Shifting sands

Understanding cross-cultural re-entry, by Claire Livingstone

I’m standing deep in the surf, with waves washing over me. Sometimes I’m able to roll with the waves or jump over them. More often, I feel dumped and turned inside out and upside down.

I surface, not sure which way the beach is, or when the next wave’s going to hit. I try to get a firm foothold, but the outgoing wave washes the sand from beneath my feet… I find myself going under again.

This is my journal entry a few months after returning to Melbourne after a life in Switzerland.

I’d been warned, ‘Re-entry is usually a difficult time.’ Wei-Han said to us, “100% of our missionaries underestimate how difficult re-entry is.”

But we’d been away for just a few years and were coming back to family and friends, new ministry roles and a city we loved. Surely it wouldn’t be that hard?

Although our training and CMS pastoral carers had prepped us, going through the actual experience has been a shock.

My head knew that re-entry could be difficult, but my heart hadn’t had any experience in dealing with the reality. I didn’t know what I needed, and I found it difficult to let people know I wasn’t ok.

It’s a time of transition. We’re going home, but we’ve also left home. The grief of goodbyes and the joy of hellos all happen in the same week. Transitioning between two places, two lives, is full of tension: loss, excitement, change, stress, disorientation. Happy and sad often play together simultaneously, and sometimes it’s hard to name the emotions.

The beach is there. I know it is. Safe, secure, and peaceful…. but I can’t reach it yet.

One time I was in one of my favourite places with some of my closest friends, Adelaide Markets. But walking through the stalls I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the crowds, the noise and stimulation. Retreating to the bathroom, heart racing, I sat and sobbed. I just wanted to be back in our quiet flat in Lausanne, preparing a meal for students that evening. Happy-sad.

What steps have we taken to make sense of this strange season of our lives?

The first is a close relationship with the Lord. The Bible tells us that the Lord remains constant and steadfast, holding us and those we love in his hands.

In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all humankind. Job 12:10

The second factor is a supportive, loving community. This isn’t always easy for the returning missionary, as we’re busy visiting our partner churches. Relationships with friends and family can be changed, and our hearts are still entangled in the community we’ve just left.

Every now and then someone yells from the shore, “So, are you settled back in yet?” As I take a gulp of air before being dumped by the next wave, I think, “um…what????”

You can help. As well as valuing your practical care, we long to tell our stories. I appreciated people’s interest in what I was doing back in Australia, but I longed to be invited to tell stories of how I’d seen God at work overseas, of people I’d got to know, and what it was like to leave.

Perhaps you could provide opportunities for a returned missionary to speak – and then really listen. Not just ten minutes in a service, but unhurried time. Let them be a real person, with joys, sorrows, excitements and struggles.

Ask them what they miss most about where they served. Ask them how God is still at work there. Ask them how you can keep praying for the people they love in the places they have left.

I’m thankful for those who prayed with me: prayers of lament, thanksgiving and praise – recognising that the Lord is with us in our pain as well as our joy.

The journey of re-entry takes time. Perhaps longer than many expect. Thank you for your care, please continue to pray for us and others – that we hold fast to the Lord in the midst of waves.

Claire Livingstone with her husband Andrew, were CMS Missionaries between 2011 and 2018, serving in student ministry in Lausanne, Switzerland. Claire now serves with CMS at St Andrew’s Hall, training the next generation of missionaries.