After a Year of Reentry

The thing about culture shock is that it’s virtually inevitable but can be really subtle. Students of these psychological dynamics say, however, that reentry and reverse culture shock can often be worse for missionaries, because one assumes one’s culture of origin is already familiar and unlikely to cause much difficulty. There can also be an added dimension of guilt about leaving the work unfinished (because it never is finished), and there can be an identity crisis if “missionary” became a primary self-identifier. And on the complications pile.

Then there are the dynamics our amazing third-culture kids have experienced. That’s all its own mess (which deserves its own post). Suffice it to say our family has been experiencing transition worthy of the name as we relocated from Peru to middle Tennessee to Los Angeles.

I remember when I realized I had been in culture shock in Peru. I think, for me, training did its job. I was prepared and fairly self-aware, I tried to do the things meant to manage the experience, and I never had an overwhelming or explosive psychological crisis. But, like I said, it’s virtually inevitable. The day I realized I had been in culture shock was the first day I suddenly felt normal, about a year and a half after our move to Peru. I realized I had been in a constant state of low-level anxiety and frustration for so long that I had forgotten what if felt like to live without those pressures. When I finally felt we were home and things were like they were meant to be—because I had changed, not because Peru had changed!—I was shocked to experience contentment and peace. And to realize I had been living daily without them. Of course, in retrospect, marriage and team dynamics were far more difficult because of my state of mind.

Now, I never changed so much that I was at risk of “going native.” My gringo heart just couldn’t reconcile with many aspects of Peruvian culture. To be fair, I’m a malcontent by nature, so my culture of origin always got the same critique too. But this meant that there were many aspects of life I was very ready to leave behind when it came time for us to depart. To some extent, this made reentry easier: I had no idealized version of circumstances, either in Peru or in the US (per my general life rule: keep expectations low and you won’t be disappointed). And, contrary to many portrayals of reentry, I was not particularly overwhelmed by the experience of consumerism and excess in the US. (Technical note: I believe this may be due to a combination of (a) being in a relatively globalized city, (b) the internet allowing more continual connection with US culture than previous missionaries had, and (c) regular furloughs). I never had the experience, which has become something of a cliché in reentry literature, of standing dumfounded before the vast array of options on the toothpaste aisle. I like options. Competition and continual R&D make sense to me in a capitalistic context, regardless of whether its good. It’s excessive and weird alongside my Peruvian experience, sure, but not particularly disconcerting.

I was also really excited to get into doctoral studies—one of our primary motivations for wrapping things up in Peru—so that helped with the identity crisis issue. We had a clear direction, a next thing. Meg was eager to get back into teaching after her wonderful experiences in the Peruvian public school system. And we were, like most missionaries, tired. It was a blow to my ego to let that admission onto the scales, because I wanted to feel that I could have stayed in the field indefinitely if that had been where we sensed God’s leading. And no doubt, God would have provided in that case. But the raw truth is that I was exhausted and didn’t know where the resources would come from if I was to keep making a contribution to the church’s spiritual growth. So reentry was looking a lot like recovery by the time we boarded the plane, again making it seem like it wasn’t going to be all that difficult.

We were as prepared as we could be with an understanding of both reentry and third-culture kids. We had a generous and thoughtful support system in our sending churches. We had peace of mind, because God was at work in the church, through Peruvian leaders and new gringo Christian partners. And we were hopeful about the next adventure. But let me be honest: there was a lot of turbulence to come after that flight “home.” I was heartbroken about leaving both our church family and my life-long friends, Kyle and Larissa. I was anxious about getting into a PhD program. Meg was anxious about getting a job (though I never doubted schools would want to hire her). If I got into a program, our kids were going to live with their grandparents just long enough to make relocating really emotionally complicated in the midst of their ongoing loss of home (Peru). Meg and I were looking forward to quality time with our Stateside church family but dreading the experience of institutional church. And however committed we were to never giving up a missional lifestyle, I couldn’t shake the fear that we were going to sink inevitably into the mire of consumeristic, over-scheduled, semi-Christian Americanism.

