The family reunion was petering out, aunts and uncles and cousins drifting away. A sister-in-law I hadn’t seen since we left for the field four years earlier paused on her way out the door to ask me brightly, “So, how was Bolivia?”
I hesitated. How did I convey it all? The stolid Indian highlanders with whom we worked. The weeks alone in a small mountain town with three preschoolers while my husband carried the Gospel over dangerous mountain roads. The heat and the smells and the inconveniences. The wonder and beauty and color that were there to be found. The mountaintops of seeing souls saved and lives changed. The spiritual battles where too often Satan seemed to be getting the upper hand.
I’d started to answer that question many times before that day, only to see eyes glaze over after the first sixty seconds. So I settled for what had already become routine.
“Fine,” I told her. “But it’s good to be home.”
Later, alone in the kitchen with my hostess, a favorite aunt, I tried again. She listened for a few minutes as we loaded the dishwasher, then interrupted as kindly and firmly as with any piece of advice she’d given me since childhood.
“Look, honey, I can appreciate you might have had some rough times over there. But you know, as a global worker, you don’t want to come across as…” She groped for the word. “…complaining.”
Complaining! We had lost a baby out there, far away from any comfort of family. We had undergone adventures a fiction editor would have dismissed as implausible. We had grieved and wept and rejoiced alone. We had discovered the depths of our inadequacies and the immeasurable strength of God’s underlying arms. And the vastness of His grace in finding us useful as His servants.
In all those years we had looked forward to the day when we could return home to share our heart cry with those who loved us. And now, didn’t they care?
It took time and tears and some added maturity before I really understood that day. I learned that my own experience wasn’t unique. It is the confused wail of the furloughing global worker. What is wrong? Home isn’t the same anymore! Doesn’t anyone care that I’m back!
My husband and I have been through five furloughs now. Family reunions haven’t changed, but we’ve learned some valuable principles for coping with them:
- Recognize that our hole has been filled.
Because we are the ones on foreign soil, struggling with a new culture and life, it is an easy misconception that we can step back into the hole we left when we went to the field. It hurts to find friends and family rushing about their lives without us, often so busy they hardly have the time to stop and welcome us back.
But we must recognize that even as life has moved on for us, so it has for our loved ones. Our best friends have new friends to call up when they want to chat. They have moved on to new jobs, added new family members. The church is full of new people. Our Sunday school class and other responsibilities are being done by others. There are jokes and anecdotes and undercurrents we don’t get, and no one bothers to fill us in. They are happy to see us, of course. But we are visitors now, no longer part of their daily lives. Our hole is no longer there.
- It is we who have changed, not them.
“Why don’t they care?” we demand as furloughing global workers. “How can they go about their lives as though there wasn’t a world of poverty and hunger and pain and need out there?” But our loved ones are the same normal North Americans we left. It is we who have been shaken out of our mold, for better or worse, by sights, peoples, experiences, political and economic realities they have not seen and will never understand. We have come to accept that for the rest of our lives, the only ones who will truly understand us are those who have gone through similar experiences.
- More often than not, those most interested in us and our ministry will not be family.
There are those who listen with bated breath to the details of our ministry. “What about Juan?” they ask. “Did his little girl ever get that operation she needed? And whatever happened with your son’s little misadventure with the neighbor boy? We’ve been wondering.” But these are seldom family members. They are families and individuals God has raised up as prayer and support partners from among our churches. We have learned to delight in sharing our hearts with those who really want to know and to appreciate the rest for whatever interest level they have.
- Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
It isn’t that our loved ones don’t care about us or love us anymore. They do. But their world is no longer ours. They do not understand what we have gone through or realize what we were expecting of them. Not until we could forgive family and friends for not measuring up to our own unrealistic expectations could we release them from those expectations and simply enjoy their fellowship when we came home.
Our first furlough wound to its end. When we stepped back off the plane in Bolivia, a group of our global working colleagues was there to welcome us back. The questions were little different. “How was furlough?”
“Fine,” I said.
An elderly global worker gave me a sharp glance. “Wasn’t what you expected, was it?”
“No,” I answered. I didn’t need to say anything more. I knew she understood completely. We stood without speaking, waiting for the men to load the rest of the luggage into an assortment of pickups and jeeps. Then she added matter-of-factly, “I always figure it takes your first furlough to make you realize home isn’t there anymore.”
I looked at her sharply. She was elderly, white-haired. She’d seen generations of young global workers like us come and go.
I turned for my first good look at the country I’d left so eagerly nine months earlier. Palms tossed their fronds above the grassy fields surrounding the airport. A brown haze in the distance was the Andes foothills rising above the scrub jungle. A scorching wind blew across the concrete parking lot, and I thought with abrupt longing of our cool mountain town. Had our furniture survived storage? A familiar scent of dust and hot tar, spicy foods frying, and the underlying perfume of flowers and tropical grasses caught at my nostrils. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a bubble of contentment rose to catch at my throat. It took a moment to recognize what it was.
I was home.
View the original print magazine where this article was first published.