Re-entry is Not a Returning

Re-entry is Not a Returning

I thought I’d have words of wisdom about re-entry after two years back stateside. It’s a surprise and a disappointment to me that I am still struggling to find my footing again. I still feel disconnected, uprooted, confused, longing for stability. I am discouraged each day that I realize we are starting from scratch all over again. Our job history is a mess, our savings are shot and the house we once owned is long sold.

I struggle with resentment, not only from a childhood overseas but also for the years we spent serving and all that was lost in the process. I’ve heard that God works all things out for good but I don’t know what the good has been.

Last week I was sitting outside, sipping coffee, chatting with my husband in the cool of the morning when I asked him what he thought about re-entry. Was he as distraught and confused as I was?

He said, “I think re-entry is a lot like Apollo 13.”

I immediately recalled the crew as they plummeted to earth, the friction causing such intense heat that their faces were sweating and they looked highly uncomfortable.

Hmmm, it did sound a lot like re-entry now that I thought about it, but I was curious to see what his perspective was.

First, he mentioned that the weight of the re-entry pod was expected to hold the extra weight of moon rocks. However, because of the unexpected chaos they did not have the expected baggage. This made the known calculation for re-entry moot. Without the rocks, if they used their earlier plan, they would bounce off the atmosphere and back into space. 

Secondly, he mentioned that because their calculations were no longer accurate, it was necessary for the crew to be in constant contact with the crew on the ground. Impromptu calculations would have to be made in real time to get their pod through the atmosphere and onto the water safely.

We anticipated the end of our first term and the beginning of our first home assignment to be a celebration. We’d have these rad stories about how God moved and we’d have a plan for what we would be pursuing next. But unexpected chaos brought us back to the States with a load of baggage we did not expect. The baggage we did expect to tote was left in the void, somewhere in our imagination and dreams.

We were flying blind.

It took time and conversations with trusted friends and family for us to sort through all that we had experienced. It was through their similar and repeated messages that we began to see clearer and find rest from the internal struggle with disappointment and loss. Telling our story allowed us to view our experiences more truthfully and gave us freedom to find healing as well as purpose and new faith in God. 

But I’ve seen the loss of a dream bring new life.

I have been plodding through The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and I have found it to be an incredible book, full of insight and truth. Solzhenitsyn tells a story about meeting a man named Susi, once a lawyer in Estonia, who also found himself imprisoned within the gulag system. Solzhenitsyn was drawn to this man and sought him out during their brief outdoor walks where they could speak openly to each other. Susi, he says, taught him “to accept patiently and purposefully things that had never had any place in his own plans and had, it seemed, no connection at all with the clearly outlined direction of his life.”

When I read that statement I felt a connection between Solzhenitsyn and myself. While he was reimagining a life in which Marxism was losing its hold, my life was also being reimagined. As Susi ‘breathed a completely different sort of air’ and was exposing Solzhenitsyn to a conflicting point of view, so I was being renewed as my ideals were being questioned by those around me.

This is why re-entry isn’t as simple as a returning. It is, instead, a jumbled, chaotic mess that takes time, intention and energy to sort through. None of us are the same after an overseas stint any more than the Apollo 13 crew would be the same after their experience in space or Solzhenitsyn after years in prison.

We’ve been broken, bruised, and disenchanted as our faith, dogma and ideals have been tested. This can make us stronger, braver and more courageous, knowing now that the world and God are not as simplistic as we’d thought. Yet, even in growth there is loss, because what once brought us peace no longer satisfies. We can’t unsee what has been seen and we can’t un-feel what has been felt, we are forever split. 

It isn’t easy to put a dream and ideology to rest. I wonder how many times the Apollo 13 crew looked up at the moon and longed for the dream that wasn’t. I know that I still think about Indonesia every day, grieved by what never was and yet I can see a glimmer of hope as well. Hope in healing. Hope in safety. Hope in truth. Hope in God. Hope that in patience, with purpose I can take what never was my plan and reimagine a vision honoring to God and myself. Joining Solzhenitsyn in breathing a fresher air, and in so doing, I can take the truth of what was, setting one dream aside to embrace another.    

What has your re-entry experience been? How have you found clarity in the midst of the transition and loss?

How do we process all the loss of this season? So many of us have lost plans, hope, structure, community, and even life of those around us or loved ones. This webinar, presented by licensed counselor Theresa Bonesteel of GRC, will help equip us with tools to process our grief and disappointment. Click on the button above to learn more and to register.

Photo by SwapnIl Dwivedi on Unsplash


  1. Ruth June 23, 2020

    Thank you so much for the encouragement and freedom to embrace the chaos in the middle. I think you’ve shared great wisdom, even if it doesn’t feel like it to you. I am much earlier on the reentry journey, and mine isn’t well planned, so the Apollo 13 metaphor feels right–chaos and making new calculations and not being able to follow old plans. And the freedom to embrace a new dream. I’m not really sure what my new dream is, yet. But I’m looking forward to the day when I can dream. Thanks for giving me images and language to help me make sense of my experiences.

