This post originally appeared on Assist News in January 2015.
My family and I are not actually in Ukraine at the moment. We are home on furlough for two months. Writing that sentence makes me feel conflicted, because after having lived abroad for so many years, the term “home” has become perplexing. We no longer feel fully at home anywhere, but we have family and dear friends all over the world. As a result, we are privileged to have the feel of homecoming when we travel to many different locations. This is especially true of the American Midwest, where we spent the first month of our furlough.
We set up a base of operations in Indianapolis, Indiana, but we didn’t spend much time there. We were on the road nearly non-stop. In one month, we spoke at eight different churches and spent the night away from Indianapolis in six different cities. We drove over 2,500 miles, going as far north as Stroh, Indiana and as far south as Nicholasville, Kentucky. We also made two trips into Ohio.
In between speaking engagements, we squeezed in breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with people all over the region. It wasn’t uncommon to go straight from meeting with one couple or family to meet with another group.
We were overwhelmed by the wonderful reception we received. It had been three years since our last visit to the United States, and yet people greeted us with such warmth, generosity, and hospitality that we felt immediately at home again. We were able to pick up the threads of old friendships and carry on conversations as if we’d never been away from the dear ones who welcomed us back with open arms.
Based on these experiences, I wanted to share a few tips on how you can help missionaries who are back in their home country for a visit.
1. Treat them to a meal, either in a restaurant or in your own home.
So many people did this for us that I only had to cook a few times per week! We were so grateful. First of all, groceries cost far more in the U.S. than in Ukraine. Our first visit to a supermarket on this trip was a shocker! Secondly, furlough schedules are notoriously hectic, so finding time to prepare meals is challenging.
2. If you have a spare vehicle, see if the missionary needs a set of wheels, or if you have a spare bedroom, see if the missionary needs accommodations.
I think I speak for most of us missionaries when I say that we don’t want to be a burden when we visit home. At the same time, we have needs that might be easily met if the right people knew about them. The needs for transportation and a place to sleep top the list. One of our supporting churches actually maintains a house and a van for missionaries to use when they are in town, and we are tremendously blessed to know many people in different cities who are always more than happy to take us in. If you don’t have a spare car or an empty guest room that missionaries could use, you could bless them by asking around on their behalf, because they might be too shy to do it themselves!
3. If you’re not a close friend, give the missionary a clue by mentioning where you’ve met before.
When God created me, I think He removed the part of my brain that is supposed to record names and faces. I was able to find strategies to compensate when I still lived in the U.S., but life as a missionary has made me hopelessly muddled. Now I know people all over the world in many different contexts, and I see some of them only once every few years. It gets especially confusing at places like missionary conferences, where I’m likely to meet people from all of the different regions without a clue to help decipher who they are! It can be incredibly awkward when someone whom I don’t recognize approaches me, greets me warmly by name, and starts a conversation as if we’re old friends. Some people in this situation are able to gracefully admit their confusion and ask for an introduction, but I usually feel compelled to try to play along in order to avoid offending the other person. I’m so grateful to the people who re-introduce themselves to me with some version of the following: “Hi, Sharon! I don’t know if you remember me or not, but I visited Ukraine a few years ago. It’s so great to see you again!”
4. If the missionary has children, spoil them a little.
Furlough can be a trying time for missionary kids. The hectic schedules, the new places, and the unfamiliar people combine to create physical and emotional exhaustion, but a few kind words, a gift, or a special outing can make all the difference. People have been so gracious to our children, from giving them gifts to entertaining them with old toys out of their basements to making fun family activities possible. As a result, my 6-year-old actually told me that he wants to live in the United States, because he thinks life here is all fun and games!
5. If you want to give a gift, keep in mind size and weight constraints for the missionary taking things back overseas.
Many people gave us gifts on this trip. It warmed my heart to see my children’s excitement when they discovered presents with their names on them in the homes of people we visited, and I was grateful to see that most of the gifts had been selected so as not to use up much of our precious suitcase space. But it wasn’t only our kids who got presents. Many people gave gifts to my husband and me as well. The most common things we received were gift cards and cards with cash in them. Far from being impersonal, these gifts spoke great love to us, and they were part of the way that God provided for our family’s needs, in light of the higher cost of living in the United States.
6. If you want to meet with a missionary and there is some distance involved, offer to meet halfway, or better yet, go to them!
Missionaries on furlough may have exhausted their financial resources just by coming home, so any money they can save on gas is a blessing.
7. Be aware that missionaries who don’t return home often may be out of touch with current trends in American culture.
As you make conversation, if you refer to some band, T.V. show, movie, recent event, or the like, help the missionary out by adding a quick description so they don’t get lost in the middle of the conversation.
8. Be understanding and patient if the missionary seems confused or overwhelmed in the middle of everyday circumstances.
There is a reverse culture shock that happens when a missionary returns from the field. While they may have a sense of relief at being able to speak English to everyone or being in a environment that feels more familiar, there is also a sense of bewilderment at how different things are from the country where they have been living. A simple trip to a store like Walmart can be completely overwhelming, and common activities like swiping a credit card at the grocery store can make the missionary feel backwards and silly because they have to ask for help (true story).
9. Realize that missionaries serving in countries where English is not spoken may have some awkwardness expressing themselves in their native tongue.
No, they are not trying to flaunt their knowledge of another language if they stumble mid-sentence and say something like, “I can’t remember the English word for it.” Their brain has been working so hard to master a different language that it gets stuck in that mode, creating embarrassing lapses in their mother tongue. They may also come up with creative expressions, like when my husband asked a puzzled waiter for a “baby seat” because he couldn’t remember the word highchair.
10. When making conversation, draw the missionary out with thoughtful, open-ended questions.
Missionaries are eager to talk about their experiences on the field and the burden God has given them for the people they are serving, but they may be cautious about sharing too much unless they can tell that you are truly interested. General questions like, “How’s it going in Ukraine?” will likely elicit awkward, single-sentence answers like, “It’s great,” as they try to determine how much you really want to know. Instead, if you have been following their ministry, ask specific questions about the people and issues that you know are close to their heart. If you don’t know those details, ask them to tell you the greatest challenges and the biggest praise reports of their last term of service. One of the best ways to encourage them is to ask how you can pray for them—then pray for them on the spot, and continue to pray for them long after they’ve returned to their other home.
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