Maryknoll Sister Peg Donovan had been on mission in Tanzania for 43 years when her congregation asked her to return to the United States in 2014.
For 25 of those years, she served in the same small village of Kalebezo, where she built a health program from the ground up, serving women, children and people with chronic illnesses. The nearest hospital was 25 miles away.
“To go 25 miles usually took us two-and-a-half hours,” Sister Peg told Our Sunday Visitor. “Unless it was the rainy season. Then it took five hours.”
Sister Peg, now the director of her congregation’s mission institute, added: “It was rather difficult to leave this place after all the energy and commitment I put into it.”
She knew returning to her congregation in upstate New York would not be easy, but that did not mean she was prepared for the reality of returning home.
“I had been living in my own house in the village,” she said. “Now I live in an institution with about 150 sisters of various stages of life.”
Sister Peg is one of many returning missionaries — both those who spent decades of their lives working overseas and shorter-term lay missionaries — who find support and understanding in From Mission to Mission, a nonprofit that offers re-entry workshops for those returning from mission experiences.
Honor the experience
From Mission to Mission was started by returning missionaries, Julie Lupien, director, said.
“They were on a retreat, and they talked about how there were all kinds of programs to help you prepare for mission, but nothing to help you come back,” said Lupien, who served as a lay missioner in Zimbabwe and on the island of St. Kitts. “For many of us, coming back is the hardest part.”
Lupien did the re-entry workshop as a participant in 1991 and now is in her 16th year as director and sole full-time staff member. But when she first returned from mission, she didn’t think there would be anything to it. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s home. You just go home and start living again,’” Lupien said.
From Mission to Mission offers 10-day workshops a couple of times a year, recommended for those who have been on mission for three to 50 years. Weekend workshops, recommended for those who have been on mission for one to three years, were available three times this year.
“Our goal is to honor the experience, heal what needs healing and help them discern what God is calling them to now, because we are always on mission,” Lupien said.
“No matter how long they’ve been gone, one year or three years or 50 years, they adapt,” Lupien said. “When they come back, they often express something like, ‘I don’t fit here.’ For many, it can feel isolating.”
People also can feel overwhelmed by the changes that have taken place in their absence, and by the pace of life in the United States compared to the pace of life where they served.
“Many of them have been living in very rural areas, where even if they have access to technology, it’s nothing like here.”
They also might be shocked by the level of excess in the United States.
“It’s really hard to face that we have so much, and these people you really care about have nothing,” Lupien said. “It can lead to a sense of guilt for having left.”
Lupien said nearly everyone comes back having experienced some level of violence and trauma, either directly or by observing it and hearing about it from the people they served. Often, they haven’t ever talked about it before.
“They sanitized the version of what happened, either because they didn’t want to be sent home or they didn’t want to give a poor image of the people where they served,” Lupien said.
Readjusting to life
Lupien recommends that returning missioners wait before beginning the From Mission to Mission process — at least three months for those who served one to three years and at least six months and up to two years for those who served longer.
Sister Peg waited two years, in part because she had a broken bone in her leg that she was unaware of when she first returned, and that had to be treated.
“But I knew I needed to process everything on my own first,” she said. When she did go, “I found it very helpful. It was never rushed, but we covered everything. And we laughed a lot, too.”
Crosier Father Virgil Petermeier, who served in Indonesia on the island of New Guinea, also waited about two years to attend the workshop after returning to the United States. He went to the workshop in 2012 and was one of 14 participants.
“I really felt kinship with three guys who were retiring from mission in Papua New Guinea,” said Father Petermeier, who now is writing a history of his congregation’s participation in the missions of New Guinea. “It was important to be able to process our experience.”
Father Petermeier noted that he was the last American Crosier in the diocese, which was being served by more Indonesian priests, and that he was burned out when he returned to the United States.
“That place was my home,” he said. “When I left, I’d lived there longer than I lived in the U.S.”
His experience with From Mission to Mission, especially the emphasis on taking his experience on mission and using it in the United States, gave him the impetus to get involved with the Diocese of St. Cloud’s interfaith relationship with the Muslim community in Minnesota.
“Coming from Indonesia, I think I had a more positive relationship with Muslims,” he said.
Sister Peg said she found it hard to navigate relationships in the United States after so long away — “In Tanzania I just had to walk out my front door to talk to my neighbors,” she said — and needed to find a way to establish her identity again. “There, I knew who I was,” she said. “I had a rhythm of life.”
Father Petermeier said coming back to the United States “was like multiple deaths.”
“It was the death of my identity; the death of the relationships I had among the Papuans and the Crosiers there; the death of living in that multicultural environment,” he said. “For the first while, if people started talking about Papua, then I was just in tears. That was the twist. When I knew I was coming home, I did not figure in the grief thing.”
All types of immersion
From Mission to Mission also offers consultation and services for groups doing short-term mission or immersion trips, including partnerships between parishes in the U.S. and abroad, or medical missions. They try to make the experience the best they can both for those travelling and those receiving the visitors, and help those who travel integrate their experience when they return.
Joyana Jacoby, who served with the Good Shepherd Volunteers in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, from 2004-06, said part of what she did there was welcome those immersion groups. Later, she worked on the other side, coordinating groups from DePaul University in Chicago as they prepared for short mission trips.
But her main work was being present and accompanying women in a sewing co-op, teaching English to grade-schoolers and working with girls in a boarding school run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. Those girls came mostly from difficult family situations.
“It was the best two years of my life and the most difficult two years of my life,” Jacoby said. “Everything that you’ve experienced comes back with you, and you’re a different person.”
She said she coped by spending a few months living with her parents in Wisconsin. While most people’s eyes would glaze over when she talked too long about the people in Mexico, they did listen, she said.
Attending the From Mission to Mission workshop helped her translate her experience into skills she could take to her next job, with the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Immigrant Affairs, and then to DePaul.
It also helped to talk about the reverse culture shock she experienced. “You can read about what it looks like,” she said. “But it’s different to experience it.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.