Eric Katzung’s two-year-old daughter saw snow for the first time this spring in Colorado. But the question she keeps asking is when she can eat her favorite meal again—Taiwanese clams and rice. Katzung explains that they don’t have Taiwanese food in Colorado, and his daughter says, “When can we go home?”
Katzung doesn’t know if Taiwan is home anymore. He and his three daughters, ages 5, 4, and 2, left the country in a hurry in March when coronavirus case numbers started getting bad and borders started shutting down. His wife, Dava, was already in the States for a visit with family and never got to go back to Taiwan to say goodbye.
They had lived there for two years, sharing their lives and their love with their Taiwanese neighbors as Katzung worked as a counselor at a university.
Now they are living in a borrowed one-bedroom apartment in Colorado. They have a borrowed car, borrowed children’s toys, and borrowed coats that the girls wear when they go outside to see the snow.
“We are in an uncomfortable holding position, a forced flexibility,” Katzung said. “These are the struggles of cross-cultural workers. We get things stripped away. Now we’re at another layer of stripping.”
About nine million Americans live abroad, according to the US State Department’s most recent figures. Some of these are missionaries. Some are aid workers. Some, like the Katzungs, are Christians who want to live out their faith in a cross-cultural context.
Their lives and work are dependent on governmental permissions, work visas, plane rides, the willingness of communities to welcome outsiders, and sometimes financial support from churches or friends back home. The whole system that made living abroad possible has been put into question by the global pandemic.
One hundred years from now, COVID-19 might be a blip in the story of international Christian service. Or 2020 might be the year everything changed. But right now, as the Katzung children anticipate their second season of Colorado snow, Christians displaced from their cross-cultural lives must deal with the uncertainty.
At first, the pandemic raised the question of whether to stay or go. Many had protocols to help them make that decision. Missio Nexus, a network of 360 Christian nonprofits and churches representing 30,000 people serving around the globe, reported that about one quarter of its member organizations had COVID-19 contingency plans in place in March. Another 45 percent were developing plans, and the remaining groups were leaving the decisions up to individuals.
These were tough decisions. Rachel Pieh Jones, a writer and an administrator for the International School of Djibouti in East Africa, made the difficult choice, with her husband and 14-year-old daughter, to stay in Djibouti through the initial months of the pandemic. They have lived there since 2004 and wanted to stay, but they also knew staying would separate them from their college-age twins in the US indefinitely. They knew if they did have a medical emergency, they might not be able to get help.
“There’s not a good decision or a bad decision, or right or wrong decision,” Jones said. “You’re making a really brave choice to go back to something you don’t know and wonder what your next job is. And it’s a brave choice to stay. There’s courage in all these things. And there’s grief in all of these things.”
Some of the teachers at the international school did decide to return to the States, and Jones supported them. Going “home” wasn’t easy—and for some it came with a lot of guilt.
“It’s devastating,” Jones said. “It feels like a failure. They’re leaving students. You can’t say goodbye.”
It’s hard to leave a mission field well, even under normal circumstances. Jeff Ingram, a life coach in Colorado Springs who has worked for Reach Beyond in Ecuador, Singapore, and the United States, tells people that leaving is a complicated process that should be done with care.
He coaches people to “say goodbye to all the places you love, and if you have friends, go and sit in their homes.” When people don’t have time to do that, they feel ripped away from their life.
“It’s stolen from them,” Ingram said. “It’s a theft.”
Abrupt departure causes a kind of identity crisis. In the midst of managing the crisis and shifting rules, along with making arrangements to travel, the uncertainty leads to questions about calling.
“The part of the pandemic that has affected us all is the confusion and the head scratching, asking, ‘Who am I and what does the Lord have for me and what should I be doing?’ ” said Rob Congdon, a doctor who has spent most of his medical career working in African countries.
Congdon was in South Sudan when the pandemic hit and worried that closing borders would separate him from his family indefinitely. He decided to return to the US and caught an early flight out of the country.
Some missionaries never had any choice. Mary Lott is currently in Alabama, hoping that next year she and her husband can go back to Indonesia. She would have stayed if she could have. A staff member with Wycliffe Bible Translators, Lott and her husband have worked at an international school since 1995. They considered the health risks when they first moved to the country—long before anyone knew of COVID-19.
“We knew malaria is endemic,” Lott said. “Dengue fever. Typhoid. Typhus. Tuberculosis. We knew that when we signed up that it might cost our life.”
Lott, 65, has survived dengue fever and—though she doesn’t know the exact number—probably 50 cases of malaria. She has also had cancer. There are limited health care options in Indonesia, and she is considered high risk for COVID-19, so Wycliffe leaders decided the Lotts needed to leave.
In April, the US embassy arranged a flight out of Indonesia for 47 expats who wanted to go. The Lotts had five days to pack, find a home for their dog, arrange a caretaker for their house, and suspend the life they had made for themselves for 25 years.
“One of the hardest things [was that], as soon as we had the order to leave, all our Indonesian friends started coming by our house, telling us how much safer it was in Papua than in the States,” Lott said. “Our Indonesian friends said, ‘We thought God was sovereign. Why are you not trusting the Lord to keep you safe?’ ”
The Lotts took one of the last international flights out of Indonesia. Their plane took off just 20 minutes before a mandatory curfew fell on the country.
