Monday, August 05, 2013


I snapped this photo of Patrick during the ride home from Atlanta on Friday. After getting very little sleep since they left Swaziland early Wednesday morning, he finally crashed into a long, deep nap.

The lack of sleep over the last 3 days of traveling finally catches up with him. #roadtriptogetpatrick

Mission trips are hard. You often see things that are too difficult to easily put into words. You leave one way and come back changed yet the people and circumstances you return to are often the same. You went expecting certain things and the reality of the trip is often far different and can leave you struggling to reconcile the two.

After sending four kids off now for numerous mission trips and going on my own, I know that the re-entry to American life can often be harder than the entry into the foreign culture. If the mission trip was in a third world culture or an extremely poor location of a first world, the contrast between what was seen and experienced --- children dying from starvation, overcrowded and dirty hospitals, people living in dumps, grandmothers raising ten or more grandchildren on next to nothing, young girls forced into prostitution, food covered with flies --- and our modern, affluent, American culture can arouse a myriad of emotions. Anger, guilt, depression, cynicism, and grief are all common reactions that mission trip participants deal with upon returning home. They can also struggle with feeling like they should have done more so regrets can mingle with those other emotions to form a sloppy, hard mess.

If you are the friend or family member of someone returning from a mission trip, I encourage you to give them a lot of grace. I also encourage you to give them a lot of space when that's what they need. Spending three or four weeks in an extremely poor and slow-paced culture can make even a trip to Kroger or the local mall way too overwhelming to the senses. Being sent to buy a bag of dog food and finding a whole aisle dedicated to pet supplies (including doggie ice cream in its own fridge), when the mission tripper was just with children who beg just to live, is enough to send them over the edge. And American churches with their color-coordinated toilet tissue, soap dispensers, and cross-stitched pictures, not to mention million-dollar buildings and state-of-the-art sound systems, can make some of them not want to go to church anytime soon. Also, the prospect of all those people asking them to tell about what they saw in two short sentences can just be too much.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with grocery stores or pretty bathrooms. And people who have just returned from mission trips in general do want to talk about their trips, it is just the intensity of it hitting them all at once.

I've seen some who plunge right back in to their home cultures. They relish that thick, strawberry shake from Sonic and the blasting cold air from their bedroom's window unit. They appreciate the comforts of home like never before and are eager to see every single one of their friends and family members.

But many others need to take it more slowly. I know that when I come back from overseas trips, I almost always go through a period of mourning. To be honest, I don't really want to come back. Sure, I love my family and friends and if I was on a trip apart from my husband and children, I want to see them. But I loved being on the mission field of Thailand or Swaziland so much that it literally hurts to leave. I cried more than Betsie did when we left Thailand and I remember the tears coming when the airline staffer at the Johannesburg airport said "hamba kahle" (go well) upon our departure on one of my last Swaziland trips.

As I said, give them grace. Understand if they need to stay home for a few days and cocoon. Give them some time to rest and recover. Mission trips can also be hard on the body. Listen and ask questions --- "who were you closest to", "what was your hardest struggle", "what was your favorite food", "how do you feel like you've changed" --- but also let them not talk about it when what they need the most is time to just ponder and pray and ponder some more.

Eventually, they'll return to some semblance of normalcy. But just be warned, they may never go back to being exactly like they were before. But that's okay. Good mission trips are just as much about changing the hearts of the missionaries as changing those they are going to minister to. Embrace the positive changes and help them process the difficult things. Understand that for a while, they may not want to step into a big box store or eat any desserts. They might want to donate all their birthday money to a children's feeding ministry. They may cry at every church service. They may spend more time talking and texting to mission trip friends than with back-home friends.

It is all part of the process. You worked to get them there. You supported them through prayers and texts while they were gone. They need those prayers and acts of support just as much now.

I know. I've been there. It isn't easy. But it is necessary.

And they do love you.

They will always love you.

They just need you to understand that there is a nation or a people group or a classroom of children that also has their love now.

It doesn't mean they love you any less.

It just means they are learning to love more but that  learning is a hard and stretching process but one that is a reflection of our Father's heart.

I would love to hear your insights, either that as a tripper or the loved one of a tripper.  And if you've got any questions, I'd be glad to do what I can to help with your situation.


Pastor Tom said...

Very insightful, thanks for sharing and for you ministry. Pastor Tom

Elysa said...

Thank YOU for your encouraging words, Pastor Tom! Please pray for Patrick as he continues to process all he experienced.