    1. Joy Smalley June 23, 2020

      Hi Ruth, your words are an encouragement to me, thank you. Blessings to you as you weather through the chaos, recalculate, and find your new dream.

  2. Nancy Peckham June 23, 2020

    Thanks, Joy. I love how the Father is giving you new perspective. I’m with you in the grieving of life in Indonesia, although not all of it … I will continue to pray that you will know the Father’s peace, and hope. Love, Nancy

    1. Joy Smalley June 23, 2020

      Thank you, Nancy!

  3. Melissa June 23, 2020

    I remember thinking that my sending org would be my landing crew. I felt like I kept screaming in the radio and begging them to hear, but there was silence…no matter how loud I called. But, somehow, my support team was catching tiny snippets Of what I was calling out. Although my landing was not at all like I had planned, the people I didn’t know I needed, heard me.

    1. Joy Smalley June 24, 2020

      Right!? It seems like the ones we think will be or should be our support are not. Yet God provides in unlikely places.

  4. Hannah June 24, 2020

    It has been three years since we returned home. On paper, it went exactly as we planned it. But “we can’t un-see what has been seen and we can’t un-feel what has been felt, we are forever split.” Just resonates so much with me. It feels really isolating to be on a path only a few other people we know and love have walked, and we are geographically separated from all of them. Thank you for sharing your experience and your heart. It made me feel a little less alone.

    1. Joy Smalley June 24, 2020

      Hi Hannah, I agree with you. It is a very isolating time and that alone can be a deep grief when you have the need to be known and understood but can’t be simply because your experience is so divergent from the norm. Blessings to you, my friend, you are not alone.

  5. Sarah Hilkemann June 24, 2020

    Thank you for sharing this, Joy! I love this line: “This can make us stronger, braver and more courageous, knowing now that the world and God are not as simplistic as we’d thought.” I’ve definitely found this to be true in my own re-entry journey. It’s hard, though, when others don’t understand how my views or values have been shaped by what I’ve seen and experienced. I look the same from the outside, but have been marked by my time overseas. I don’t think I was prepared for the feelings of isolation that come with re-entry. I’m grateful for time, for people who listen and try to understand, for Velvet Ashes and sisters who do get it. 🙂

    1. Joy Smalley June 24, 2020

      Yes, I love what you said here, Sarah. “I look the same from the outside, but have been marked by my time overseas.” I think this is why I wish I had some visible marks to act as evidence of my experiences.

  6. Annie June 24, 2020

    Thank you. I’m in the same place. Looking for that new dream to rise like a phoenix. Appreciate these metaphors to help understand things better. Thank you.

    1. Joy Smalley June 24, 2020

      Hi Annie. I like the visual of a dream rising from the ashes like a phoenix, thank you for sharing it. Blessings to you.

  7. edj June 24, 2020

    Thanks for this article. I believe that we need to talk more about this subject. People told me “reverse culture shock” but didn’t tell me how I’d feel in my own church home. Our re-entry was exceedingly painful, and it lasted two full years. Two years of feeling isolated and alone at church, of trying to guide children in an American high school, of figuring out what on earth God was doing in our lives. Re-entry is tough. Early on, actually before we’d left but when we’d started the process, God gave me Ps. 31:7-8, especially the phrase “you have set my feet in a broad place.” That phrase kept echoing in my head. I told a friend “I can’t even imagine a scenario where this ends up a good thing” but, of course, God could, and he did “set my feet in a broad place,” a place of new and even more fulfilling ministry, a place of purpose, peace and joy.

    1. Joy Smalley June 25, 2020

      edj, thank you for sharing and telling us a bit of your story. It is beautiful when God gives us a simple word to hold onto while we are in those places that don’t feel broad at all! Blessings to you.

  8. Joanna June 24, 2020

    Your raw truth gives all of us a freedom to embrace our raw truth. I’ve been thinking lately that I thought Christianity and then missionary work and even home were all going to be Louie Armstrong’s it’s a wonderful world when In All actuality it is a whole lot more like jumanji. Thank you again I needed the reminder that I am not all alone.

    1. Joy Smalley June 25, 2020

      I love that, Joanna, and I am right there with you. Jumanji is basically real life.

