WELS missionaries are sent around the world and asked to acclimate and integrate themselves into a foreign culture. They learn the language, customs, culture, social practices—they truly become part of the country as they work to share the gospel.
In August, a group of former WELS missionaries, some retired and some returning to the United States for new calls, met for a two-day repatriation retreat.
“The retreat is a recognition that people, once they live overseas for an extended period of time, really change in their worldview,” says Larry Schlomer, Board for World Missions administrator. “When they come back to the United States, they’re actually not coming back to their home country, because they know their home country from 7, 10, 20 years ago. Things will have changed drastically in that time.”
Two speakers came to offer counseling, insight, and expertise to the former missionaries and their wives.
Schlomer says, “The retreat is to get several people who have gone through this experience together so they learn from each other and realize there are some common themes they will be facing.”
These themes include seemingly routine things like trying to decipher what products are a good value at the grocery store, ordering at a fast food restaurant, and navigating retirement benefits.
On top of day-to-day tasks that are now foreign, they have left people, friends, a home, and a ministry that they loved. “You get to where you don’t know how to do things in the States anymore, and you feel like an outsider. Nobody is really like you, and people don’t understand you,” says Andrea Wordell, wife of former missionary Brad Wordell, who spend 17 years in Japan.
For Adam Gawel and his wife, Sherri, the roles are reversing. Adam met Sherri while serving in East Asia. The Gawels and their three children moved to Chicago after Adam accepted a new call. This time, it is Sherri moving to a foreign country.
After serving seven years in East Asia, Adam has noticed how ministry work is different. “Being a foreigner in East Asia, it was easy to talk to people,” he says. “They’re willing to engage with you in conversation, even religious conversation. But here in the U.S., people are a little more hesitant to talk about religion and maybe more suspicious if you approach them.”
When Stephen and Lori Lawrenz left for Africa 30 years ago with two small children and one on the way, they treated the experience like an adventure. Stephen says, “Now I look at America like a foreign country, and I have to figure it out too.” They say they know to put their trust in God as they face each new chapter.
Missionaries aren’t the only ones having to deal with change when returning from a foreign field. It affects their children too. Here’s what Anna Sherod, whose father served in Japan for 11 years, has to say:
I moved to the States from the Japan mission field when I was 13. The first few years were privately difficult as I tried to fake my way past my reality: ignoring 11 years of growing up speaking Japanese, eating rice, commuting on trains, and having my family life defined by the sharing the gospel. I was successful enough, but I struggled with depression and a sense of drifting through life.
In 2011, I attended a retreat for adult (former) missionary kids sponsored by the WELS Board for World Missions. The purpose was to offer ongoing support. There I met the very first people outside my immediate family who understood my story. They had all grown up on mission fields too. The lives of their families were also defined by big moves, cross-cultural stories, and sharing God’s love.
We shared stories of grief and loss, guided by a trained facilitator. When we worshiped together at the end of the retreat, the sermon was preached on the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn.” I began to understand that the many “good-byes” in my life had been used for God’s kingdom and could continue to be used.
I started embracing my identity—as a Christian, as a missionary kid, and as someone whose formative years were spent in Japan. Since then, I have volunteered in Japan after a tsunami and earthquake struck, navigated living in Germany and Romania, and now work for Kingdom Workers on an Apache reservation. I know that the way I grew up shaped me—to love languages, to embrace listening to other cultures, and to be fearless about proclaiming Christ’s love. I needed to meet people who had something in common with me, to embrace being “different” in my day-to-day life.
Anna is on a volunteer team putting together the next adult WELS missionary kid conference on April 21–23, 2017, in Minneapolis, Minn. Learn more at facebook.com/WELSMKs or e-mail her at [email protected].
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Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 2016
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