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From Mission to Mission featured in Our Sunday Visitor

Accompaniment for missionaries at home From Mission to Mission recognizes the challenges missionaries face reintegrating after spending years outside of the United States 

 by  OSV Newsweekly

Accompaniment for missionaries at homeAt a From Mission to Mission workshop, Sister Peg Donovan is back right. Courtesy photoMaryknoll Sister Peg Donovan had been on mission in Tanzania for 43 years when her congregation asked her to return to the United States in 2014.

For 25 of those years, she served in the same small village of Kalebezo, where she built a health program from the ground up, serving women, children and people with chronic illnesses. The nearest hospital was 25 miles away.

“To go 25 miles usually took us two-and-a-half hours,” Sister Peg told Our Sunday Visitor. “Unless it was the rainy season. Then it took five hours.”

Sister Peg, now the director of her congregation’s mission institute, added: “It was rather difficult to leave this place after all the energy and commitment I put into it.”


How to Help 

From Mission to Mission needs your support to fund its reintegration programs. Learn more at missiontomission.org/support-us.


She knew returning to her congregation in upstate New York would not be easy, but that did not mean she was prepared for the reality of returning home.

“I had been living in my own house in the village,” she said. “Now I live in an institution with about 150 sisters of various stages of life.”

Sister Peg is one of many returning missionaries — both those who spent decades of their lives working overseas and shorter-term lay missionaries — who find support and understanding in From Mission to Mission, a nonprofit that offers re-entry workshops for those returning from mission experiences.

Honor the experience

From Mission to Mission was started by returning missionaries, Julie Lupien, director, said.

“They were on a retreat, and they talked about how there were all kinds of programs to help you prepare for mission, but nothing to help you come back,” said Lupien, who served as a lay missioner in Zimbabwe and on the island of St. Kitts. “For many of us, coming back is the hardest part.”

Lupien did the re-entry workshop as a participant in 1991 and now is in her 16th year as director and sole full-time staff member. But when she first returned from mission, she didn’t think there would be anything to it. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s home. You just go home and start living again,’” Lupien said.

From Mission to Mission offers 10-day workshops a couple of times a year, recommended for those who have been on mission for three to 50 years. Weekend workshops, recommended for those who have been on mission for one to three years, were available three times this year.

“Our goal is to honor the experience, heal what needs healing and help them discern what God is calling them to now, because we are always on mission,” Lupien said.

“No matter how long they’ve been gone, one year or three years or 50 years, they adapt,” Lupien said. “When they come back, they often express something like, ‘I don’t fit here.’ For many, it can feel isolating.”

People also can feel overwhelmed by the changes that have taken place in their absence, and by the pace of life in the United States compared to the pace of life where they served.

“Many of them have been living in very rural areas, where even if they have access to technology, it’s nothing like here.”

They also might be shocked by the level of excess in the United States.

“It’s really hard to face that we have so much, and these people you really care about have nothing,” Lupien said. “It can lead to a sense of guilt for having left.”

Lupien said nearly everyone comes back having experienced some level of violence and trauma, either directly or by observing it and hearing about it from the people they served. Often, they haven’t ever talked about it before.

“They sanitized the version of what happened, either because they didn’t want to be sent home or they didn’t want to give a poor image of the people where they served,” Lupien said.

Readjusting to life

Lupien recommends that returning missioners wait before beginning the From Mission to Mission process — at least three months for those who served one to three years and at least six months and up to two years for those who served longer.

Sister Peg waited two years, in part because she had a broken bone in her leg that she was unaware of when she first returned, and that had to be treated.

“But I knew I needed to process everything on my own first,” she said. When she did go, “I found it very helpful. It was never rushed, but we covered everything. And we laughed a lot, too.”

Crosier Father Virgil Petermeier, who served in Indonesia on the island of New Guinea, also waited about two years to attend the workshop after returning to the United States. He went to the workshop in 2012 and was one of 14 participants.