Sometimes it did seem safer to stay than go. Dan Shoemaker, president of Reciprocal Ministries International (RMI), initially recommended that its American missionaries in Haiti, including two families and three singles, return to the US. It wasn’t an order, just a strong recommendation. Shoemaker felt like they needed to evacuate—partly because he thought the pandemic would put too much strain on the local Haitian church, which would feel responsible to care for the foreign missionaries if they stayed.
One missionary took the recommendation, but the rest of the staff at RMI made the case that they shouldn’t leave.
Many of the places they would go in the US were actually hot spots for the virus. They felt they would be more at risk in the US, and they would also be placing a burden on their families and the people they would be staying with in the US, places that actually weren’t their homes, however often they might be referred to casually as “home.”
They lived in Haiti. And they were located on a secure compound with a good power supply. They were all young and healthy, low risk.
The missionary organization relented, and the missionaries remained. Today, they are doing ministry “full blast,” Shoemaker said. The team is managing more than 30 church-to-church partnerships and feeding 10,000 school kids per day, as Haiti relaxes rules on social distancing.
Into Uncharted Territory
As they look back, some leaders of missions organizations are starting to say those tough decisions may have been the easy part. They had, at least, some past experience to guide them.
“We have had to do this many times—make decisions and evaluate the situations for our missionaries, particularly because of political unrest or natural disasters,” Shoemaker said. “It’s always been a situation where . . . it’s a matter of leaving for a time and then things calm down and you’re able to go back and continue with your ministry.”
But as the pandemic dragged on and began to seem like it would continue indefinitely, mission leaders found themselves in uncharted territory.
“How do you set up rhythms and boundaries when you don’t know where the finish line is?” said David Bulger, vice president of global ministries and head of the crisis response team for One Challenge. “We’re discovering we’re wrestling with things we haven’t really thought about before.”
Like, what happens if the pandemic has a long-term impact on international travel? It’s not clear when that will be safe again. Even when it is allowed, will people feel safe enough to want to travel when they don’t have to? It also seems likely that some countries will keep safety measures in place for the foreseeable future. These would make it only a little more difficult to travel than normalbut could have serious impact on the future of missions.
If everyone who flies to Haiti has to go into quarantine for 14 days, for example, and then quarantine for another 14 days when they return to the US, that would put a damper on short-term missions. It doesn’t seem reasonable to ask people to volunteer for a week or 10 days if that means also asking them to spend a month in isolation.
But for RMI, short visits from American church groups are important. The volunteers give their time and labor, but more than that, a trip builds trust and a relationship between American churches and Haitian churches. The relationship is the basis of future investment, relationally and financially.
A Future Without Short-Term Missions
Short-term missions is also a place where future missionaries sometimes first feel the call to that work. Those trips expose people to cross-cultural living and open the door to the possibility of living and working abroad. If international travel is sharply curtailed, missionary leaders wonder what impact that will have on future recruitment.
Declining engagement in American churches could also mean fewer people hear about the work of cross-cultural ministries. A Barna Group survey reporting that one in three American Christians hasn’t engaged in a church service since the start of the pandemic is very concerning to mission leaders.
There’s also concern about a generational shift. Younger evangelicals seem less interested in missions, according to Kimberlin. And a financial crisis or economic downturn—even just instability—can make many would-be missionaries worry that they can’t afford to serve God in another country.
“We hypothesize that the disruption to vocation will really shift the millennial generation to kind of buckle down and choose stability when previously they have chosen purpose,” said Savannah Kimberlin, Barna’s director of published research. “What does that mean for missions? Does it mean we’re going to need to think hard: ‘I’m asking you to leave your life and go on mission. Can I provide you stability in some way?’ ”
At least initially, this doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem. Ted Esler, president of Missio Nexus, said the organization has received reports of 7,000 new applicants at 42 international Christian nonprofits. New staff are being trained and prepared during the pandemic and are just waiting to go abroad as soon as they can. The pandemic has resulted in a “bubble” of new staff, all coming on at the same time, but it has not stopped people from responding to the call.
It’s also possible that the growing use of technology during the pandemic—initially a stopgap measure—is a long-term answer to some ongoing challenges of cross-cultural work, including recruiting. The National African American Missions Conference held its first virtual meeting this year. In a normal year, about 500 people attend the conference. This year, 2,300 people participated virtually, hearing from missionaries to 47 different countries. Organizers noticed the conference had more African Americans than ever before too and wonder whether that can be translated into more mobilization.
Some mission organizations, meanwhile, are thinking about how to use Zoom to connect with American churches. Videoconferencing has been widely available for more than a decade, but now it’s a normal part of life for Americans, and that may open up new opportunities.