Just over a year later, I’ve had an experience similar to my realization that I was in culture shock. I am beginning to come out of reentry, and this realization it marked by the startling sensation that I have the emotional energy to recommit to mission. Not ideologically (that’s my whole world) but practically. Shortly after I was accepted to Fuller, a mentor counseled me to get involved in ministry during my coursework. He had done a PhD and served in a church at the same time. I told him I was looking forward to focusing fully on research. His response was, “Well, maybe I have more of a heart for ministry than you do.” Don’t worry, that’s his style—and mine too—so he knows that pulling punches doesn’t serve me very well. He was just pouring salt in a wound I was trying to ignore, and sometimes that’s what being salt means, just as being light sometimes means illuminating dark corners that are meant to be hidden. My desire to focus on scholarship was not just an intention to concentrate my energy and do the very best work possible (that was how I rationalized it) but a way of coping with emotional and spiritual exhaustion. I knew (somewhat subconsciously) I didn’t have the resources to engage in ministry at all, let alone attempt to do a PhD in my characteristically all-or-nothing way while also attending to my family’s reentry experience and to the spiritual needs of other people. My mind repelled the thought of that scenario like the same poles of two magnets. The bottom line was that after six and a half years in Peru, I had found my limit emotionally and spiritually; I had not found my limit intellectually, so jumping feet first into the PhD was easy by comparison. In other words, reentry was, for me, a heap of emotional distress that kept me from dealing with the need to heal and begin down a path of new growth, which would allow me to confront some of those emotions. It’s obviously a vicious cycle.

I’m still mourning relationships marred by distance. I still cry sometimes when I hear a song like “Rivers and Roads.” I still feel guilty about abandoning people I love, which causes me to avoid contact with them, which makes me feel guiltier. We still don’t feel comfortable in institutional church. Our kids are still struggling. I still have anxiety about discovering what living for God’s mission means for our family now. And, in any event, the first couple of terms of my program have taken everything I had. But I’ve come (unexpectedly) to the point where I feel able to ask how to grow, retool, and equip for a new season of mission. They say time heals all wounds, though I doubt that very much. Still, some of mine have healed enough let me tend to others and imagine the possibility of getting back to work. I have no doubt that my life is bent toward the academy, and I don’t think I could feel a better fit than I do in my present course of studies, but I also know that my life is about participation in God’s mission. What that combination will mean is still emerging, but the point of this post is that reentry has been defined by the difficulties that plagued my capacity to explore that question. In some ways, these experiences are so personal and particular, I wonder whether they’re worth publishing, but my hope is that a bit of transparency might serve others going through reentry anyway. I certainly couldn’t have written this a year ago, so maybe the clarity of hindsight is of some value, whatever the reader’s situation.

After a Year of Reentry

A Full-time Working Momma

Greg will be a full-time doctoral student starting this fall. We decided that to help make this happen, I need to work full-time. It is an absolute blessing that I found a job here without my CA teaching credentials (still in the works), but it worked out. Yesterday, I received a message with my new work email address. The first part of my email is “msmckinzie.” Sounds teacher-official, doesn’t it? I begin my new job as a 6th grade math/science teacher this coming Monday… lots of staff development. Students don’t come until later in August. My school is projects-based learning with a lot of technology integration so the newbies report early to kick it into gear. There is a part of me that is absolutely giddy with excitement. I think that you know you are in the right profession when you can get so excited about working.

Notice I said “a part of me” is giddy. One of my struggles in my reverse culture shock and going through major life transitions is this job.

You see, I love using my gifts as a teacher. It is the profession I chose back in the college days. It’s the job that brought home the bacon during our Memphis chapter. BUT, I have never worked full-time while also being a full-time momma. I went to Peru, our 17-month-old Ana in tow, and I knew my main mission was to be a momma. My heart has been grieving this life of a stay-at-home-mom for months now. And it isn’t just Ana anymore. I love our three littles like crazy, and I am going to miss waking up with them, taking them to school, attending school events, and the list goes on. (as a side note, I am so incredibly thankful for a supportive husband that loves those three littles like crazy too)

Greg sees all of my tears. He knows I am a basket case in emotional times. God bless him. I was having one of those “ugly cries” one evening, and we sat down to talk about it. I explained to him that I could not put my finger on all that was going on in my head. He let me extrovert, and he heard my words and my grief regarding this situation with my job and the kids.

He said, “Megan, it’s like you’ve forgotten all that we saw in Peru.”

Well, that made me a little bit mad. I have not forgotten Peru, and I will testify at a podium in front of thousands to share what I witnessed God doing during our time in Peru. But the more I thought about his words, the more I realized he was right. I had forgotten.

Greg has gotten a Hebrew word tattooed on his wrist since returning home. It is the word “Shemah,” and it means “listen.” After he got the tattoo, he asked me what I would get for mine (this is a complete joke because he knows I will NEVER get a tattoo). I thought about it and replied, “What is the Hebrew word for ‘faithfulness?'”

