(Jolene, who has been serving in Ukraine for the past ten years, has kindly offered to share this honest and deeply encouraging post that I think will strike a cord, either in our past or present experience, with each one of us serving overseas. And what a blessing for moms preparing for the field to learn and store up this wisdom for the future!)
You have waited many years for this moment. You surrendered to the mission field, graduated from Bible college, spent many months on deputation, and now you are headed to the field! Life could not be more exciting, more adventurous! The moment you have anticipated, dreamt about, and talked about is finally here.
When you get to the field, it is exactly as you dreamed. Everything is so different, yet so intriguing. The people live differently, shopping takes a whole adventurous day, the local language sounds just like you stepped into a foreign film setting. It is a lot to take in, but you are basking in the thrill of it all. “Yes, this was exactly what I had in mind. This is exactly what I have been looking forward to all of my life,” you reflect.
The people do quirky things, and you think it is charming. Things happen that you just know the people at home will not believe, so you write home about it with great pleasure, knowing your friends and family will be just as amused as you are. You journal each day (whether on paper or on your blog) about the incredulous things you are seeing and experiencing. This is the life!
And then, a few months down the road, those funny things slowly start to lose their humor. They start becoming ordinary, and the excitement that got you through those first few months starts to subside. You have thrown yourself whole-heartedly into learning the language, and you are coming to the realization that learning a language is a much slower process than you anticipated. After all, you have been here nearly a year and still cannot say an intelligible full sentence correctly. People still ask you where you are from everywhere you turn, especially whenever you speak. Winter comes and it is bitterly cold (or even the opposite extreme and in the 90’s!)…. not at all like back home. Christmas Day arrives and you might find yourself completely alone or, at best, with another missionary family; and well, quite frankly, you are slightly disappointed because you were not able to celebrate like you know your family was celebrating at home.
Living on the mission field becomes harder and harder, and suddenly you look back and realize that it is no longer an adventure. Those customs that were “cute” to you at first are, really, just rather annoying. After all, don’t these people know that there are better ways of doing things?
And slowly, little by little, the adventure has worn completely off. Life trudges on and does not always take the directions you had anticipated. People are not asking “What must I do to be saved?” like you always dreamed they would. In fact, if they were to ask, you would not even be able to tell them. “Does everyone realize how hard it is to learn a foreign language?” you wonder as you think about how embarrasing it is that you have not been able to lead one person to Christ’s sweet salvation yet.
The letters from home stop coming as often, and everyone expects that you have settled into a happy, little routine. And you have… except that you feel kind of stuck. “This is where I am supposed to be, but I did not realize it would be so lonely. Every time I open my mouth to speak, people hang onto my words trying to understand me like a mother watches her toddler trying to speak.” You feel foolish and want to crawl into a shell and hide. And it does not help that you do not understand anything that is being preached at church either. You, the “great missionary” who left all behind to serve Christ, even start feeling un-churched. Of course, you sit faithfully in every service (while training under a veteran missionary) but still only catch words here and there – certainly not enough to feel conviction or encouragement. You miss your home church; you miss traveling to the greatest churches of America and being in the greatest Missions Conferences ever to be conducted. Forget all of that… you just miss hearing English everywhere you turn!
Slowly, discouragement sets in. “I will never fit in here. I will never speak this language correctly. I will never adapt to the way they do things, etc…” And then you find that you are in a place you never thought you would be. After all, was it not you who, when you talked about foreign missions to children’s Sunday school classes, watched as those small eyes widened in wonder at the adventure of taking the Gospel to a foreign mission field? Was it not you who gave touching testimonies to ladies’ groups about your burning desire to reach these people?
But, oh, dear young missionary wife! You are crossing a bridge between two mountains. The first mountain is the one you left back home, and the second mountain is the one you will reach once you start making friends and learning to adapt in your new home. But, right now you are caught between those two mountains, on a shaky, rattling, swinging bridge. It seems so much safer to turn around and run back to the first, comfortable mountain that you left not so long ago. But, if you will just endure and keep taking one small, shaky step at a time, one day you will find that you have reached the other side. And, it is a beautiful mountaintop, filled with the greatest pleasures and beauty one could ever imagine! From one who has made it to that second mountain, I encourage you to hang on!
I often wonder, if young missionary wives understood this transition process… from adventure to loneliness and change and, finally, to adaption, would there be more missionaries who made it through those first, transitioning years? Most missionaries who give up on their calling, do so during the first four or five years.
I also wonder if praying friends back home truly realize the lonely tears that are shed during that transition period. If they did, I am sure they would be more faithful to write little notes and send little care packages to those young missionary families. If you are one of those praying friends, let me encourage you to find a missionary family who has been on the field anywhere from one to five years and focus on that family. And when the devil comes and tries to rattle that already-unsteady bridge, the missionary family will hold on tighter and take another step forward…. another step toward their future of staying.
Where are you today on this journey? Are you on the first mountain top preparing to leave? On that shaking, rattling, swinging bridge, feeling lonely and discouraged? On that second mountain top of adaptation? Let’s join together in praying for our dear sisters in Christ who are crossing that bridge. And if you are looking on that bridge, do you have a minute to share a word or two of encouragement to spur your sisters on?