“I really felt kinship with three guys who were retiring from mission in Papua New Guinea,” said Father Petermeier, who now is writing a history of his congregation’s participation in the missions of New Guinea. “It was important to be able to process our experience.”

Father Petermeier noted that he was the last American Crosier in the diocese, which was being served by more Indonesian priests, and that he was burned out when he returned to the United States.

“That place was my home,” he said. “When I left, I’d lived there longer than I lived in the U.S.”

His experience with From Mission to Mission, especially the emphasis on taking his experience on mission and using it in the United States, gave him the impetus to get involved with the Diocese of St. Cloud’s interfaith relationship with the Muslim community in Minnesota.

“Coming from Indonesia, I think I had a more positive relationship with Muslims,” he said.

Sister Peg said she found it hard to navigate relationships in the United States after so long away — “In Tanzania I just had to walk out my front door to talk to my neighbors,” she said — and needed to find a way to establish her identity again. “There, I knew who I was,” she said. “I had a rhythm of life.”

Father Petermeier said coming back to the United States “was like multiple deaths.”

“It was the death of my identity; the death of the relationships I had among the Papuans and the Crosiers there; the death of living in that multicultural environment,” he said. “For the first while, if people started talking about Papua, then I was just in tears. That was the twist. When I knew I was coming home, I did not figure in the grief thing.”

All types of immersion

From Mission to Mission also offers consultation and services for groups doing short-term mission or immersion trips, including partnerships between parishes in the U.S. and abroad, or medical missions. They try to make the experience the best they can both for those travelling and those receiving the visitors, and help those who travel integrate their experience when they return.

Joyana Jacoby, who served with the Good Shepherd Volunteers in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, from 2004-06, said part of what she did there was welcome those immersion groups. Later, she worked on the other side, coordinating groups from DePaul University in Chicago as they prepared for short mission trips.

“It was the best two years of my life and the most difficult two years of my life,” Jacoby said. “Everything that you’ve experienced comes back with you, and you’re a different person.”But her main work was being present and accompanying women in a sewing co-op, teaching English to grade-schoolers and working with girls in a boarding school run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. Those girls came mostly from difficult family situations.

She said she coped by spending a few months living with her parents in Wisconsin. While most people’s eyes would glaze over when she talked too long about the people in Mexico, they did listen, she said.

Attending the From Mission to Mission workshop helped her translate her experience into skills she could take to her next job, with the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Immigrant Affairs, and then to DePaul.

It also helped to talk about the reverse culture shock she experienced. “You can read about what it looks like,” she said. “But it’s different to experience it.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Mission Stories, Re-Entry Workshops, Testimonial

“Three Weeks that Changed My Life” by Salesian Lay Missioner Catherine McNeal

Catherine McNeal returned in 2016 from a year of service with Salesian Lay Missioners in South Sudan where she served as a nurse. Catherine attended From Mission to Mission workshops in preparation for and again after returning in March 2017. This is her story.

catherine mcneal in south sudan
Photo credit: Catherine McNeal, Salesians of Don Bosco

In preparation for my mission, everyone told me that the transition back home after mission would be harder than the transition into my mission. It doesn’t seem like that would be the case, but it is so true. Going to South Sudan as a Salesian Lay Missioner, I expected everything to be different, to be uncomfortable, to be challenging. Coming home, though, should be familiar and comfortable, right? I lived here for 22 years of my life. I know what life is like in America. The challenge in transitioning home isn’t that your home has changed while you’re away, but that you have changed while you’re away.

The challenge in transitioning home isn’t that your home has changed while you’re away, but that you have changed while you’re away.

I was reflecting on this about a month before it was my time to leave South Sudan. I realized that I didn’t really feel like my time there had changed me. I felt like the year was full of many blessings and a lot of growth, but not a lot of change into who I saw myself being. Little did I know what was in store for me during my final weeks, God, of course, in His infinite wisdom, had a completely different plan for me.

