By Ralph Kurtenbach, Special to ASSIST News Service
QUITO, ECUADOR (ANS – June 22, 2017) — Arriving in Warsaw, Rita Whaley felt that she possessed excellent language fluency; her understanding of the culture seemed adequate. Yet she struggled to adjust, longing for the familiar environment she had left behind. Sadness and sentiments of loss clouded her days.
Whaley’s locale, Warsaw, was not in Poland, but instead in her home state of Indiana. After 28 years in Ecuador, she returned in 2014 to live and work in the U.S. This was her homeland—at least according to her passport. It was where she had grown up, graduated from college and found a church where she was growing and learning. In the 1980s, she left for Ecuador to serve as an evangelical missionary.
Her nursing degree and a certificate from Fort Wayne Bible School had prepared her to serve at Hospital Vozandes-Quito (HVQ), a hospital owned by Reach Beyond in Ecuador. She often left Quito to assist physicians doing primary care medical work in remote regions of the country, staying for days at a time in the jungle or highlands.
Whaley’s work as a floor nurse at the modern HVQ may have resembled hospital work in Indiana, but when helping with medical caravans her nights were spent sleeping beneath a mosquito net on a community school floor.
In her spare time, she regularly spent time within the thick walls of the former Penal Garcia Moreno (Garcia Moreno Penitentiary, now closed). In the notoriously dangerous and overcrowded prison, she ministered to English-speaking prisoners, including some from Poland.
These experiences shaped Whaley as a person; she was different upon returning to the U.S. And while efforts at finding a job and fitting in as an expatriate may have looked easy to the untrained eye, reentry takes work and emotional effort, according to Dr. Dorris “Dottie” Schulz of the Texas-based Missionary Resources Network (MRN).
It’s a view echoed by DeNise Love, Reach Beyond’s missionary personnel director for Latin America. During a visit Stateside, Love learned from Whaley’s colleagues who had also settled there that “the statement was almost across the board that it’s way more difficult coming back home than it was coming to the field.”
Expecting reentry hurdles “helps you know that you’re not crazy and that what you’re going through is normal,” added Schulz. “Your feelings are normalized.” Yet, Schulz cautions that this preparation sidestep the experience of “mourning and going through what you have to go through in order to come out on the other side of the transition.”
Schulz and her husband, Tom (now deceased), served as evangelical missionaries in the Netherlands. Returning to the U.S., they both began doctoral studies, with Dottie investigating problems of reentry for missionary families and Tom focusing his efforts on special challenges faced by expatriate children of missionaries (third culture kids). Their research predated the term “re-entry.”
Dottie surveyed and/or interviewed 177 missionaries, learning that “going to the [mission] field changes a person in such a way that it’s hard to come back home again.”
Meaningful Work and Identity a Quest of Returning Expatriates
For expatriates, working overseas is more than a job; it is a lifestyle and for some, it is a vocation. Before a missionary ever sets foot on a foreign shore, years of theological and professional education are in place. Once on the field, there is fulfillment in seeing fruits of the gospel in people’s lives, even though the work can be tough.
Upon reentering the passport country, a returnee may suffer identity loss, according to Dr. Richard “Dick” Douce, a physician and former medical director at Hospital Vozandes Quito. “Even though you’ve got this rich past where God has blessed you and you’re thankful, it’s like a clean slate with other people,” said Douce, who now works at a hospital in St. Joseph, Mich. “They [medical colleagues] just assume that you can’t do this or don’t know how to do that. And sometimes you start to believe it as you go through the crisis.”
Douce is infectious diseases specialist. Respected by colleagues for his diagnostic savvy, he was told, “Nobody has your clinical eye.” Additionally, he helped start Ecuador’s first HIV/AIDS clinic and was a frequent conference speaker on the management of HIV and other infectious diseases in Ecuador. Residents and interns he has taught at HVQ have gone on to serve in the nation’s Ministry of Health as well as in other high-profile positions.
With his return to the U.S. after 23 year however, he needed regular Skype visits with an expat colleague, Dr. Roy Ringenberg. Together they worked through a study on their identities — apart from their work—in Jesus Christ. An early assignment for many returning missionaries is to find meaningful work, according to Dottie Schulz, whose job puts her in contact with many such returnees. With it “in their DNA” to help others, many find fulfillment in beginning or furthering their studies in marital and family therapy.
When circumstances moved Darrel and Mandy Klassen from Ecuador to Kelowna, B.C., Canada, in 2012, it was for Darrel a transition to a country he had known only for several years of his life. He had grown up in Ecuador as a child of missionaries during the 1950s and 60s, and then lived in Canada as a young adult. In 1985 the Klassens and their three children moved to Ecuador where he “loved the Quichua [people] passionately and they loved him,” according to fellow Avant missionary Dick Grover.
Within months of the intercontinental move, “Darrel was having difficulty transitioning between a very active ministry in Ecuador and what future ministry was going to be,” observed Grant Morrison, vice president and executive director of Avant Canada.
Family and friends were shocked to learn that on Aug. 28, 2012, at the age of 62, Darrel died by his own hand. While other returnees may not plummet to such levels of depression, Schulz cited a study by the business sector that found returning expatriates felt flat and unfulfilled after career endeavors abroad.
“I’ve been trying to tell people that we have the world at our feet right now. I mean in the [Dallas-Fort Worth] metroplex right here, there are 270 different language groups,” she said, adding that “over 30 are in Houston and that doesn’t hold a candle to Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago. So there are ways of still working with the world in the U.S.”
