In Mark 16:15 Jesus instructs his disciples to “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” All over the world, followers of Jesus are obeying his command to leave their homes and families and take the gospel to those who haven’t yet heard it. While we often focus on the importance of sending and preparing to go, we wanted to make some space to talk about how we can care for those who return to the UK after living in another nation. Following on from the post: Dear Church: A letter from a returning family, we called on those who have first hand experience of returning to the UK in a variety of circumstances and this is their letter to you:
We know that many of you will be excited to see us and to hear about our time away but we’re also aware of how massive and exhausting the transition back to life in the UK will be. Here are some practical suggestions which will help you to care for us as we return.
Please ask us what we need, make sure that someone is meeting us at the airport, that we have somewhere to stay, and are able to get around. If you live nearby, feel free to bring us food and help to meet our practical needs. We may be tired for the first couple of days as, along with the jet lag, it is quite emotionally draining coming back so we may need a bit of space and not too many people around to start with until we adjust.
Don’t assume that we are here for an extended holiday. Our return could be to care for elderly parents, speak at meetings, get extra training, go on a retreat, rest after the intensity of language study or general cross-cultural weariness. It can be a time when we have to replace phones, computers, clothes and this can be expensive and stressful. Maybe we’ve come back to visit doctors or the dentist and that can be difficult if we’ve been trying to book before we were back in the country or if there are extra forms to fill in because of our country of residence. It can be a time when we’re having to move house every week and live out of a suitcase because we don’t have our own place to go back to. Maybe we’re without transport and we’re spending lots on public transport. Acknowledging these struggles and offering us practical support or a space to talk can really help.
Culture and language
We have been immersed in a different culture, language and worldview and these may now be more familiar and natural to us than those of our passport nation. Instead of ‘welcome home’ we prefer ‘welcome back’ because we don’t always know what you mean when you talk about ‘home’ and might not be feeling the relief and comfort that you are expecting us to. Instead of relief we could be missing our routine in our other country, missing friends, feeling like we’re missing out on time to study. Plus we may feel guilt about travelling when local friends can’t do it or guilt about being back and not having enough time to visit family we want to or guilt that we can only see our elderly parents for short periods. If our behaviour puzzles you please ask us about it, we’d love to share our experiences with you. Ask us questions about the basic things of what’s considered rude or polite where we now live. Of course, when we visit we try to adapt to our passport country norms again, but we feel so loved by those who take time to know the little things – like offering us food two or three times because in our host nation we never accept the first time.
The shift into speaking a language in which we may not now think or communicate a lot of the time actually takes a lot of effort when we visit! Smile at our words that slip out accidentally “yani” (“I mean”) ask us about them, and maybe even use them! A simple greeting in a language that has become ours does wonders to help us feel at ease.
Reverse culture shock
Please don’t ask us generic questions like ‘how’s (insert country name)?’ It’s impossible and exhausting to answer. Do ask us specific questions or ask to spend time with us. Please do offer to spend time with us/have us for meals/watch our kids. Please provide a safe space for us to unravel a bit and be ok that it’s a bit messy. Snot and tears doesn’t mean we aren’t thriving, it’s just a LOT to process.
Please remember we are going through reverse culture shock and everything seems weird to us- the carpeted floors, supermarkets, flushing toilet paper down the toilet, the food. Also please remember that where we live children don’t go to bed quietly at 7pm giving adults the whole evening to do what they want! Reverse culture shock can induce social anxiety, we need grace for this.
We love being back, face-to-face, amongst our (church) family here, but we miss the family that we made there, our ‘team’ and our ‘local friends’. Our hearts will always be torn between the two places and we feel the tension, the miss-match, of being back in this familiar place, but it being different. We might feel like outsiders when we go back to church because there are so many new faces. We aren’t new to church, we may even be ‘old hats’, but we are new to church. Things are the same, but everything has changed. We know people, but we are different and they are different so we no longer know them as we did. When we left we had serving responsibilities and roles, now we don’t know what our roles are. Where we served previously, we now aren’t necessarily needed. At points we are very alone in a sea of old friends and faces, never quite connecting with anyone as we used to, but seen as established people in the church so not needing new friendships. You can help us by inviting us over for a meal, asking questions and listening well, not making assumptions about our feelings. Please update us on church family news – people will have married, had kids, died and we won’t necessarily have heard.
Corporate worship can feel overwhelming if we’ve only been praying with 1 or 2 people for months, without loud sound systems, crowds at the coffee table and glossy magazine, leaflets, AV presentations etc. The first few times we enter worship in English in church we may weep (please don’t ever take it for granted: having a worship band, being able to worship in your heart language).
Sometimes we have “exciting” stories of people becoming followers of Jesus or miracles of healing, but the biggest miracle of all is God’s sustaining power. The longer we’re overseas the more “normal” life looks, we work, study, have midweek groups and take our kids to school. The miracle is that God enables us to persevere and sustains us in this! Just the same as is true for those who haven’t moved overseas. Please celebrate and love us but don’t put us on pedestals. God is with us and working just as much as He is with you and working.
Often we travel back tired, feeling like we have given so much of ourselves in trying to build and invest in new relationships, it is so important to come back and feel unconditionally loved. An opportunity to reconnect with the church is so important, so arranging a prayer meeting we can share at, a Sunday we can give an update at. These things go a long way to showing that the church cares and is behind us and what we are doing.
We are used to leaning heavily on Jesus and depending on his Holy Spirit to lead us and protect us each day but we may be feeling worn out and depleted. Please help us by praying with us, prophesying over us and leading us to Jesus. Do ask us about our relationship with Jesus and give us opportunities for discipleship. Please offer debrief and prayer times. We can’t get enough! The Unreached Network has lots of experience and resources to help, so if you’re unsure how to help us debrief and process, ask for some support.
If we are here for a shorter visit, we may be feeling stressed because life in the UK is more expensive than our host country but we still only have enough money coming in to support us in a different economy. Please ask us how our finances are and offer support in raising money if needed.
If we are leaving our host nation unexpectedly, we will have put time, energy and prayers into hoping that we would not have to leave. We are likely to be unprepared for the reality of leaving and the pain of reverse culture shock. Having someone alongside us even before we have to leave would be greatly appreciated. If we have left in an emergency, we need debriefing – counselling, prayer, deliverance even. It is relatively easy to drop everything for emergency care, but we should not be forgotten after the first month. If we are being sent again, it could be better not coming back to the UK (or passport nation) but to another safe place abroad – as that would allow us to remain seen as sent, and to feel so.
Gifts and skills
If we are returning longer term, we may have many skills and abilities that seem meaningless or unusable in a UK local church context. Please help us to keep in touch with other overseas-minded people, remembering us and inviting us to use our skills, knowledge, experience and passion, is a precious thing for us – and for the movement. Help us to plug into the Unreached Network, or get involved with apostolic ministries that reach overseas. If we have returned in a more planned way, the risk is that we may be ignored – people may assume that we can just get on with life here. That may be true if we were away for a short time, but much less so if not. It is important for the church to care, not to drop us and move on to the next up and coming promising candidates!
The most important thing
Let’s finish with the most important thing. Although we love hearing your news, we also need to spend time with people who want to listen. Even if you don’t have the time, please make sure that someone is being intentional about offering us a space to debrief and pray for however long it takes for us to process all the questions and experiences that we are carrying.
Thank you for your love and care, we are so grateful to you for taking the time to read this letter.
With love from your brothers and sisters who have left everything and followed Jesus.
Many thanks to our contributors from the Unreached Network and beyond, and to Lisa Mason for compiling this for us. Have something to add? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.