Sister Marilyn von Zuben was a missionary in Japan (1963-1976) and in Cameroon (1992-2010). Since she came back to Canada, she has been interested in the re-entry process of returning missionaries. She is starting a support group to help religious who, like her, are struggling with the difficulties of coming back to Canada after years living abroad in a different culture.
How did you get the idea to start this group for returning missioners?
I attended a ten-day re-entry workshop for returned missioners with the organisation From Mission to Mission. I found it so helpful, that I thought, “I can’t keep this for myself.” There have to be other missionaries in Montreal who are floundering like I am and who would be interested in looking at some of our issues together. How are we living transition? If there are people in Montreal who are going through depression as a result of re-entry, this group would allow them to pick up the phone and say, “I really need to talk to someone. Can we go for coffee?” I think it would be great to have a group of people that you come to know well, with whom you feel comfortable and who understand your journey.
What are the challenges facing missionaries who are coming back, and how will your group help them?
All of us have witnessed violence. But that is not something you can talk about at the dinner table. Some people coming back from mission experience depression and others suffer from post traumatic shock. What complicates things is that some of the atrocities they experienced were caused by the government of their country of origin. Therefore, anger can be another dimension of our experience as missionaries.
Many missionaries experience an identity crisis when they return. They are used to being introduced as “my missionary priest son” or “our missionary sister” by family and friends, and now things have changed. For some, there might be a feeling of loss that can bring about spiritual darkness and dryness. Prayer life can seem dry and you might even wonder, “Where is God in all this?” That’s tough!
Also, when we come back to stay, we are much older, so there is a different dynamic at work. All of us are used to being leaders, having lots of ideas, initiating projects, working full-time from very early in the morning to very late at night, and being totally involved with the people. It’s not the same when we come back to stay and, as a result, some people don’t know what to do with themselves.
I’m hoping that this group will provide a safe environment for those of us who need to share our stories but have no other venues in which to do that. I think we understand each other in a very special way. We have questions that people who have not been away don’t even think to ask. We can offer trust and respectful listening.
Hopefully, the group will be a source of resurrection in a variety of ways.
It will also be a place where we will be able to examine the gifts that have been ours as a result of having been loved and trusted by people of totally different cultures. It’s humbling, very humbling.
Do you think that the community you come back to makes a difference?
Definitely, if you come back to a community where everyone has had a similar experience. All know what you are talking about and they are really interested in your story. There is a difference in how they listen. They make the transition easier. Others feel alone because the people with whom they live have not had the experience of being out of their native culture.
What was it like to come back to Québec after being away on mission?
I did not come back the same women that I was when I left. We have all been changed if we were really involved. And the people interested in the group were very involved. No one was standing on the sidelines watching life go by.
We have also returned to a place that is different from the one we left. Some have been gone for 40 or 50 years and Québec is very different from what it was. It’s a huge cultural shock.
When I came back I found myself thinking, “I don’t fit in.” When I went to Japan and Cameroon, I knew I was a foreigner and I expected to feel like a foreigner. When I came back to Canada, I felt even more like one. I felt like a boat adrift. For example, walking down the street in Montreal, many people don’t even look at each other, much less say, “Good morning.” You just can’t imagine how different that is from what I lived in Africa. It would take me a very long time to walk down the road because everybody would stop to greet me, and I knew everybody.
Is the experience of re-entry easier for the missionaries who chose to come back?
For very different reasons, I was the one who decided, first, to leave Japan and, many years later, to leave Cameroon. But I know that other missionaries had not chosen to come back. Some people are called back by their congregation; others have to come back because they are sick. I also think that some people find change more difficult than others.
In her book At Home in the Journey, Jo Ann McCaffrey writes about seeing “re-entry as something positive.” What has re-entry taught you?
I am still in transition. But I am aware of how blessed I have been with the ability to adapt. I am doing fine. I like people. Re-entry has helped me to become more aware of my ability to connect with people. It has also helped me to know myself better and to appreciate even more the gifts of God that I have received. It has also brought forth new creativity as I try to get this group started.
 McCaffrey, Jo Ann. At Home in the Journey. Theological Reflection for Missioners in Transition, CCGM Publications, Chicago, 2005.
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