“We’re working on how to do a virtual missions trip—a 30-minute trip of your community for your church,” Shoemaker said. “We’re asking, ‘How can we bring Haiti to the US?’ ”
Setback for Internationalization
Another positive sign for international missions is that American churches don’t plan to cut back on giving, according to Barna research. Though nonprofits have spent months bracing for bad news, and the uncertainty of the economy can take a toll, many are now cautiously feeling okay. There’s still some anxiety about a fundraising “winter,” but many American-based ministries have done fine or even better than normal during the pandemic.
On the other hand, many missions organizations and nonprofits have been trying to become more international, representing the global diversity of the church, and the pandemic may set back the progress they have made. Eighty percent of the global church’s wealth comes from the United States, according to Esler.
“There’s been a long-term desire to see change in global missions,” Esler said, so that it’s not just Western countries supplying missionaries to non-Western countries. Receiving countries could also be sending, and sending countries receiving, with mission work becoming cross-cultural, as Christians move in every direction at once. “The fact is that missions is expensive and the West has the money, so a lot of that money comes out of the West. I don’t think COVID changes that. If anything, it reinforces that.”
In North India, Biulanty Thabah is eager to return to Africa, where she worked with refugees until the pandemic put everything on pause. She’s struggling to raise money in the meantime, though. She can’t travel to visit donors, and Zoom meetings aren’t really an option with the internet connection in her rural area. She has tried video chatting on WhatsApp, but it’s not great.
“I’m home now . . . the village . . . connection . . . so bad,” she said during a broken up video call.
In March, Thabah’s international team decided to leave the refugee camp they served in Africa. They had just one night to pack before leaving first thing in the morning. After spending six years in a couple of African countries, working on trauma care and Christian discipleship, Thabah was heartbroken she didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. There wasn’t time.
While most of her team made it to their home countries fairly quickly, India’s border was already closed, so Thabah spent months in a guest house in Kenya, torn—and stuck—between her two homes, concerned for both. She worried about the refugees she left behind, who had few protections. And she worried about her family in India, with medical needs of their own.
In June, India arranged for a repatriation flight out of Nairobi for stranded Indians. Thabah was on it. She’s home now, and thinking about Africa.
“I relate to them and understand more because I also live like them,” she said. “I am praying that God will open the door for me to go back.”
Mexican Bible translator Militsa De Gyves also wants to go back. She feels she should be in Peru, working on the New Testament translation that was supposed to begin this year. It has been canceled for the time being, with no date for the work to resume.
“The situation is really, really sad there,” she said. “No hospitals, no medical service. Nobody can go inside the village. We only pray. We can’t do anything from Mexico.”
De Gyves just barely made it out herself. The Peruvian government gave everyone 24 hours in March before shutting down all grocery stores for 14 days and instituting martial law. The normal bus and plane routes were closed, and De Gyves couldn’t get help from the Mexican embassy. After a month, her church back home paid the inflated price of a bus ticket to Lima, Peru’s capital city. Then she was flown to Mexico City on a Mexican Air Force flight and finally home to her family on yet another flight. The journey took seven days.
“When you don’t have enough money, it’s difficult,” she said. “But I learned to trust more in God.”
Wherever God Leads
Some expats will return when they can. Rob Congdon was able to go back to Kenya in October. He planned to travel to other parts of the continent from there, but was stopped by flooding, a reminder that there are many disruptions besides the coronavirus.
For the ones who stayed, they find that life carries on even in the pandemic. Some things are hard, but other things are normal, and you adapt.
The people who live and work in cross-cultural contexts develop resilience—or they don’t stick around for long. Rachel Pieh Jones talked about that in the podcast she started with her family in the weeks after the pandemic hit their community—Djibouti Jones COVID19 Diary.
“We are prepared both physically and emotionally and spiritually to wrestle with these things,” she said. “The idea that the ambulance will come when I call it? There is none.”
But even with that resilience, the pandemic has been hard. She is, she says, still recovering from the anxiety of making the decision to stay. She can see how it’s changed her. She’s glad her youngest daughter didn’t go to boarding school this fall, and she feels differently about borders now.
“I’m not willing to travel without my husband and daughter,” she said. “I don’t want an international border to be between us in case a border closes down.”
The immediate crisis has passed. People living abroad have all made the decision about whether to stay or go. But that was just the start for them. Now they have to deal with the ongoing uncertainties and the changes the pandemic has wrought.
That brings grief, and grief takes time.
In Colorado, Eric Katzung is thinking about his hurried departure from Taiwan and how he saw the community that his family had there in the chaos of the quick exit. While he struggled to find tickets that would get them out of the country, neighbors helped his daughters pack and offered to keep safe the things they couldn’t take with them.
“We could see the depths and roots that were already present,” he said. “How painful it is to see those torn in such a quick manner.”
The Katzungs don’t know if they will return to Asia, and they’re taking steps to make life in Colorado more sustainable. Eric has a job coaching expats who are starting businesses in cross-cultural contexts. The oldest daughter is attending school. They’re praying about what comes next.
“I think one thing that we are learning is that we can be present wherever we’re at and whatever our circumstances are,” Katzung said. “Even if COVID-19 became the final straw in a series of crazy events, we want to follow God in faith and trust however he leads.”
Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist living in Colorado. She spent 14 years in Indonesia and writes about international nonprofit work.
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