By Diana C. Derringer
When Mom requires surgery, we camp out at the hospital and provide a few days of follow-up care. If our daughter presents her university graduate recital on Saturday, we take a long weekend to attend. Following my uncle’s death, we booked a flight and went. Wanting to surprise our son with the latest gadget in his arsenal of tools, we picked it up on our way home from work.
Although sometimes inconvenient, none of these presents a major problem for most of us. However, the simplest family need grows complicated for international missionaries. Distance from their loved ones, ongoing responsibilities on their field of service and financial constraints prohibit them from attending special events and meeting daily needs as they wish they could.
Meanwhile in the States, we go about our daily lives, oblivious to the emotional and logistical struggles these families face. We genuinely care. We want to support those who serve in other parts of the world. We give to mission offerings. We pray for missionaries. Our church may provide housing for missionaries on furlough. We send cards, online messages, and gifts on their birthdays. But how can we meet the daily concerns they have for their parents, older children, and extended family still in the U.S.? How can we offer support and, in the process, ease the minds of everyone involved?
The Egbert Experience
Bill and Linda Egbert served as international missionaries in Costa Rica and Columbia for 19 years. They faced family challenges and losses on a regular basis. Linda said their most troublesome times were illnesses and deaths of parents and siblings in the U.S. They’re thankful that they were able to return home before Linda’s mother died in 2005 and before Bill’s father died in 2013.
Living so far from their children, Matt and Jessica, when they began college in the States also proved difficult. The Egberts had a well-established network of friends at Campbellsville University and in the surrounding Kentucky area. Bill and Linda had attended college there before their missionary appointment. Both children chose to attend Campbellsville, which helped alleviate some painful transitions.
Nevertheless Matt and Jessica felt more familiar with Costa Rican culture than American. They had to adjust to a new environment and a new way of life.
When Jessica first returned to the U.S. for college, she had no driver’s license and no car. Campbellsville had no mass transportation. She did not know where to go for anything she needed. A superstore was far outside her daily experiences growing up. Although a small town, Campbellsville offered too many choices, both in the number of stores and items available in those stores.
In spite of her American citizenship, Jessica felt unsure of herself, unfamiliar with local culture, and apart from others. She said she was “running on empty.” However, her local church took her in, loved her, and sought to meet her needs—physical and emotional. One couple in particular treated her as one of their own. She spent holidays, summers, and other school breaks with them. She called them in emergencies. She hung out at their house and took friends there. Their house became her house.
Friends prayed for Jessica and her family and told her they did so. When her computer crashed, a tech expert from church helped her replace it. A ladies’ mission group provided her and other missionary kids with care packages her first week of finals. Whatever the situation, people helped her “do what needed to be done.” She loved having “more than one home away from home.” Their initiating contacts eliminated her need to take that first step.
Becoming Like Family
When possible, adopt the young adult children or the older relatives of missionaries. Become their second family. Happy, secure stateside relatives find it easier to support the continued work of their missionary family members. Likewise, if missionaries know their family’s needs are met, they can devote more time and attention to the work God called them to do. Based on their experiences, Linda and Jessica shared the following suggestions for anyone who wants to help.
Young Adult Children
• Acquaint them with local stores and what they can buy in each. The choices can be overwhelming.
• Invite them to family meals.
• Include them in daily routines and treat them like family.
• Introduce them to age-appropriate small groups and church activities.
• Take them to a theme park, sporting event, or other fun spot.
• Arrange time with other students adjusting to American culture.
• Provide transportation, particularly in areas with no mass transportation.
• Offer a place to stay during holidays and school breaks.
• Help students find a job related to their area of study, if possible. Yet any job will help.
• Provide tutoring, if needed.
• Take the initiative. Instead of saying, “Call me if you need anything,” check with students regularly.
• Establish a genuine relationship so they will not be embarrassed to ask for help when problems arise.
• Be there for them, whatever the situation. If they’re going through a hard time, give them the support you would want for your family members if you had to be away from them.
• Provide practical assistance, such as helping repair damaged items or teaching them useful skills.
• Provide finals week care packages.
• Love and pray for them and tell them of your love and prayers.
Parents & Older Family Members
• Maintain frequent contact to verify adequate physical care and to provide social opportunities.
• Help with household chores and lawn work, if these seniors are still in their homes.
• Hang pictures and provide gifts, letters, music, and outings when health permits, if they are in assisted living or nursing care.
• Provide care packages of puzzles, games, and medically approved snacks.
• Aid in contact between the missionaries and family members, particularly with Internet issues.
Let’s reach out in friendship to missionaries on furlough as well. Can you imagine the stress of sabbatical in an unfamiliar area? Yet that’s what many face. Certainly they enjoy setting their feet down on American soil. Nevertheless, most must arrange temporary housing, household supplies, transportation, speaking schedules, and other responsibilities while they rest from their missions assignments. In the backs of their minds, they also wonder how everything is going while away from their area of service.
Missionaries deal with the reality that some people view them differently because of their work. But rather than burdening them with a super Christian label, let’s recognize them for who they are: ordinary people God called to a special task. They get tired, frustrated, and weighed down just like the rest of us. They desire friendships they can count on. They enjoy the pleasures of a meal out, a day devoted to fun, and a good laugh like everybody else.
Therefore let’s use the same suggestions for them that we do for their families. Let’s find ways to meet the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of missionaries while with us. They can then return to their field of service with their batteries recharged and their hearts refreshed.
“Your love has given me great joy and encouragement” (Philemon 1:7).
Diana Derringer is a writer and former Kentucky social worker and adjunct professor (dianaderringer.com).