Several years before I became a cross-cultural worker in Japan, I went on a short-term trip as a single person. Before I left, a young man I was interested in told me he could never consider dating someone who was interested in cross-cultural ministry. I was not even close to being a cross-cultural worker, yet I could already feel the bite of loneliness that comes with the calling.
Loneliness is such a common struggle for cross-cultural workers that I was surprised when I wrote about this topic on my blog and found someone who was shocked to think that cross-cultural workers experience loneliness.
At the start of the journey, cross-cultural-worker candidates have to declare our intention. People immediately view us differently. They even start to avoid us, as if a call to cross-cultural ministry might be contagious. Perhaps they feel threatened by our passion, or perhaps they think that as a friend they might be expected to contribute financially. Maybe they think it is a phase we are going through and that if they ignore it, it will pass. To be misunderstood is to experience loneliness.
Once we are ready to depart for the field, we must say goodbye to all our friends and family. To many, this farewell almost equals a funeral. It certainly felt like that to my husband and me the first time we left Australia. People began to exclude us from their lives, even if not deliberately. It felt as though our lives were coming to an end. I suppose life as it had been was indeed drawing to a close. Conversations would suddenly break off at our appearance, or people would apologise for planning an event that would take place after our departure. Other people just slipped away. Maybe they lacked the words to say farewell and hoped their absence would not be noted. It felt like a living funeral, a lonely place to be.
To say goodbye to loved ones and move to a foreign country is a frightful experience. To anticipate going to a place where we do not speak the language is to await loneliness. I am glad I did not realise at the time how isolated I would feel. It was not until we had physically settled in Japan that I realised I had left behind all my human supports (except my husband). Going out as a cross-cultural worker is an exciting time, and it helps to know that the reason for leaving is a call from God. However, God does not promise that He will provide instant friends to replace those we have left behind. At times, as a cross-cultural worker, loneliness can feel like our only friend.
It can take years to feel comfortable in our newly-adopted country, and it may possibly never happen. A sense of not ever being able to truly share one’s heart exists, even if we make good friends among the local people. I have a cross-cultural-worker friend who has been in Japan for many years. Once I wrote a long, rambling email to her about recent events in our lives. I also apologised for my excess of words, knowing that she has a busy ministry. However, she wrote back and told me never to apologise for a lengthy personal email. Why? She is lonely.
A foreign language also creates loneliness. In some countries, like Japan, cross-cultural workers rarely make it to native-level competency in the language. The challenge of making friends when we struggle to communicate is enormous. When we can chat with someone about the weather but not about our heart’s desires and frustrations, that is loneliness.
Sooner or later, it is time to return home for a period—that unique institution of home assignment, or furlough. After enduring loneliness and homesickness, new cross-cultural workers often look forward to this time at home. They look forward to picking up those relationships they have missed while away. Before we get there, though, goodbyes must be said once again—this time to colleagues with whom we have shared much. Local friends and acquaintances too must be farewelled, many of whom will not understand why we must go. Once again we endure severed relationships and misunderstanding. More loneliness.
When we arrive “home” for the first time, we begin to realise how much we have changed. At the same time, the people back home have not remained static. They have married, divorced, had kids, changed jobs, houses, or states. The spot that we once held in their lives is no longer vacant. It is difficult to find a place to belong in others’ lives. A lack of shared experiences exists, and our friends and family notice changes that have taken place within us that they do not understand. Loneliness!
While we are “home,” we tour around different churches and prayer groups. Our lifestyle is irregular, and our time is often spread across many different situations and relationships. It is difficult to invest lots of time with just a few friends. We want to make up for lost time with family, but it is impossible. The time that has passed is lost, and nothing can be done to retrieve it. More loneliness!
We can look like we know many people, but many of our relationships are not deep ones, where we can truly share our hearts. We feel pressure to tell success stories and to keep personal stories and failure to ourselves. Not many people “at home” stop long enough to hear beyond surface details of our lives. Loneliness!
Thankfully, there are exceptions. Many cross-cultural workers have one or more special friends who remain faithful throughout life, friends with whom it is possible to pick up where they left off and not feel as though much time has elapsed. For them, we are truly grateful.
Note: Wendy has a version of this article written to supporters. If you would like to publish it with a local church, denomination, or sending agency, please contact her.
Questions to consider: How does God use loneliness? When does loneliness become depression - what’s the difference? How can hope be found in loneliness?