At the outbreak of Covid-19 globally, more and more missionaries posted on social media their immediate leaving, their desperation to catch the last planes, emotional upheaval, concern for their families etc. 

As I agonized with some friends, I felt there was such a rush into something new but without knowing what might await. Was the fear gripping us Christians as much as anyone? Fear is a normal human response to an immediate crisis, so I wondered what would drive us into the future. Were these people coming home simply because of fear? I doubted this. Were people taking these decisions lightly? Surely not.

At the same time on social media, different “heroes” from the past were highlighted. For example, Wishart from Scotland (1526 A.D. – 1560 A.D.) and Luther from Germany (1483 A.D. – 1546 A.D) and their way of looking after the needy in times of life threatening diseases like the black death. They took many precautions not to get infected but also were risking their lives to treat the sick. Were we supposed to be the new Wisharts and Luthers?

Missions today looks very different compared with some of our pioneers like Charles Studd (WEC) or Hudson Taylor (OMF). We might remember Hudson Taylor and other pioneers who took their coffins with them as they left for the mission field. This no longer applies to us today. 

I was in fulltime ministry for 10 years and have served in Cote d´ Ivoire, India and Hong Kong. Though I am a very healthy person, I ended up in hospitals or clinics in each of these nations. 

I was not out to judge anyone, but simply wanted to understand the immediate urgency, the motivations and perhaps reasons. I also felt I could not ask my returning friends as they had so many issues to deal with already.

After two weeks of reading and reflecting, I dared to ask my question in the Global Member Care Network group on Facebook with 4000+ members (https://www.facebook.com/groups/globalmembercare/). Mission partners as well as member care people are in this group.

„I would love some light on the issue of why missionaries have returned home/sending countries due to Corona. Why is it? I understand why we have flown the short termers back. Is it due to regulations and insurance policies? Protecting their children? Thank you very much!“

The responses received within the first 24 hours were amazing, stirring and challenging. I was in for a ride. People really wanted to share, be heard, be understood and stood up for others who were affected. It surely was not without emotions and discussions. I know some misinterpreted my motives, but I was simply out to hopefully receive some answers.

About 65 people responded and in addition interacted with each other´s stories, which was heart-warming and a real blessing. I was taken by surprise receiving so much feedback. The interaction continued over a span of 10 days. I am so grateful for all the answers, ideas, the sharing and helpful resources mentioned.

It became clear that the issues are not always straightforward and that each side can feel guilty towards managing other people´s expectations. The ones who stayed feel guilty, the ones who left feel guilty. And even the ones who are in transition, a group that feels overlooked.

Dr. Jay Matenga, director of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission and the leader of the national mission commission in New Zealand (Missions Interlink) wrote an article on this conversation thread. The article can be found in his bulletin: http://www.missions.org.nz/images/pdfs/bulletin/2004_MIB.pdf

Jay categorized the responses wonderfully, so I will make use of his writing. He simply beat me and is far better! 🙂  He also used some of the posted stories, which I partly recycle here.

He pointed out in his article that mission organisations have increased their sense of responsibility over the past two decades. Many of them have people responsible for member care and helping the missionaries to deal with the difficulties of life. If this is not in place, for example  “… in the USA, organisations can be sued for missionary harm, but also increasing health and safety regulations in many sending nations that can prosecute agencies for negligence. Enforced repatriation is often motivated by avoiding legal (and negative public opinion) consequence”.

In these posts, it became evident that not everyone had the choice to stay or go. When the decision was taken away, it did not mean less struggles. 

It also became very problematic in cases of intercultural marriages as home might be in two places. Which one to choose?

Quite a few themes flowed out of these conversations. Some were reasons why missionaries returned, some were obstacles they faced while leaving or remaining. 

SAFETY / PREJUDICES 

Mission agencies are concerned about their mission partners but also the local or national church. In some areas, the local church asked them to leave, as they could not guarantee their well-being.

Rising racial tension was another issue in this regard.

My son and family are returning from Ethiopia this week because of severe security issues in the country, as I also hear from other African countries, where somehow a hatred toward “the whites” is on the rise, and Covid-19 is named “the virus of the whites”. They are not missionaries in the stricter sense, but working as leaders of an NGO… in Addis. —AW

I heard that “whites” are blamed also from Cameroon and Papua New Guinea. That can fast turn into a safety issue.—MR

There have been similar comments in Tanzania where we used to serve and still have expat friends. So far, in Kenya we have not experienced that, but have heard of some expats that have had comments made. —TB

POLITICAL INTERVENTION

Governments became concerned for their citizens being stranded overseas and started calling for voluntary repatriation. It was out of care but also due to wanting to avoid having to mount financially and diplomatically expensive rescue missions for citizens stranded.

