain? These women gave some very concrete suggestions.
“Give me a chance to share my testimony—my whole family’s testimony—more often. Let me talk about our life overseas.”
“I needed someone to help me find a good doctor, a dentist and give me a crash course in costs.” “A kitchen food shower would have been wonderful–even just a spices shower.”
“It didn’t help when people said, ‘Hey, call me if you want to do lunch.’ I needed them to say, ‘Could you have lunch on Thursday next week?’ I wasn’t able to make the first move.”
“My sister gave me a workbook and told me to start a Bible study the next week. It was just what I needed to feed and heal my hurting soul and I met great women right away.”
“Our grown children gathered around and helped us. We realized they too were suffering the loss of all that was ‘home’ to them. Together, we worked through our loss.”
Above all, the women who have come through hard transitions talk about the people who gathered around them in support and prayer groups. Ellen wrote, “Encourage churches and especially women’s groups to pray for their global workers who come home. We need an outpouring of prayer at this point to make re-entry a more positive experience. Churches seem to say, ‘The John Does are coming home. It will be good to see them and now all their problems are over.’ NOT SO!”
Take heart–you are not alone
When Cara wrote her poignant words about leaving what she loved, she got a letter from a global worker who was forced to leave a politically tense country. She said, “This week I read in Hebrews, ‘Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary or lose heart.’ I have been chewing on that verse and still need to understand better what it means but I believe Christ died not ONLY for our salvation. Included in His pain and opposition was a factor which can help us when we feel we are losing heart! Take heart my friend as you say good bye to the many you have come to love. Christ has been in your shoes. I will be praying!”
In Tolkien’s original books, the hobbits’ neighbors never truly understand where they have been. But the little warriors invest their experience; defeat the forces of evil and go on to lead their fellow hobbits with skills learned in their journeys. In my own experience, I was set free to move on when I realized I had taken great effort to learn an overseas culture for Christ’s sake but resented investing time in learning how to live and lead in my home culture again.
So take heart–you are not alone! But those who understand probably aren’t living next door. Can you take the risk of letting those who don’t understand come alongside and be your support and help? It is only God who can take all you have seen, known and experienced, and use it for His glory. Will you let Him write the script of this next chapter in your life? Ministry and God’s call is not about geography. To be alive and part of God’s plan is!