If God taught me anything in our time in Peru, it is that he is faithful. Going to that foreign country was a step of faith. Continuing to live in that foreign country was a step of faith. Enduring years of sadness and loneliness because I couldn’t speak the language well was a step of faith. The decision to have children and raise them away from my home country was a step of faith. Why do we take these steps when we can’t see what lies ahead? Because we choose to walk in the Spirit, and we know that we serve a faithful God. He tells us he will provide when we cannot see the provision. He tells us we can walk on water when we feel that we are sinking. He tells us we will survive the flames when the fire seems too hot to endure. He promises to be faithful, especially in those times when we are unsure and doubtful. (and his provision may look way different than that life of living comfortably, but it always causes us to grow and it is always enough.)

One of my favorite parts of Mark’s gospel (chapter 9) is the man that asks for his son to be healed but doubts.

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit.“You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

First of all, I love how Jesus repeats the man’s question, “If you can?” The man has come to Jesus because he knows the stories of him healing so many. It’s not a question of can. The question is will he heal him. And then he mentions belief. Everything is possible for one who believes. The man replies with something that echoes in my head quite often: I do believe, but help me when I have trouble believing.

We sold our belongings and moved back to the states, because we feel that God has led us to this place. (It sounds a little bit like what we did before Peru, huh?). California is foreign to us. There have been and still are many unknowns to us, but we took a step of faith to come here.

I didn’t forget. I just needed reminding. God is ever faithful. He knows my heart and how much I love our children. But he also knows how to provide for us here… in this chapter of our lives. I can already see his fingerprints all over my job placement. He has made it very evident to me that I am in the right place.

You know what makes me giddy? Thinking about what God did through the work in Peru. Thinking about how inadequate I felt as a Spanish-speaker, and then getting to see Living Libraries become what it is today despite my inadequacies. I am giddy about starting my new job on Monday because I love doing what I am gifted to do. But I am most excited about what I cannot yet see. What does he have in store for his kingdom here that I will get to witness? I am in that place of feeling inadequate all over again, but it’s not about me. It’s about his kingdom and whether I choose to be part of it.

I am sad about not being with the kids, but somehow God is going to work it out. All he wants me to do is to take that step of faith. He will help me to overcome my unbelief.

A Full-time Working Momma

Provision

We have received amazing support from our families, friends, and supporting churches since returning home from Peru. I have definitely been absent from blogging. A lot has happened in our time with my parents, and we have now made our move across the country to the beautiful state of California. Before this move, many prayers were lifted for some specific items of God’s provision. We believe that God is faithful and that he provides. Sometimes our impatience gets the best of us or we allow our worries to blur our steps of faith. Transitions in life are hard, especially if you are a planner (like me), and you don’t function well when not knowing what’s ahead. I write this post to reference God’s faithfulness to us in our reentry journey. He has been so good, and I still live by this biblical principle: to the one that much is given, much is expected (Lk 12:48). I know that he has given us so much.

We got to stop and see the majesty of the Grand Canyon on our trip out to CA.
We got to stop and see the majesty of the Grand Canyon on our trip out to CA.

1. Greg’s school

Greg submitted applications to three different PHD programs. It came down to Boston and Fuller. Fuller was his first choice, and Fuller was also the first option to fall into place. We are so thankful for the opportunity Greg has to study something he loves so much over the next three years with many respected experts in his field.

My sister-in-law gave me a great idea to take a pic of the kids in front of the Fuller sign this year, and then one our final month here.
My sister-in-law gave me a great idea to take a pic of the kids in front of the Fuller sign this year, and then one our final month here.

2. Housing

CA is expensive. To make a long story short, we were approved for Fuller campus housing. We found out that we would have a two-bedroom apartment. We arrived to our new home, and we absolutely love it. The apartment is a great lay-out for our family. There is plenty of space for the things that we brought. We live close to the campus and walking-distance from many shops. We couldn’t be happier regarding our housing situation.

our new street. We love the palm trees!
our new street. We love the palm trees!

3. A job

I am the main bread winner for the years we are here. It’s hard to be out of one’s profession for 8 years and expect to land a job in teaching in a state where one isn’t certified. I had some high-stress days back in the spring when I was getting my license renewed (that could be a whole other post by itself), but I renewed my license and am still waiting on my CA credentials to come through. Many LA schools require an English Learner’s Authorization (which I do not have). To be honest, I was a little nervous about finding a job without the correct credentials.