Among government officials, there is a general fear that this could get very bad. It is a reason for “recalling” expats while it is still possible. In the case of organizations that have “deployed” their people, i.e. government agencies, missions, corporations and etc., they have a legal responsibility for their people. It is not a choice. We have been a part of several evacuations and the legal responsibility plays a large role. As independent faith missionaries, we are free to stay at our own volition as God leads. —TD

To bring another perspective—there are also internationals and expats living in the States who are returning to their countries of origin. So not just missionaries in that context, but international students and workers who are being asked to return by their local embassies. We have one who lives with us, and it’s been a difficult decision taking time for her. She’s been told by her officials that she will not be prioritized for care here if she gets sick, so better to return—also her insurance won’t apply here. So it’s everyone who is living internationally away from their home countries. —BA

In addition, it can be due to visa conditions but also because the missionaries will not receive government-rationed food.

HEALTH CONCERNS

Medical conditions featured significantly in affecting (re)location decisions. If the host country was unlikely to provide adequate health care compared to the sending country, a choice to return became somewhat more obvious.

Someone mentioned that in some cases the insurance would become invalid if the people would stay against the order of their sending country.

My child is high risk with asthma. At the time, we were awaiting results for CF. Our host country’s medical system is already extremely limited and only 150 ventilators in the whole country, so our crisis management team urged us to fly back so we could be near the top Children’s hospital where we are from in the USA. If he would have gotten this virus it could be extremely bad.—TI

A couple with multiple “high risk” conditions in Taiwan had no safe place to quarantine. In the end, we left the decision up to the individual families, with only a couple of issues that were non-negotiable. We assured them that if the worst happened, we would do everything in our power to evacuate them but that the options would become increasingly more difficult if not impossible. —SS

Most of our people are staying put. Only a couple of folks who have high risk pregnancies w/o decent care options or who had already planned a home assignment and decided to come back a bit early, while they can. And a couple of people who got stuck in the USA because flights stopped going to their country of service. —BS

Some have travelled because they are considered high risk and if the medical provision is not good, some have decided that they’d prefer to be in their sending country with better health provision (and family for singles especially.). We’ve had family members put some pressure on a few of our members to return at this time. We’ve actually had a few people who had travelled for a short time to Europe for ministry reasons and now are ‘stuck’ (thankfully with their families). That’s how it has been in our agency. —RT

Note that pressure from extended family in the sending nation can be a factor.

SENDER SENSITIVITY

It was wonderful to read of sending organisation/church sensitivity to individual situations and needs from some that responded. They clearly felt that a one-size-fits-all approach was not appropriate, at least not at the time of their response.

I appreciate our sending organization who said, “we need to know where you are, but the decision is up to you. If you want to return to your passport country, you may. No questions asked. We don’t need to know the answer.” We chose to stay because we are in a developed country, own a home here, have a long-term visa; our elderly parents are with the Lord and our adult child lives in another country. But others have left for visa reasons, to be with parents or grown kids. It is a personal decision and everyone has his/her reasons. It is not black and white, and we need to be careful not to judge others. —NM

WAITING IT OUT

Not everyone left. This is of course true globally but also was added into the conversation. The waiting applies here to all sides, the leavers, the stayers and in transition. In this thread, someone mentioned that people stayed behind because they did not want to be seen as “less than” a good missionary. 

I know of two cases where the young couples were in the process of changing cites or countries anyhow and were unable to make the move at this time. So, they returned to their home country (one wife is also pregnant). My son and his wife are not yet on the field two years, still in language training in an Asian country. They are expecting a 4th child late summer and have decided to hunkerdown and stay put. —DS

We had tickets to leave prior to the virus outbreak. Our son is getting married in two weeks. We were supposed to be helping with all the wedding preparations but much has changed. For now, we don’t know when we can return to Kenya but our prayer is to fly back as soon as the travel restrictions are lifted. —HD

We are in China. Some of our people were away when it kicked off here and couldn’t get back. Others went because they were on tourist visas and because children were not doing well with all the isolation (sadly now they face that in home country). Others of us stayed because we have work responsibilities, children in our care and local staff to support through the crisis. Plus this is home! So our community was all different. —KA

I’m a TCK and former missionary teacher whose no longer on the field but my family are not in the same country as me. I am staying where I am at the moment due to my work (I work for the NHS) but I did not make that decision lightly , knowing that I wouldn’t be able to travel to see my parents or other family members if they needed me. Others I know who are on the field made similar choices in the moments when choices could be made and some had that choice taken away from them by their organisation. –CRI 

A lot of people on our field have stayed because they have visas that allow them to (long term visas) and because back in their country they don’t have a home, car, etc.

Through this conversation with more than 170 engagements, it has been wonderful to watch how people responded with their own stories as well as stories of missionaries they deal with or look after.

As my heart took in all these stories, it felt like a rollercoaster. Some were full of hope, others made me cry.

