A Hand to Hold

My team and I made the decision not to return to Cambodia while we were all on a home assignment. Uncertainties loomed when I packed my bags to rest and refresh in the US, so I had grabbed the things I absolutely would want if I wasn’t able to make it back. But the doors opened for my teammate and me to return and finalize details, so we took the opportunity.

I had two panic attacks during those six weeks we spent saying goodbye.

As my counselor later said, it’s not surprising. I was trying to navigate the packing or dispersal of all of my worldly possessions, a landlady who had a different idea than me how to close out our contract and a limited number of suitcases.

There were questions about what would come when the plane landed in Nebraska. How was I going to make ends meet and what in the world was I thinking?

My organization’s exit policies and strategy were undefined and messy at times.

My teammate and I had spent five years as roommates, co-workers and often the only ones watching stories unfold. And that was all about to come to an end.

What I would have given for a hand to hold.

I’m a grown woman, fully capable and confident when it comes to most things. I have degrees and life experiences; I’ve held positions of leadership and been a faithful employee. Yet the transitions and changes and overwhelming emotions felt more and more crushing, more and more murky with each step of returning.

I’ve watched organizations and churches enthusiastically send out workers with commissioning services and prayer meetings, robust recruiting and clearly defined steps. It’s exciting to think about what the Father has in store as we set foot on the path of adventure, when everything is new and fresh.

I don’t know if it is the culture of cross-cultural workers, our humanity or a combination of things, but leaving the field can feel like failure, which adds to the confusion men and women experience as they reorient to their passport culture. Are there ways we can grow in supporting workers as they return?

These are a few rambling thoughts, ideas that came to mind as I reflected on my own re-entry journey. What if we had a returning celebration service honoring the faithfulness of Kingdom workers? It can feel like losing one’s voice as the roles shift and jobs change and the ways we were once experts falls away. Could the church step up to listen well to women as they return and celebrate them?

When I came back from Cambodia there were so many things in flux and out of my control. When I couldn’t make a lot of decisions, I sought out the places where I could make choices. I created an Amazon registry of what I would need to set up an apartment in America for the first time and shared this with my friends on social media. It felt strange at first, asking for things and depending on others (even though I had done the whole support raising thing for over five years). I wasn’t sure what people would think of a registry that wasn’t for a baby or wedding. Yet I was so incredibly blessed as boxes arrived at my door and people expressed their joy in giving. How might we give women the ability to make choices in the midst of the chaos?

Let’s make it possible for women to go to debriefing by covering the costs. Let’s give her space to express grief and reverse homesickness even when she has access to comforts and family and church in her heart language again. Give her a voice to share her hard-earned wisdom and shifted opinions from time spent in a totally different culture.

Our returning workers are amazing and competent and confident, but they might need a hand to hold through the chaos. May we be churches and organizations and friends who receive them well.

If you’ve returned, what advice would you give to those who welcome workers back? If you are about to transition to your passport country, what are your hopes for the kind of support and welcome you will receive?


  1. LeAnn August 29, 2021

    Such an important conversation to have. Thank you for raising the issue and posing questions well worth considering at the agency, home church, community, …levels

  2. Ruth-Abigail Williams August 30, 2021

    It is now 11 years since I left my overseas home of 10 years. In preparation for a house move, I took my stack of MK school yearbooks off a shelf to pack them into a waiting box. I paused to look at a few pages of one yearbook. I loved being an MK teacher; loved my national friends; enjoyed where I lived…and it all came flooding back. It was just a few minutes of yearbook-prompted reminiscing but the heart-tugs and tears came quickly.
    I would recommend a series of debriefs. I think I may have been too busy climbing a medical mountain when I first returned to properly process reentry. The opportunity to have debriefs over several years might seem strange but I think it could be useful.
    A reentry celebration! That is a wonderful idea and could be such a high-impact event giving God glory and the returning worker good closure.
    A re-entered friend/mentor. I am blessed to have an octogenarian friend who also left overseas service for medical reasons after almost 40 years. I love listening to her stories and I think we are both encouraged by sharing our overseas and current faith-adventures. Agencies could facilitate this, perhaps. Also, I was super-blessed to have had several visitors. My mother came expressly to be able to understand my context and me better before I came home for my first home assignment. She met and remembers so many of my friends, students and colleagues so we can still talk about them and her visit together. This is not always feasible but virtual visits might be.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann August 30, 2021

      Ruth-Abigail, so many good thoughts here, thank you! I appreciate your comment about on-going or multiple times of debriefing. I know the initial debriefing I went through was so helpful. But like you illustrated with your story of opening up yearbooks, there can be layers of grief or processing that come up. We might not be ready or be able to see those in a time of initial debriefing.
      Most of my family was able to come visit me in Cambodia too. It’s a gift, isn’t it? It does help as I explain why something might be triggering or why a loss might hit a certain way.

  3. Leda Buller September 17, 2022

    Your blog was a link from another email I received, so I don’t know anything about you except what I read here. My situation in life is so opposite of yours, but what a blessing it was to me to read about your struggles, oddly enough, because it was such honest sharing, and I have great confidence that God is in the details as you move forward. Prayers for you today.

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