The shame in returning home

Kerstin Prill

Kerstin Prill and her husband Thorsten are German born Brits who have served the Lord in England for 10 years and in Namibia for 9 years. Having received the call into a new ministry at Edinburgh Bible College they left Namibia in 2017 to serve as Crosslinks mission partners in Scotland. In this third of four blog posts, Kerstin reflects on her experience with shame in times of transition and culture shock.

Following the surprising discovery of anger in myself after returning home from the mission field I had to learn to acknowledge the feeling and begin a learning process. This involved digging up the roots of the problem and finding the reasons for my anger. In my last blog I focussed on pain as the result of change and loss. Another common reason for anger is shame.

Shame is the awareness of some (perceived) wrong or foolish behaviour with the result of feeling unworthy. According to Dan de Witt guilt ‘is tied to an event: I did something bad. Shame is tied to a person: I am bad.’ Anger in response to shame is the attempt to divert attention away from my painful, hidden feelings. 

Missionaries returning home may feel very self-conscious about no longer knowing what is acceptable behaviour in their own culture. They negotiate embarrassing situations as they wonder about appropriate greetings, robot operators on the phone to resolve a credit card issue, the use of ticket machines and accents that they cannot make any sense of. Embarrassment leads to shame and the feeling that you don’t belong. Since the desire to belong is a fundamental human need, when it is not met we respond with anger.  

You become angry with yourself for not coping or angry with others for not helping or understanding your situation. A natural, but unhelpful response to such anger is fight or flight. I quickly realised that shouting at robot operators and avoiding ticket machines were not the answer. 

The language issue also plays a big role in this. Coming to Scotland I was not prepared for the feelings of inadequacy and frustration. In Namibia, speaking English is a struggle for many. Hardly anyone speaks it as their first language. Therefore, I felt comfortable speaking English. Now I am very aware of all my shortcomings in speaking the language. I also dread the embarrassment of repeatedly saying ‘I’m sorry?’ due to people’s strong accents. In addition, I often notice a frown in people’s faces when I open my mouth as they struggle to make sense of my German-Namibian accent.

Churches can play a big role in helping missionaries returning from the mission field to overcome feelings of unworthiness and giving them a sense of belonging. Missionaries often bring a wealth of experience and gifts but may need encouragement and guidance how to apply them in the new context. Offers to help with practical tasks such as housing, schooling, insurance or transport issues can reduce feelings of embarrassment and insecurity. 

For any person going through cultural transition it is an important learning process to let go of the desire to perfectly fit in (after all, who does?). I have a choice to either grieve my imperfections or laugh about them. A good sense of humour goes a long way to make you feel better – and oddly enough there is hardly a better way of fitting into British culture than making fun of yourself! Last but not least, I take comfort from the fact that in one way or another all Christians are ‘aliens and strangers in the world’ (1 Pet. 2:11) longing for their ultimate home in heaven.

Read more of Kerstin’s thoughts: Coming home as an angry alien, The pain in returning home, The guilt in returning home.