The Facebook group over the past two weeks has grown even more and people are offering various mostly free resources like books, online courses, support systems etc. really wonderful stuff helping the ones who stayed as well as the ones who returned.

How can we support the missionaries on all sides?

There are fantastic resources out there to help missionaries deal with this situation. Let me attempt to list three things which have arisen through this conversation:

  • We need to listen to their stories without any judgement

People have mentioned the guilt trip they are on or others they know of. As JP said, there is no right or wrong or NM said, there is no black and white.

I loved the response by one organisation saying, “If you want to return to your passport country, you may. No questions asked. We don’t need to know the answer.”

We need to trust our folk to make the right decision, which is their decision. That they feel a peaceful conviction in doing what God wants them to do. A counsellor was quoted in one of the posts, “no one has the right to make the decision except the ones impacted by it”. Either way it is hard for them. It is loving and supporting them no matter what decision is taken. 

My family chose to leave two weeks ago and saw God make a path for re-entry and self-quarantine. However, not only did we receive judgement from peers in the field, but continue to experience regret, and we grieve over who and what we left behind… I just wanted to make a point that this is not as black-and-white as “who can handle it” or “who is most faithful.” —JA

I also fully understand JA’s statement and the agony of trying to do the right thing and facing unjust criticism from others who have not been in their shoes. My wife and I served in Mexico from 2007-2016 during the escalation of the drug wars in which more than 164,000 were murdered. After 10 years of that, we felt very strongly that God wanted us to get out. Some within our own organization resented and made fun of that but God pressed us to leave even sooner than we had planned. We moved out two days before a friend of ours—a missionary nurse—was murdered by the cartel. After moving out (we continued to work in Mexico for several more years, we just didn’t live there) I had people condemn me for my “lack of faith,” “for putting my safety before the Gospel,” etc. I know we did the right thing—what God showed us we needed to do, but it still hurts. God knew we needed a break and restoration more than we did. I think every situation is different and only God can give that direction. —SS

  • We need to identify with the pain

Missionaries experience the joy and pain of working outside their own comfort zones. To help them thrive through pain, our hearts should also be broken by what breaks their hearts. Identifying as much as we can with what they go through. And if we don´t understand, not starting to criticise or question.

On either sides, sacrifices were made. Help them to identify and mourn. Many of the ones leaving never had the chance to properly say good-bye.

We had only a few minutes to make the decision. It was awful. We bought the tickets 3 days in advance and told God if he wanted us to stay that He would close the borders before our flight. We begged Him to close the borders. He didn’t. We were on the last flight out and then the airport closed the next day. He keeps confirming that we made the right decision but it doesn’t make it that less painful. -TI

MJP responded to the whole thread, “honestly, I am glad you asked this question because the answers have given me the courage and clarity to pray for missionaries and my heart is moved to pray for each struggle they mentioned. Thank you again for those who shared.”

SS contributed with, “thanks Evi for opening up this topic for discussion. As I think, we all can see from the responses, there is much that lies below the surface. Things that don’t meet the eye but tear at the hearts of those who have left all to follow Christ and to tell His Story. This open processing helps bring healing“.

  • Be aware of the different groups

Someone mentioned, what about us, who are in transition? We do not fit the leavers nor stayers. No one is concerned about us.

Mission organisations need to take into account all three groups who struggle through this COVID-19 crisis. No group is more faithful than the other. 

There is actually a third group of people that needs to be considered in the discussion, the group to which I belong. I was in the middle of deputation (planned departure date to return to the field: June 14). Now all the meetings have been cancelled (March and April being my busiest month for visits) and many cannot be rescheduled since they are annual events. Financial donations are already dropping due to financial implications of Corona on supporters. Financially it would be more reasonable to leave now as I would need less money there, but this is impossible because of some medical issues that I still have to resolve before leaving and because there are no flights into my country of service, the country is basically shut down and their medical system is more than insufficient. At present I plan on a departure date in August, but will it happen? –MR 

Some of my take-aways:

  • People are very vulnerable and judging any side at the moment is far from being appropriate
  • We need to encourage people once taken decisions to not feel guilty as foremost they are responsible before God
  • God is in control and builds his church, even when some of his workers have left their ministries behind, due to the above reasons. 

Some further reading:

Emotional recovery after disaster: https://www.co.chippewa.wi.us/government/emergency-management/flooding/emotional-recovery-after-a-disaster?fbclid=IwAR23l-6Qgz1_fEH5WBdo3lP_x3IHXcwEjuP_95BHz7apb3gqqfVUbARyUpY

To the churches whose missionaries have come home: https://www.emilyhervey.com/to-the-churches-whose-missionaries-have-come-home/?fbclid=IwAR3wfNWdc62obTp1-_LfbBNsAHLJTwXs37sjeh3scp4xa6Ix_kHe3k5zjww