When my husband, our three children, and I went to work with a young church plant in Amsterdam, there were no mission training programs among churches of Christ. We learned how to do missions the hard way: trial and error. In the words of a fellow missionary at the time, successful new churches were planted in spite of the missionaries and not because of them!
Tom and I knew nothing about culture shock, long term culture stress, and the daily frustrations that occur in cross-cultural living.
- We were not warned that the losses of relationships with family, home church, close friends, and trusted medical professionals would result in grief and require mourning.
- On landing in Amsterdam, we had become inarticulate adults! We spent hours every day trying to learn the language, eventually translating words in our heads during haltingly slow, simple conversations. We couldn’t understand why we felt so exhausted when all we did was study language.
- I remember feeling so useless because I saw no useful role for me to fill. I tried to write a children’s book for a Bible class but could not complete it without help because I did not know what pigs, roosters, or cows say in Dutch (knoor-knoor, kukelekoe, and boe-boe, if you were wondering).
- No one told me that shopping for, preparing, and cooking food would take so much time.
- I didn’t know I would have to boil my baby’s diapers on the stove, rinse them and hang them to dry on flimsy wooden racks inside a small apartment because it rained 260 days a year. A helpful neighbor informed me that ironing them sped up the process.
- I had to learn that people in other cultures do not think like I do – that in many ways, I held different values. This was a huge surprise. I didn’t know it would take so long to make a non-American friend. I didn’t know I would feel lonely. I know now what I didn’t know then: first term missionaries live with intense stress.
Most of all, I did not know how difficult it would be to keep God first in my life, just when I needed that closeness and intimacy the most! My husband, Tom, and I came to work with a fledgling church plant. It seemed that most of the people we met had given up on the God who had failed them during the War and allowed six million Jews to be murdered by the Nazis. They were ‘done’ with religion and were ready to argue God’s non-existence. In addition to a life filled to the hilt with the stresses of cross-cultural living, we were viewed as naïve. A few expressed to us that the U.S. must have an inferior educational system — why else would we profess faith in God??? This was particularly hard to take when living in liminality and dealing with identity issues. My need for the word, for time in prayer and for quiet became ever more important.
In short, I knew missions would be hard. I just didn’t know it would be this hard.
We learned from our experiences as novice missionaries. I now know we did some things right.
I learned feeling at home mattered. We bought second hand furniture from an auction house. I did not find it particularly attractive, but adding homemade curtains from material bought at the open market improved the ambiance. Paint also helped. We hung pictures and paintings on the wall. Researchers connected to International Business now tell us that we did the right thing. Feeling at home improves cultural adaptation and keeps people on the field.
I learned that eating meals together as a family was essential. Shopping became routine after I learned some language and made myself become more assertive, a trait the Dutch admire. Cooking healthy meals from scratch got easier. At mealtimes, we heard about our children’s day. They often educated us, becoming our grammarians and teaching us Dutch songs, rhymes, and history as well as how to celebrate holidays. We developed rituals around all of the Dutch and American holidays. I would discover years later; these rituals were the glue that held our family together in hard times. What we didn’t know then that we know now is that our children were becoming Third Culture Kids.
Tom and I learned that life was easier if we had a loving marriage. A night out together, at least twice a month, became a habit that lasted our entire married life. My house always had two things: chocolate and flowers. Tom never forgot a special nor a not-so-special occasion. I know now that strong marriages reduce missionary attrition. To love your spouse is good self-care.
Caring friends helped us survive the early days of cross-cultural transition. Monthly letters and birthday and Christmas gifts sent by two couples from our home church refreshed us. Round-robin letters with best friends from college sustained me. I poured my heart into those letters. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that honest writing promotes good mental health. Also, monthly gatherings with other missionaries in our home or in near-by cities were life giving. They became our new best friends. We were blessed. We were cared for by friends back home and by our fellow missionaries.
Taking a break from the work refreshed our souls. Life in an apartment, surrounded by concrete, with children playing kick the can and hide and go seek in the street below our little balcony became normal. We learned from the Dutch that a few days away was a good thing. A camping weekend in our one-room blue tent revived us. Our children thrived when they could be in the woods or on the beach. We also found that attending Bible lectureships and workshops edified and filled up the empty spaces in our souls. What I know now, but didn’t take into consideration then, was that God commands His people to rest. Israel spent 21 days of their year taking part in festivals. Time away camping or at a lectureship became our festivals. I now know that this is called Master care and mutual care, and that it is all a part of good self-care.
Learning the language made life easier. Learning the language made life easier. The process initially brought more stress, but later fluency relieved it. How wonderful it was to be able to express my thoughts and to be understood! Reading books written by national authors not only improved my vocabulary but helped me understand the culture better. What I didn’t know then was that understanding the culture helped me appreciate and learn to love my neighbors and others that I met. Loving my neighbors and being there for them, brought friendship – friendships that last until death and beyond, because being a friend meant allowing others to see your heart. Those who saw our hearts sometimes also learned that they were deeply loved by God and that He was calling them to Himself.
A Final Word:
Drs. Holmes and Rahe devised a stress scale in which different kinds of stress were assigned numerical values (for instance, the loss of a spouse had 100 points). A score of 200 was considered a high score. Their research discovered that fifty percent of those with a stress score of 200 or above were hospitalized with a major illness within two years! Later, Drs. Larry and Lois Dodd revised this scale to fit the missionary lifestyle and found that missionaries during their first year on the field regularly scored around 900. Even veteran missionaries scored 600+ year after year (Joanes, David, The Mind of a Missionary)!
Missionaries – like everyone else – suffer from emotional stresses that can show up in physical illnesses. Losses continue to accumulate throughout the missionary life span, but they experience them far from home in a culture never completely their own, always conversing in a second (or third!) language, dealing with different values – all things that make stress more intense. What I know now is that those who remain healthy we call resilient. They receive care first from God, and, when they know that God really loves them, they in turn return that love to Him. God’s love for them propels them to love others as themselves, even as others are moved to care for them in turn. Along the way, resilient missionaries learn to practice self-care and, by God’s grace, come to thrive on the field.