I have touched on the story of my last few weeks in Wau in other posts I have written, and have shared the long version with some close friends, but never put it all in writing. About a month ago, I attended a workshop called From Mission to Mission. It was a time of reflection for past missionaries-a time to process the experience and integrate it into our lives now.  Julie, the wonderful leader of this workshop, encouraged me to write about this experience and share it with others. So, here I am, after blankly staring at my computer screen for an hour, attempting to write about the most challenging, fruitful, beautiful, sorrowful, intense and incredible 3 weeks of my life.

South Sudan has been experiencing civil war since they became a country in 2011. It is all based on tribalism. Each tribe wants to have power over the other and does not honor the lives of people from other tribes. The people of South Sudan have not experienced true peace in their lifetime, but for most of the time that I was in Wau, it was relatively stable. It was never an incredibly safe place, but with some extra precautions, things were always fine. There were isolated incidences of violence in Wau as well as problems with inflation and food/medicine shortages. We heard about other areas of the country that were experiencing much more instability than we were. There were many challenges in Wau, but I had gotten used to most of them and found so much beauty in the ways that the sisters’ mission helped the people.

An excerpt from my journal on June 26, 2016:

“I feel like the life that I’ve lived for the past few days couldn’t possibly be mine. Tensions have been rising in Wau all week. Each day we heard about something or another happening in the market, shops closing, a few gunshots each night. Friday evening, I was sitting in my room reading when I heard gunshots. There were many. God was fighting back with thunder, but the big storm never came and the gunshots continued. We navigated the night with no lights because they can be seen from the street. I went to sleep, but was woken up many times by gunshots. We woke up Saturday and prayed it would be over. We had mass in our compound and it was quiet, but as soon as mass was over, so many gunshots and what sounded like bombs. After mass, the stories started to come. So many people had to flee from their homes. We currently have about 1000 people at St. Joseph’s campus [the parish and school run by the Salesians.]”

I was sitting in my room reading when I heard gunshots. There were many. God was fighting back with thunder, but the big storm never came and the gunshots continued.

When something like this happens, we are responsible for contacting the coordinators of our program and letting them know. Ania and Marta (the Polish volunteers who were serving with me) were able to contact their coordinator first. After a couple of phone calls, she told them that they have to evacuate from Wau as soon as possible. They made arrangements to go to Juba, the capital city, the following day and wait for their respective flights out of the country from there. In the evening, I was able to contact Adam, the coordinator of my program, Salesian Lay Missioners. I explained the situation to him, told him that the other volunteers were being evacuated, and asked him if I could stay in Wau. Now, it’s usually at this point in my story when my audience is like, “Are you crazy? Why would you want to stay in that kind of situation?” I have a few reasons why. I want to be very clear, I did not stay in order to “be cool.” If I had no way to help the people, then there would be no reason to stay. If I was just going to be an extra mouth to feed, I would have left with Marta and Ania the very next day. The reality though, was that the people who I came to help needed the assistance now more than ever. As a nurse, I had a very tangible skill that could help them. With many health facilities closed and people now staying in cramped, dirty quarters with no mosquito nets in the middle of malaria season, how could I leave? Many of the children I know were staying in the school, experiencing the most terrifying time of their life. They had to flee from their homes, are sleeping on the floor in the school, and hearing gunshots every day and night. When all the volunteers leave, it adds another level of fear. They see us leaving and think, “wow, even the people who came to help us are leaving because our country is that unsafe.” These kids don’t have the option to leave. I did not feel okay leaving them in the time when they needed me most. Adam agreed to let me stay and the next 3 weeks changed my life.

Now, it’s usually at this point in my story when my audience is like, “Are you crazy? Why would you want to stay in that kind of situation?” I have a few reasons why. I want to be very clear, I did not stay in order to “be cool.” If I had no way to help the people, then there would be no reason to stay.

As soon as I got to South Sudan, I saw suffering on a level that can’t compare to anything I have witnessed in the United States, but during those 3 weeks, I saw suffering on an entirely new level. These people who already had so little, had even more taken from them. Many of them lost the security of their homes, their possessions, their loved ones, or their own lives.

