Why Missionaries Can Never Go Home Again
by Karl Dahlfred, OMF missionary in Thailand
When a new missionary first gets to the mission field, it is obvious where home is. It is that place where you just left. It is the place where you grew up, went to school, got an education, discovered a church family and formed your most important relationships.
But when you live overseas long enough, a strange transition takes place.
Your “home” country doesn’t quite feel like home anymore. When you “go home,” some of the same people and places are there, but life has moved on in your absence. When you show up for the so-called “home assignment” or “furlough,” you cannot just pick up where you left off. You are a visitor. An outsider. A guest without a permanent role. Your close friends have made new close friends. Half the people in your home church only know you as a line item on a list of prayer requests. Some new technology, slang, or cultural trend has become commonplace … except for you because you missed it when it first came out.
On the mission field, you said things like, “Back in my country … ” but few local people in your host country could relate to your story. They listened politely but you knew they didn’t really understand. But that’s okay. You comfort yourself with the thought, “People back home would understand me.”
But strangely enough, those people back home who were sure to understand … well, they don’t. Now that you are home, you are full of experiences and stories from the place that has become your second home. You say things like, “Back in my host country … ” But, of course, whatever story you tell them about your host country is hard to relate to. The things that you really miss about your host country receive a blank stare, or a “That’s weird.” After your quaint tale is done, people go back to talking about the local sports team, the latest in national politics or something else that you haven’t given much thought to in the past few years.
It is not that they don’t like you. They do. They are glad you are finally “home.” But those “back home” people simply can not relate to your experiences “out there” in that country with the funny name whose people have even funnier (and unpronounceable) names.
On “home assignment,” people say to you, “Isn’t it great to be home!” and you think, “Yeah, kind of.” Now that you’ve had a few of your favorite foods and seen a few old friends, there are fewer reasons to stay “home.” You start to miss all those things about your host country that you came to love. Certain foods, local friends, the ministry role that you were happily engaged in.
Home is no longer home. And sadly, that other place on the mission field will never truly be home either. Home is both places, and neither place, at the same time.
Home is both places, and neither place, at the same time.
When at “home,” the missionary dreams about their host country.
When in their host country, the missionary dreams about their home country.
Missionaries are forever caught between two worlds. They can no longer completely identify with the people whom they left behind in the home country. But they can never truly identify with the people in their host country.
Home is everywhere.
Home is nowhere.
But that’s okay. There have been other travelers on this road.
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16, ESV)
While here on earth, we will always feel a bit unsettled and out of place. Missionaries and those of us living away from the place we grew up may experience that more than others. But someday, all those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ will finally be home again.
Karl and his wife Sun did church planting ministry in Central Thailand during their first missionary term and then moved to Bangkok where Karl taught at Bangkok Bible Seminary, assisted with editing and translation of Thai Christian books at Kanok Bannasan (OMF Publishers Thailand) and was involved with Grace City Bangkok Church. Karl is now pursuing PhD studies at the University of Edinburgh. He and Sun have three children, Joshua, Caitlin and John.