I signed my contract this week for a 6th grade math/science position! The school is a public charter school working to alleviate poverty in a gateway community of Los Angeles. The four hallmarks of the school are service learning, technology integration, projects-based learning, and parental involvement. After meeting with staff, seeing the school location, and waiting for other options, I am positive this is the place for me to be. I am receiving a good first-year salary, and they additionally provide an insurance benefit package for our family (a huge blessing!).***

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4. Our kids

The move has been hard. We are surrounded by other Fuller families with kids close to our kids’ ages. They are enjoying the playdates, and they seem to really like our new apartment. We are almost certain about an arts-based public school that the two oldest will attend this fall. We are located very closely to a large hispanic grocery store that carries many foods we love, including Inca Kola!!! That made the kids happy. We are still unsure of our PreK situation for Cohen, but we trust that something will work out soon.

Inside Out was the perfect movie to see our first week here.
Inside Out was the perfect movie to see our first week here.
and for a great price!
and for a great price!

So… how’s that for an update? We are so thankful for his provision. For any of you that pray for us, thank you. We are excited to be starting our Seminary (take 2) journey here in Pasadena, CA.

 

***I met with my HR department today. During that meeting, I got to meet the two executive heads of the charter school. One is Peruvian (his parents are from Lima and Cusco). The other is a graduate from Fuller! She called my hire a divine appointment. It doesn’t get more obvious than that for me. I shared with them that I have always dreamed of connecting Living Libraries to a school in the states. They are very interested in seeing what we can do for a future partnership. I have prayed that God would use me in a school setting that promotes parental involvement. This school has a 96% parent participation rate. I am so excited to work in my new school family and to learn and grow with those around me.

Provision

Learning to Swim

Our kids didn’t have many opportunities to swim in our time in Peru. Ana took lessons one summer, but it was like one teacher to 15 kids… impossible. For the last two weeks, 2 sweet sisters have been teaching my kids the way of swimming. I couldn’t be prouder of how much they learned. We literally went from all three in floaties to no one in floaties! Cohen even went from being scared of the water to jumping in and getting rings from the bottom. Our little fish are ready for the CA summers now. Thank you Sarah and Amanda for two amazing weeks! You have forever impacted my kids in the ways of water games.🙂swimcollage5

We literally went from sitting by the pool and sprinkling water… to jumping into the deep end!

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Hooray for swimming!!!

Learning to Swim

Reentry: Post 2

A lot has happened that I want to take the time to write about: our celebration Sunday welcoming back our family and the Smiths, how the kids have been dealing with our return, how Greg and I are processing this time. But today, in the midst of my ongoing “look for a job, call and email lots of different people” saga, I wanted to share a story that spoke to my heart the other day.

Cohen has asked me more than once when we are going to go back to our house. I know from questioning him that he is referring to our home in Peru. It is weird for them, because they left before Greg and I sold e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. out of that house. The picture in their mind is just how they left it, everything still in its place. He is also really funny when he asks, “Are we going to stay here forever?” It’s been weird living in a place like visitors for so long. But on one afternoon walk, I explained to him that we would be moving later this year to a completely brand new place, and we would live in our own apartment or house. He thought it was really neat that we would have our own house again.

This week has kind of been a big week for us. I am applying for many different jobs: writing cover letters, answering supplemental questions, scanning and uploading documents. But the other thing is that we will learn whether or not we make it into Fuller housing this week. We have been on the waiting list since this past fall, and the word was that we would find out the first week of May. Fuller housing would be so convenient for us since we only have one car right now. Greg would be on campus, and I could use our car to commute to my job (that I hope to have). It’s also cheaper than the surrounding apartments that we have looked at renting. We really want to hear the news that we got in. It would also be one less headache for us to worry over if we just knew where we were living. But…

We may not get into Fuller housing. It might be one more headache to worry over. It might be one more thing that I have to… have faith that God will provide. The story I want to share is a story that features Cohen praying. On this past Monday, he said the prayer before our lunch and he also prayed before our dinner. He thanks God for everyone sitting around the table. He thanks God for his bicycle and his school, but this past Monday he added something new. And I don’t even think he is aware that this is the week we find out.

“God, thank you for our new house.” There it is. So simple, but so beautiful to this momma’s heart. Cohen knows that we will move to a new house. There is no doubt in his mind that we will move to a new house. What is his attitude? He has never seen this house, but he is already thanking God for it.