An excerpt from my journal on June 28, 2016:

“I think the past few days will shape my life more than any others. I’ve seen, heard and taken part in things that I never would have imagined experiencing. My days have been completely full of prayer, seeing the sick, visiting the displaced and loving on the little ones. My sleep has been interrupted by more gunshots than one should ever hear. My heart has been broken by the stories of others and the news that our own [pharmacist] Francis was killed. These days have been tough…I feel like a different person than I was 5 days ago, like I’m someone I never thought I would become. My future has never been full of so many unknowns, when I go to sleep at night, I have no idea what the next day will bring. I don’t know if it’s my last day in Wau or my last day on earth and I am at peace with that. I feel at peace with my decision to stay and let God use me however He can. I’ve never felt more reliant on God. These days have been so hard, but also somehow so fruitful.”

My future has never been full of so many unknowns, when I go to sleep at night, I have no idea what the next day will bring. I don’t know if it’s my last day in Wau or my last day on earth and I am at peace with that.

I think I felt almost every emotion possible during this time, but somehow through everything that happened, I never felt fear. I should have prefaced this whole post by saying that I am not a brave person. I don’t like climbing trees and I get scared riding my bike too fast. I should have been terrified; I fully expected myself to be terrified in a situation like this and without God, I absolutely would have been. I wasn’t scared, not because I’m some brave superhero, but because God is stronger than all fear. I wasn’t scared because I knew that I was exactly where God wanted me to be. For the first time in my life I felt what it was like to completely abandon my whole self to His will. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared of the unknowns. I didn’t know if there was going to be a tomorrow and that was okay because I was living today exactly as God wished. I trusted in the Lord in a way that I was always called to, but through my pride, had never been able to.  With this trust, I knew that if God had more planned for my life, that he would deliver me out of South Sudan safely. At the same time, if this was it, if it was my time to go, there was peace in that too. If this time in South Sudan was what I needed, if staying these three weeks was what I needed in order to make it to heaven, than that was worth everything.

I should have prefaced this whole post by saying that I am not a brave person. I don’t like climbing trees and I get scared riding my bike too fast. I should have been terrified; I fully expected myself to be terrified in a situation like this and without God, I absolutely would have been. I wasn’t scared, not because I’m some brave superhero, but because God is stronger than all fear.

Spoiler Alert: I made it out of the country.

I made it out of the country and I have been changed. God showed me what it meant to truly and fully trust him, what it felt like to completely abandon my own will to His. That is the level of trust I’m called to every single day. God is guiding me through each moment as I continue to transition into this life he has for me in Atlanta. It is not always easy, but it is absolutely beautiful.

Testimonial

Joyana Jacoby on FMTM Experience

“The From Mission to Mission Re-entry Workshop provided me space to continue to unpack and put into perspective the many struggles and joys I had witnessed and lived”-Joyana Jacoby

“I grew up in central Wisconsin and now live in Chicago. My heart has residence in many places including central Mexico. I served in Leon, Guanajuato for two years as a Good Shepherd Volunteer. I went ready to “listen exquisitely to another way of living on the other side of the border.” There, I accommpanied women in a sewing cooperative, taught English, and worked at a girls’ boarding school. I learned new depths of patience and human resiliency, how to work in a relaxed manner, and the meaning of being a woman in today’s world.

While ready to return ‘home’ after 2 intense years of growth I knew I would have a lot of unfolding to do upon my return. The From Mission to Mission Re-entry Workshop provided me space to continue to unpack and put into perspective the many struggles and joys I had witnessed and lived. It was a sacred space to honor my experience, including the painful and difficult parts, share stories with people who really listened and allowed for ‘my spirit to catch up with me.’ Having the opportunity to spend a weekend with kindred spirits was a pure gift and helped me as I moved to integrating what I learned in Mexico into life here.

I am currently the Service Immersion Coordinator at DePaul University where I have the opportunity to accompany students during transformational immersion experiences.”