  9. sarah June 25, 2020

    Always encouraged by your vulnerability and rawness in your writing, Joy.As I am grateful for VA still leaving a ‘space’ for those of us who just don’t feel like we fit exactly, due to the fact we aren’t ‘overseas’ anymore…. thank you for this theme this week!
    Our re-entry just still feels so unfair to me, as 2-years ago now, I flew home with our kids and a carry on luggage fully expecting to be back and the crisis just didnt let up and so I’ve not been able to be back. I feel I haven’t even been able to process or navigate those feelings as it has been an avalanche ever since, 2018: an unexpected departure from Central America, leaving everything; 2019: a shock and unexpected confession in our marriage and late 2019: a breast cancer diagnosis…..its like most days I think where do I start? As I read articles still here from VA as I desperately want to still identify and connect with these ladies, I feel tugs and pulls of things left undealt with as Im onto the current hurricane and can’t seem to process all of it at the same time.
    The best thing I can take is the consolation that we are not alone and we are all in our own crisis. Even though we have been “back” (but in a. completely new place, again) I find myself relating to this community and finding more honesty here within VA than most in person relationships and community.

    1. sarah June 25, 2020

      sorry about that large photo, not sure why I can’t figure out how to edit and take it out.

    2. Joy Smalley June 25, 2020

      I appreciate YOUR vulnerability, Sarah, thank you for sharing. Gosh, it’s a rough ride, isn’t it? Especially when crises come one after the other and you don’t have time to process the ones from years ago. It is a compounding of pain and hurts and I grieve with you in it. You are not alone.

    3. Sarah Hilkemann June 26, 2020

      Sarah, I just want to add that you are so welcome here. I too grieve with you and all that has come your way, and I hope that Velvet Ashes can continue to be a group of sisters who get you and surround you and walk with you.

  10. Monica Elliott June 25, 2020

    as I began to read your post tears mixed with amazement came over me. It was as though you were writing down words I just have not been able to come out with in this time. Starting from scratch is what we are doing, no home to come home to, no job and family close yet so far away with covid. I’m up and down. But I’m si thankful that my god is the same, never changing always there for us. The past two years in the Philippines was full of storms, no water, no power, the Taal valcano blowing its top, earth quakes, a pandemic, starving people and then proof we are home in Seattle. Home? It’s going to take some time, some prayer and love. Thank you. Bless you.
    All my love
    Your sister in Christ
    Monica Elliott

    1. Joy Smalley June 27, 2020

      Thank you for sharing, Monica. There is nothing easy about starting over and I can relate to the ups and downs, one minute I’m confident in God, and the next minute I’m curled up on the bed. I pray that our God will give you the peace you need to get through each day and that he will begin the slow process of building a new foundation in a new place. Blessings to you, sister.

  11. Phyllis June 28, 2020

    Everything is better with Solzhenitsyn. Thank you for bringing him into this.

    1. Joy Smalley June 28, 2020


  12. Ellie June 30, 2020

    Joy, Thanks for sharing your story. Blessings as you heal/adjust. As a fellow “returnee” I am just catching up with these posts and I resonate with others who say that VA is a community we don’t want to “lose” once we’re not longer abroad (I wonder if there could be a special ongoing returners website?!) I want to share that when we came back nearly 4 years ago a sensible person said that we should allow three years to feel adjusted – we’d had a heck of a time but I still thought “three years?!” but I’m so glad they said it because it gave us permission to still be grieving and working out which way up we were – much longer than I had thought we “should”.. and yet we really needed it. Now I can honestly and, somewhat relievedly, say, 4 years in, I gradually feel much more integrated and am beginning to put some of the deep learning and processing to use in new and different ways. But it’s true that we “can’t un-see what has been seen and we can’t un-feel what has been felt” and the isolation of others not getting it can be real. Three cheers for VA! 🙂 xx

    1. Joy Smalley July 6, 2020

      Thank you, Ellie, for sharing. I appreciate that you said a transition back should/would take 3 years. It’s easy to think and hope that it will be simple and that stability will be found quicker than it is. I know I have felt crazy and it’s nice to know I am not alone! Blessings to you.

  13. Ellie June 30, 2020

    Ooh, also, was thinking about the “we have been marked” thing. I loved your husband’s analogy of the Apollo 13 mission. Pictures and stories can be so important for our processing and grieving. My husband before we came back had a very special tattoo of a Canterbury cross (a cross of nails) done at a particular tattoo parlour that had deep meaning for him. I know different people have different views on tattoos – I’m not suggesting everyone does it 😉 – just that symbols are a helpful way of “making” ourselves in the new season and that was helpful for him. I did things to grieve certain relationships like laying flowers in a churchyard here – even though I wasn’t physically close to the place/erson I was grieving about and it was totally anonymous, the action really helped me. It’s not a “once for all” thing but these different ongoing actions that seem right as symbols can be helpful.

    1. Joy Smalley July 6, 2020

      I LOVE TATTOOS! I have quite a few for the same reason as your husband. They mark a period of time in my life that I want to remember. I agree symbols are incredibly helpful in the grieving/processing.

    1. Joy Smalley July 6, 2020

      Thank you, Rachel! Blessings to you.

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