Faith like a child. I want to be like Cohen when I grow up. I want to be thankful for my new house.

Reentry: Post 2

Reentry: Post 1

I haven’t written a blog post since returning to the states. Our lives seemed like they were in the midst of chaos before we left Peru, and I can’t say that it’s gotten much better. I have several stories that I want to eventually record, but tonight I want to document something that happened a couple of weeks ago (on AG’s birthday).

First of all, culture shock hits a lot later than I thought, and I realize it will still creep up on us over the years. I left Peru stressed, and it has felt like a continual state of stress since coming back. There is a lot going on in my head. I am thinking so much about preparing for the future (getting my license renewed to teach, going through the process to get my license in a new state). I am thinking through the logistics of a cross-country move and what that will do to our eight-year-old that already is having a hard time dealing with this move. I am trying to be mom in a different routine and live with my parents (who I am beyond grateful for, but come on, who wants to live with their parents?). I am dealing with changes in the culture, and I am trying to fit how I have changed (which is a lot) into this new mold that I used to call “home” but doesn’t quite feel like home anymore.

On top of all of these things, I have allowed my grief for Peru to stay deep inside of me. If you know me, you are probably surprised. I am one to wear my emotions on my sleeve, but apparently I only have so much sleeve space, and my body just doesn’t have the emotional energy to focus on it all.

We ended up being in TX with Greg’s family on AG’s actual birthday. We tried to make it as special as possible. She got her ears pierced, and we went to see the new Cinderella movie (which I highly recommend). We had a special dinner with milkshakes afterward. She opened presents from her cousins and grandmother and us. I had picked out a birthday card for her and written a very long letter to her inside.

To me, this birthday was an important day to remember. It’s the birthday between two major life transitions for us. In the letter, I explained to her how proud we are of her and all that she has been through and will go through. I explained that she was one of my constants going to Peru, and I wouldn’t know our life there without her. And now we are making another life transition to a new place, and she will be right there with her brother, sister, and Daddy as my constants. She was so excited to open her gifts that evening, that when she saw how long my letter was in the card, she exclaimed, “Momma! I don’t have time to read this!” She wanted to play with her new things and share the fun with her cousins. She’s eight. I didn’t really expect her to want to read a big, long letter.🙂

Fast forward to after all the family leaving, her little siblings in the living room engrossed in a movie… AG was not in the living room. I walked back to her bedroom in her grandmother’s house, and I found her laid across the bed, buried in her pillow crying. After she heard me come in, she sat up slowly to look at me, eyes red from crying and a tear-streaked face. She was holding her birthday card.

me: Ana, I am so sorry. I never intended for that card to upset you like this.

Ana: Momma, it’s just so sweet. (blubbering it out just.like.momma)

She went on to tell me that she missed Peru and all her friends there so much. In that moment, I couldn’t hold it in. I began to sob with her. We held each other, and we cried. I told her that I missed Peru and my friends too. I told her that it’s okay to be angry and sad about it. I told her to cry as much as she wanted. I told her that I am scared to move again, but that I am so thankful to have her with me when we make the move.

Reentry is not fun. Transitions hurt. But one thing I feel that Greg and I have learned, it does no good to try and hide it from our kids. Ana is not in the dark on how I feel right now. We transition together. We cry together. We will rebuild together.

Our teammates that went to Peru with us just returned to the states yesterday. They will be coming to our home town in a couple of weeks to spend time with our sending church. Our sending church is dedicating a special Sunday to the work in Peru. This past Sunday the preacher just mentioned our teammates and how they were spending their last moments with the church family in Peru. I lost it. I couldn’t hold back the tears. I later told the preacher that if one simple comment makes me cry, I am in for a lot of tears at the end of the month at this special dedication service.

I look forward to that Sunday. I feel like it will give me some closure to a lot of grief I have kept inside. It will be so good to dedicate a morning with my church family thinking about all the things God has done over the past 7 years in the Peru work, and that will be good for my heart.

As for AG, I am so prayerful for her. It is still so hard to not focus on all the negative things that come from our decisions as her parents. A dear friend reminded me today that God is faithful. He called us to Peru, and we answered that call. He did things we never imagined while we were there. He is now calling us somewhere else. He will be faithful again. He calls. We choose to follow. We don’t serve a god of comfort. We serve a God that makes all things new. He will work for his glory. And AG is part of that plan.

“Some trust in chariots, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

Reentry: Post 1