Yesterday I went for coffee with a new friend, Hannah. Through some mutual friends and a Facebook post, she and I met a few months ago as we were both preparing for summers in missions. All I knew about Hannah at first was that she was spending two months in India to work with a special needs orphanage, but that was enough for me to know I wanted to be friends with her. I arrived back in Georgia a week ago, so Hannah and I were finally able to meet in person. We spent two hours in Starbucks talking all about India, Colombia, what the Lord showed us over the summer, and how hard it is to transition back into regular life in the States, and it was so good to bond with someone over everything I’ve gone through and am going through. The more we talked, the more I think both of us realized what similar situations we were both in. We shared a lot of the same thoughts and experiences with both being abroad and trying to bridge the gap back home. We’ve struggled with some of the same problems with our friends, culture shock, and the conversations we’ve had since being back in the States.
And so, with all the love in the world (because I don’t want this to come across as critical at all), here are some of my own tips on interacting with friends who have just returned home from missions. The conversation Hannah and I had yesterday made me realize that maybe something like this could be useful for friends, family, and even acquaintances of people who have been serving abroad.
- Ask us more than “How was your trip?” When someone asks me “How was your trip?,” the only answer I can really give is, “It was good!” It doesn’t allow me to talk about the ways the Lord worked, it doesn’t allow me to tell you about what I did, or who I met, or how much I loved every second, even the difficult ones. And maybe you don’t want all that information, which is why you’re asking the obligatory “How was your trip?” just to get it out of the way. But if you really want to know, ask me more. Ask me what I did, where I lived, who I worked with, if it was hard, and I will love to tell you.
2. Forgive us for talking about it too much. I’ve found myself more often than not this week saying, “In Colombia…” and I have a hunch that it gets annoying. But try to understand: I just spent two entire months living in a completely different place, so this summer, it’s all I’ve known. It’s natural for me to relate everything back to it. I’m working on not talking only about Colombia, but I apologize if I do it in excess occasionally.
3. Don’t say, “Doesn’t it make you realize how blessed we are here?” I have two issues with this statement, and I want to lovingly educate you on why this is just wrong. Number 1: Just because I was in a foreign country on a mission trip doesn’t mean I was in a ridiculously impoverished area. Sometimes missionaries are, sometimes they’re not. Number 2: This statement implies that you view the wealth of the United States as one giant blessing from God, and everyone else–what? Isn’t faithful enough? God doesn’t deem as worthy enough? No. And I know that’s not what you meant, either. But hear me: we are not blessed because we have money. As Scott Dannemiller says in my favorite blog post of all time, “when I say that my material fortune is the result of God’s blessing, it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers.” He gets into it in a lot more detail on his blog, and I urge you to read it because I don’t want to spend more time on it here, but I’ll end with this: Jesus defines blessing in Matthew 5:1-12, and what he says? Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who are persecuted. Not “blessed are those with air conditioning, easy access to healthcare, and comfortable lives.” Number 3: By saying this, you just (probably inadvertently) boiled down an entire trip to me learning that the USA is wealthy. I learned much, much more than about the material fortune of the States this summer; I learned how God’s power overcomes all of our weaknesses, that we are all uniquely talented to glorify His name, that He can bring someone from even the darkest shadows into His light, and that He always, always, always knows better. Those realizations are much greater than anything else.
4. Forgive us for not being glad to be back. Readjusting to life in the United States is hard, and post mission trip depression is a very real thing. I don’t want to lie to you and tell you I’m glad to be home when you ask me, but I also don’t want to make you feel bad when I tell you I’m not. For the most part, I missed you. If you’re my friend or my family, then of course being away from you for a long time made me sad…but: I loved it where I was. I had a different life for a while, and with that came new friends. Leaving that all behind is really hard in a way that’s impossible to explain. I don’t want to offend you by not being happy to be in Georgia, so please don’t take it personally.
5. Ask us to hang out. One of the hardest things about being gone for a long period of time and then coming home is feeling as if you don’t have a ton of friends left. Life moves on without you when you’re away, and understandably so. But when a friend returns from a trip abroad: reach out! Tell them you’re excited that they’re back and make real plans to see them, not the noncommittal “let’s get together soon” text we all send so we can feel like we played our part. Text us and let us know you’re thinking of us. (PS that goes for while we’re away, too, even if you’re not sure that we’ll see it).
6. Tell us about what you’ve been doing while we were gone. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had where people say, “oh just the same old here. Nothing happening.” I was gone for eight weeks, surely there’s something you can fill me in on?! Even if it’s seemingly insignificant, we want to know what’s been going on in our hometown and in your life.
And a piece of advice to all, regardless of whether you have a friend who just returned from a mission trip: Be intentional in your relationships. Hannah thanked me for being intentional by reaching out to get together once we were both home. What I thought was a creepy Facebook message about how I’d been stalking her pictures from India ended up being a coffee date that both of us needed. I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful it is to have intentional friends, and the best place to start is by being one.