Letting go, letting be, letting begin’

Published October 1, 2007

Shirley Newell, an Anglican Volunteer in Mission who recently returned to Canada from Sri Lanka, walks a labyrinth at Holy Trinity church in downtown Toronto; the exercise was part of a re-entry program designed to help missioners process their experiences.

An ecumenical group of volunteers – some who worked overseas for over a year, others for more than a decade – recently attended a re-entry program in Toronto designed to help them process their experiences both while in mission and upon their return to Canada.

“There’s a sociologist that we work with in Mexico who talks about how, when you walk into another culture you’re irrevocably changed,” said Jonathan Schmidt, co-director of the Canadian Churches’ Forum for Global Ministries, which conducted the program. “The re-entry program recognizes that when they (volunteers) come back to Canada, they often experience similar things that they experienced when they went overseas in terms of culture shock.” He added: “They’ve been changed, so this culture is different to them and so there’s a process of, ‘how do you live in this place, in this culture, now that you’ve been changed and shaped by that other place?'”

The first phase of the weeklong program is called Letting Go, where participants talk about their time overseas. The second phase, Letting Be, asks participants to reflect on their experiences. “Other cultures talk about us as very much a fixing culture,” said Mr. Schmidt. “The response of this culture is, ‘when you come back, how do you fix the world? How do you fix the issues that you’ve seen as opposed to taking the time to really reflect more deeply on what the issues are and what your place is in it?'” The last phase is Letting Begin, which Mr. Schmidt described as, “recognizing who we are now and how we’ve been changed and what do we need to move forward.”

Rev. Stanley Isherwood, an Anglican priest who served as a Volunteer in Mission (VIM) in Belize for 16 months, said, “I was in a country where I was familiar with the language. I loved the weather; the people were friendly. As far as doing the job that I was sent to do, the main challenge was to know how well that was actually done.”

Rev. Katharine Bergbusch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, served as a pastor in Peru for 13 years. “After some time, Peru was like my country also. (The Peruvian Evangelical Lutheran Church) was like my church. I didn’t go with a very defined job goal. It was a young church and I was there to do what they wanted me to do,” she said. “Coming back. It’s like, ‘Okay, what’s Canada?”

Georgina Baisley, a United Church of Canada (UCC) volunteer who taught Chinese English teachers how to improve their English skills from 1998 to 2004 and from 2005 to 2006, reflected on her experience of being a foreigner in China. “China has been isolated for centuries and the culture sort of became ethnocentric. (There was) what I describe as a glass wall. There was a bit of distrust of foreigners. It didn’t matter if we were Canadian or Japanese, we were labelled under one label,” she said. It took her some time to get over some aspects of Chinese culture, she said. “We tend not to stare at people. But the culture in China is that people stop and stare at you and they do that to each other as well. It was a little disconcerting,” she said. However, she added, “The greatest thrill was really getting to know people – some teachers and students – well enough that we cracked that wall and could understand each other better and become very close friends.”

Joel Ast, a UCC global missioner, described his assignment to South Korea as a “fairly negative experience overall.” Mr. Ast served as a youth worker for the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea, but ended up teaching English to an after-school program for young boys. “I enjoyed seeing a different culture, a different country. It was just the work and the church that wasn’t great. That’s all they had for me to do,” he said. “I tried pretty hard to branch out into Bible study or worship but nothing seemed to stick or work.” He came home after serving 15 months, instead of two years.

Shirley Newell, an Anglican volunteer who taught English to young boys at St. Thomas College, Gurutalawa, Sri Lanka, expressed the hope that her presence “helped people.”

There were high moments in their assignment, the volunteers said. “Baptisms and marriages were the highlights because they were always people close to the congregation,” said Mr. Isherwood. For Ms. Bergbusch, it was when the first five Peruvian pastors from the church were ordained.

Ms. Baisley cited the time she accompanied her students to remote areas of the Chinese countryside for their practice teaching. At a feast with her colleagues and Communist Party officials, she realized that each person at the table had been the first in their community to go to university. “It was one of those times that I felt cultural barriers are there, but we are certainly more alike than different,” she said.

Not all of the participants said they felt transformed by their experience overseas. Mr. Isherwood wondered if he should feel ashamed at how easily he slipped back into life in Canada. “I tried living without a car for four weeks,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me when I go in shopping centres.”

Mr. Schmidt said some volunteers who have been to poor countries often find it difficult to cope with the affluence here; others who have faced life and death situations in violent countries also struggle upon their return.

Ms. Newell, who also served in China in the past, said that she realized then that she could live more modestly. “I didn’t have to have this big house where I raised six children. I didn’t have to wait until there was this good market for my house, that it was okay, that God was going to look after me,” she said. “I did sell my house when it was a poor time in the market but that doesn’t matter.”

Ms. Baisley said she has become a conservationist and environmentalist after experiencing water shortages and unheated classrooms during winters in China.

Mr. Schmidt explained that the re-entry program is like any process of grief or trauma which needs reflection so that it does not become internalized. “Some people work hard to compartmentalize it – that was my experience there and it doesn’t impact my life here at all. There are other people who become very angry with this place and this culture or with the church even; getting frustrated that their church is not able to respond to those important global issues.” The re-entry program helps missioners realize “that just like they go to that other culture and understand that many things operate a certain way because of that culture, it’s the same thing here. There’s good and there’s bad.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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