The following is an excerpt from The Upstream Collective‘s ebook, Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning “Home” and How Churches Can Help. Used with permission.
Furlough. Evacuation. Resignation. Illness. Retirement.
That’s a short list of reasons Larry and Sarah Jenkins* returned from overseas.
I have known them for eight years. I have learned enough for a lifetime. If there is anyone I could write a biography on, it would be this couple. If there is anyone I could place at a table with sent ones, it’s them. So I’m going to help you get as close to that reality as possible. Here, in their own words, are their many experiences as returning sent ones.
Over the course of Larry and Sarah’s 26 years in Africa (stretched over 40 years of coming and going), they survived multiple furloughs. Though necessary times of cultural rest, furloughs also brought on significant challenges.
- Larry: Reverse culture shock always hit me hard. As soon as I arrived back in the states I faced the problem of choices: restaurants, grocery stores, tv channels, dog food, cars. American life is multiple, multiple choices. When you come from a country with one or no choices, it’s difficult to suddenly be overwhelmed with too many choices.
- Sarah: I didn’t even know what I was experiencing at the time because I was so busy with children. Now I understand it in retrospect. Always, my first trip to the grocery store, I left crying. Back in Africa, we celebrated when there was one can of green beans, but here in the US there were tons. It made me feel tense and inadequate.
- Larry: The major issue we always faced on each furlough was this: no one was that interested in our lives and ministry, even family. There was the 30-second presentation, the two-minute presentation, and, rarely, the dialogue. But we, like any missionary, wanted and needed to share.
- Sarah: It was really hard to have useless information, all these things you learned that no one seemed to care about. However, God was always gracious to give us people to share our experiences with, often where we least expected it.
- Larry: Over time we learned to be treated as normal people, not as superheroes. We worked our way into contexts where we were sharing our lives in normal ways. Intimate relationships were key to survival.
Early in Larry and Sarah’s service they were heaved into the chaos of a wicked political regime. After being constrained, questioned, and jailed, they were evacuated to safety, forced to abandon their people and possessions.
- Sarah: Evacuating was just like a death experience in grieving. “Are we gonna get back or not?” we asked ourselves constantly. Initially, we didn’t know what to do or feel. We loved the people and culture and hated to leave. We also felt guilty like we had deserted them while they continued to suffer. But eventually we got to a point of trusting God’s sovereignty. We remembered that God knows what he’s doing, and that’s enough.
- Larry: It was key for us as parents to adapt and be stable so that the kids could too. Communication as a family was crucial, working through all our emotions. But we did plenty of wrong things too.
After 18+ years in Africa, the Jenkins had made tremendous strides in language, culture, relationships, and gospel proclamation. Yet they realized one of their five children had educational needs that could only be fulfilled back in the states.
- Larry: The most common reason for sent ones returning is families and their children’s needs. By experience we know that these returning families need the most support because they still feel called to the field, but are unable to be there.
- Sarah: Mine and Larry’s struggles were very different. For me it was the question, ”Who am I?” I was a missionary, but was I still? If I know who I am, I know what I’m supposed to be doing. But in America, there was no box, nothing to define what I do. I really had to work on spending my time strategically. Americans typically don’t think this way. Sometimes my job was to tap people on the shoulder and remind them we’re not home yet.
- Larry: Changing careers and supporting my family was a huge hurdle. For me, it took lots of prayer and lots of knocking on doors. Our last resort was that I would become a day-laborer for a church member’s construction company until I could find something permanent. Eventually we decided to start a non-profit, but had figure all that out on our own.
- Sarah: Returning was like going to university and graduating with expectations of job and money, then your field crashes and your work is useless. I felt like my knowledge and experience wasn’t valuable, so I wasn’t valuable.
- Larry: We had no support team, so we had to survive on our own, feel our way. We did have church family, but they didn’t know what we needed. We took the initiative to have people over and modeled it—but no one reciprocated. Our transition, like for many returning ones, is a move from a highly relational culture to a non-relational culture.
- Sarah: As parents we spent a lot of time on our knees. Some of our children were really angry about leaving the only home they’d known. They didn’t want to leave.
- Larry: When we came back indefinitely, just like we learned everything we could about where we lived in Africa (politics, food, history, etc.), we decided to do the same thing where God had put us in the states. We made up our minds: our new country is our new field of service. We found culture coaches, just like overseas.
- Larry: Care shouldn’t have started when we came home, but before that. Care teams could have known us and our needs: school help, doctor appointments, housing, etc. Relationships and communication could’ve been built while we were on the field.
After their children were grown, Larry and Sarah were finally able to return overseas. In only two terms, however, they both developed health problems, due in part to a serious car accident.
- Larry: This is part of what helped us to know that it was time to go home. We knew it was time, and therefore we had peace. That came from prayer. The key was being unified together, so there was no blame or guilt between us. The what-if’s of these decisions will really get you. “What if?” means our eyes and focus are in the wrong place. It’s a lack of faith from the pit of hell, a lack of security of knowing who we are in Christ. God with me is total assurance, so we didn’t have to worry.
- Sarah: The returning one must cry out to God for help, not just expect God or people around them to fix it. At some point, things must be let go.
- Larry: Churches need to be sensitive to returning ones’ medical needs such as dementia, Parkinsons, cancer, etc.. It’s important to find out: do they have family support? Are they financially stable?
Thrilled that they had gotten a second chance at serving in the land they loved, Larry and Sarah weren’t eager to call it quits. Yet as God pointed them back to the states, they embraced the transition with faith and intentionality.
- Sarah: Retirement is an extended furlough. Once you’ve lived overseas, you’ll never feel at home somewhere else again. “Where are you from?” people ask. “I don’t know,” I answer. I was made for a better place than here or Africa–it’s in heaven with my Savior.
- Larry: Retirement is a non-biblical term. You’re moving on to what God has for you next. It doesn’t mean you’re put on a shelf or no longer useful. The key passage for retirement is Joshua 13:1, “Now Joshua was old and advanced in years, and the Lord said to him, ‘You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to possess.'”
- Sarah: One of the best ministries we’ve had since returning is investing in those who are interested in missions. We’ve also continued to go back for visits, as well as keep contact with people. And if the Lord calls us to go back for a longer period, we’re ready and willing.
- Larry: If we are followers of Christ, we are called to fulfill the Great Commission, whether paid by a missions agency or not. Geography is not the most important thing. Being all the way where you are is the most important. Furthermore, returning is becoming more and more common for all of us because this is becoming a more and more transitory world. The key is knowing that we’re in a right relationship with the Father and that Jesus is with us. As we’re walking with him daily, he walks with us.
Practical Recommendations for Churches
Throughout my interview with Larry and Sarah I took special note of action steps that churches could take in caring for their returning sent ones. These are highlighted below:
- Plan for their arrival by stocking their fridge and pantry. Save them from that first traumatic trip to the grocery store when they are completely exhausted from international travel.
- If they are returning indefinitely, try to help them with a 3-month financial buffer. This will give them time to recover and find other work.
- Communicate well enough to know their interpersonal needs. It’s going to be different with every family. Some want quiet, some want fellowship.
- Counseling can be really helpful, even if they think they don’t need it. Transitioning cultures is a lot to process.
- Help provide a place for them to get away. Push them to retreat. They may not even know they need it.
- Give them a significant context for sharing their lives and ministries with the church. This must be contextualized to the specific church setting. One example is a special evening with food and Q&A.
- Put returning ones together with those who are preparing to go. This is the perfect setup for them to pass on their unique knowledge and experience.
*Names changed for security purposes