Search for Church, Friends a Tough Assignment for Returning Expatriates
Returning home may bring the difficulty of finding a church to fit into after having lived abroad. In fact, this may prove the hardest adjustment, according to Dottie Schulz, who readily offers suggestions for local congregations that want to ease a missionary’s re-entry.
“The church that prepares can help alleviate a lot of stress,” offered Schulz, listing the tasks in which a returning mission worker might need assistance — “buy a car, get a driver’s license, purchase insurance, get help with grocery shopping.”
Beyond the start-up tasks, a missionary should be offered, “honor to whom honor is due,” said Schulz. “Have a dinner for them, give them a plaque, a homecoming shower of gifts needed to repatriate, career counseling, help children with school entrance [or] prepare the Bible classes to receive the children well.”
Church friends of Dick and Marian Douce greeted them at the airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., and squired them to a clean home with food in the fridge. Friends who had earlier visited the Douces in Ecuador understood and appreciated their work, and this eased the Douces’ transition to a culture that had once been their own.
One of Dick’s colleagues, Dr. Jeff Maudlin, returned with his wife, Elsa, and their four children to Nogales, Ariz., after serving in Ecuador. Even with returning to his former medical practice, the Maudlins “found that the biggest issue is that people don’t understand what being a missionary is,” according to Jeff.
“You feel like you’re in … except when it comes to the nitty-gritty,” Schulz explained. “You find out you’re not, because you’re not in that hard inner circle.”
Within the inner circle are found deep friendship and intimacy, according to a cultural theory of journalist/author Boyé Lafayette De Mente, whose comparison of Western and Eastern societal norms on friendship is illustrated by two concentric circles. In the West, the outer circle is porous, represented by a dotted line, whereas in the East the outer circle is harder to break into — a solid line. A missionary — or generations of a missionary family — might invest decades into penetrating a culture to influence people about the claims of Jesus Christ upon their lives. Such was the case for Darrel Klassen; his credibility was established due to his parents’ ministry among the highland Quichua people of Ecuador.
Re-entry means attempting to reach people’s inner circle in their home cultures, whereas Schulz observed, “It takes so long to break the inner circle in America, [just] as it did to break that outer circle with the foreigner.” Returnees—already misunderstood as to the work they did abroad—often do not understand the difficulty of finding friendships; nor do they anticipate it.
“As a tendency then,” Schulz explained, “missionaries tend to think that people in the U.S. are shallow and that conversations are not deep. And if you know anything about missionaries, they go deep very quickly, especially ‘third culture kids’ who go deep immediately, [and this is] really is scary to American teenagers. Americans don’t want to be that intimate that quickly.”
Re-entry Assignment: Begin before Leaving the Host Country
Thomas and Annekäthi Büchi are from Switzerland, a country to visit for their three children. Returning means reentry for Thomas and Annekäthi, but for the children — all under age 12 and two of whom hold both Swiss and Ecuadorian passports—it meant transition was to a foreign country. The family began their steps toward Switzerland while still living in Ecuador.
“We read one book about transitions and I attended some seminars here,” said Thomas. While still serving with Reach Beyond’s Latin America Region, they took more Ecuador-based family vacations—a critical step to healthy departures, according to Dottie Schulz. “Say farewell; say goodbye to things, to people. That’s goodbye to the snakes, the roaches, the dirt, the place where you spent a romantic evening with your spouse,” she suggested. “Or your kids with camping or the game park or whatever has been important in your life, say goodbye to that.”
For the Büchis, it meant one final vacation on the Pacific shores of Ecuador and another at a favorite mountain getaway high in the Andes. The cathedrals and cobblestone streets of Cuenca were where Thomas and Annekäthi had learned Spanish; they returned one last time.
Farewell also meant selling off possessions, a course of action in which Thomas and Annekäthi involved the children.
Farewell is just one pre-departure task, according to Schulz. She credits author David C. Pollack with creating the acronym RAFT to spell out needs for a) reconciliation, b) affirmation, c) farewell and d) thinking of the future. Pollack is a consultant and authored Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds.
For the Douces during re-entry to the U.S. the middle phase — deemed chaos — seemed an appropriate term. “You don’t have any of the landmarks to orient yourself and you feel like you’re a ship drifting around,” Dick recounted. “And you start to question why you were on the mission field and ‘what did we get done?’” Accompanying it were nagging doubts about whether their choice to return to the country once known as home was a good one.
Dick said, “Finally you get a physical place to live. The last couple of phases can last for years as you try to figure out the value system of the people you live with.” Then, an expatriate’s reentry is more or less complete.
Photo captions: 1) Rita Whaley checks the blood pressure of an inmate at Ex Penal García Moreno, a former penitentiary in Quito, Ecuador. 2) Dr. Dick Douce speaks at a conference. 3) Mandy and Darrel Klassen. 4) Marian and Dick Douce. 5) Dr. Jeff Maudlin. 6) Thomas and Annekäthi Büchi with their three children. 7) Kathy and Ralph Kurtenbach.
About the writer: Ralph Kurtenbach thanks those expatriates who shared their stories. He and his wife, Kathy, have lived in Quito for over 20 years, serving with Reach Beyond. Their four children — all born in Ecuador — are on two continents. One is in Ecuador; another attends a U.S. college. Two have found jobs in the U.S. after college graduation. Ralph and Kathy are thinking about re-entry and how to get ready for it. Ralph blogs at www.calloftheandes.wordpress.com, and helps to mentor Latinos who want to join in taking the gospel to other parts of the world. His e-mail is: email@example.com.
** You may republish this or any of our ANS stories with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net). Please also tell your friends and colleagues that they can receive a complimentary subscription to our news service by going to the above website and then signing up there.