Mission Stories: You Can’t Go Home Again by Rowland Van Es Jr.

I grew up as an MK—a “mission kid”—in Asia, doing all my elementary school in Taiwan and all my high school in the Philippines. Since college, I have served 27 years in Africa: 4 years in Sierra Leone, 6 years in Malawi, 4 years in The Gambia, and for the last 13 years in Kenya. It has been a privilege and mostly a pleasure.

Living and serving internationally has made me more aware of the holistic nature of my faith. In the USA, faith can be viewed as a purely intellectual or spiritual phenomenon. In Africa, it is holistic: faith involves the mind, heart, and also the body. Faith touches things like one’s physical health and daily bread.

I am part of a weekly bible study and prayer group meeting in homes of faculty and staff at the school where I teach. The families want practical answers to practical problems they are dealing with at work and at home and so we pray for exam success, for healing, for jobs, and for money for funerals and fees.

It has been said that Africans are “notoriously religious” and they do really believe that “God is good all the time, and that all the time, God is good.” Unfortunately, more and more are attracted to the health and wealth promises of the “Prosperity Gospel,” which is a contradiction to the gospel Jesus really taught.

For most Westerners, becoming a missionary forces you to have more real contact with the poor. It can happen in the USA if you are intentional about it (by say, going to a soup kitchen), but it is still easier to avoid the poor if you want to. In Africa, the poor are literally everywhere and therefore unavoidable. As a foreigner you are also always visible to everyone and therefore are approached by very many for help.

It is hard to read Matthew 25 when you live here and see hungry and sick people almost every day. Churches in the US are reading When Helping Hurts, and I agree that dependency is a real problem. But being here where there are few working governmental services and where most are unemployed or employed for only a few dollars a day, there is also truth in another title, “Not Helping Hurts You & Your Neighbor.”

Living in Kenya in particular has helped me appreciate the fact that we are also called to be stewards of creation. Kenya has been blessed with animals, birds, trees, and fish as well as beautiful people. It takes great effort to keep all these in balance, especially when Kenya’s human population doubles every 20 years!

Concern for the poor and for the environment reminds us that the Bible is not just about personal morality, it is also about political and economic systems, structural sins and our stewardship of all of creation. In Africa, as well as America, there is a real need for the church to study more about these wider issues. To start, re-read Genesis 9 with creation in mind, and read Proverbs and see 100+ texts on economics & 100+ texts on politics!

Living away from one’s own home/birth culture long enough to assimilate into another second culture and becoming a bit bicultural has several effects. First, one can never really go “home” again. This is the phenomenon of “reverse culture shock” that so many missionaries experience. Just as we felt like a fish out of water when we first went to the mission field, now we feel a bit like fish out of water when we return home from the mission field. This is because both we and the culture have changed over time. What seemed familiar before seems a bit strange and unfamiliar to us now.

My daughters were raised overseas and are Third Culture Kids (TCKs). When my second daughter first went back to the US for college, she kept complaining to her older sister about “those Americans.” Finally, one day her big sister reminded her that she too was also technically one of “those Americans.”

We assimilate into another culture to become better contextual preachers overseas, but the changes we go through also make us more like counter-cultural prophets when we return to our home/birth culture. Things that didn’t shock me before—because it was just part of American culture—now strike me as odd. This hits home in many ways—just two of which are all the guns and militarism, and all the materialism and consumerism. It is good to see your culture afresh but it makes you feel like an outsider in your own country. You want to fit in again but find you can’t…

The fact that America has so much food and wastes so much food while there are millions of homeless and hungry people in America is shocking. I recently visited San Francisco and was shocked by how many homeless people there are and how little is being done to help them in such a wealthy city. That we still allow millions to go without health care and can’t find a way to give health care to all is also shocking.

Second, bi-cultural Christians live with additional tensions than mono-cultural people. It is hard enough to know how to be a faithful Christian in one culture, but trying to be faithful in two cultures is twice as difficult. Some try to live one way in one culture and another way in the other culture but this is not easy and eventually feels dishonest. The goal is to strike a reasonable balance which is easier said than done.

Even Paul struggled when he had to move from his ministry among the Gentiles to his work among the Jews. His advice that the “stronger” sacrifice for the sake of the “weaker” is good, but raises the question of how long one must sacrifice for the other’s sake. Also, do we let them remain “weaker” forever? On some issues (women’s ordination, female genital mutilation), there surely comes a time to take a stand against those with a “weaker” conscience. Sometimes people need to be offended if they are offended by the wrong things.

Being an outsider who is a bit of an insider is exciting, interesting, and challenging. It forces you to think twice about everything you do and makes you think twice before reacting to anything others do. When there is a legitimate disagreement it can strain the relationship but also strengthen it if handled right. As global citizens in a global village, we all need to learn how to get along by deciding which issues are core values where no compromise is possible and where we can just “agree to disagree” with each other. We must always “speak the truth in love” but should be humble about our own understandings of the truth.


Rowland D Van Es, Jr currently serves as a mission partner of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) Global Mission at St Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya with his wife Jane. Previously he worked for the RCA in The Gambia and for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (now World Renew) in Malawi and Sierra Leone.