A Missionary’s Mind: Staying hope-filled on the field

This article was first published in February 2019’s edition of Global Connect in the Evangel.

It was a Sunday afternoon in October when she hardly recognized herself in the mirror. Her tears hit the bathroom floor and the words that repeatedly came out of her mouth were, “Get me out of here.” Two years of serving in Honduras, raising two children in a different culture, and cultivating a healthy marriage in the field drained her. She now jokingly nicknames this moment “The Great Mental Breakdown of 2017,” but uses it to tell her story of process, recovery, and how the call of God sustains missionaries on the field. 

Candace and Steven Day first entered the mission field at 26 and 27 years old. They boarded a plane with a two-year-old son and a six-month-old daughter. Excitement flooded them at the thought of being immersed with the people of Honduras. With little knowledge of the language and culture, they moved forward with confidence, knowing that God would carry and guide them. They were ready to soak it all in. They believed that perhaps the missionary experience would be smooth-sailing and consistent mountaintop moments.

The start was far from smooth; they ran into complications at the port and were forced to pay $15,000 in “fines,” which was half of their year’s budget. All of their personal belongings and vehicle were shipped, but they didn’t receive the belongings until four months later. The vehicle never arrived. Still, they carried on, knowing that God had sent them. 

The couple made a choice to live on the church property in hopes that it would aid them in getting acclimated with the people they would be serving. It was a 500-square-foot house with a tiny stove, a borrowed bed, no refrigerator, and just enough room for a pack-and-play for their daughter. Steven would walk a mile and a half to get groceries when taxis weren’t available.

They were the only Church of God missionaries in the region, and they did not get to interact with other English-speaking people often. The barriers started to feel more real and they were living with minimal privacy. Hundreds of children would be on the property every weekend. At any given moment Candace would see tiny faces glued to their house window, wanting to get a good look at her pale, blue-eyed children. People would follow her around the grocery store just to stare at her daughter.

Candace began to lose weight and could feel herself becoming unhealthy and exhausted. She carried a motto with her at all times, to try to keep herself strong: Push through. Survive. She found herself caught up in maintaining the appearance of what she thought people needed to see. She wanted them to know that she could handle this major life adjustment.

They had a very busy schedule for two years; when they were in the States, they would visit churches every weekend. God continued to provide for them financially. This provided her reassurance that they were on the path meant for them.

Still, there were days when she couldn’t get out of bed. She had never struggled with depression before, and began to wish she could love the precious people she was serving from a distance. Church was every night of the week and she pressured herself, thinking they needed to live like the people there. 

The two years of loneliness and earning the Honduran people’s trust caused her to forget her identity. It was then, in that moment, that she cracked and knew she needed to reach out to her pastor and family back home. Although her mind was wanting to get out in that moment, she still knew that Honduras was where God called them and that she just needed rest and would return.

That week, they boarded a plane to their home in South Carolina. Candace took the time she needed to rest and recover physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The Days returned to Honduras with a plan for longevity and sustained health, both for their family and their ministry.

She encourages missionaries to know that mental health is a constant maintaining. A healthy thought life, soul care, and community are vital.  There are still days where anxiety or depression try to creep in, but she and Steven now know how to address it. Forming relationships with other missionaries, local churches, and pastors that support them have been helpful in their returning. They learned that the work of a missionary requires a plan of action to be proactive with their mental health and to have a good plan of self-care, whether it be through exercising or family nights.

Candace is not the only missionary who has experienced the anxiety of moving to a new country for the sake of the Gospel. Missionary to Prague Michelle Saint-Loth, who has a professional background in counseling, says the realities that missionaries face can be more overwhelming than they expect—whether it’s new missionaries or seasoned missionaries returning to the field.

She says it’s like all of the missionary’s norms—from the way they dress, eat, or cross the street—goes through a filtration system. “You don’t know what negative or positive effects the filter has brought to your life until you meet someone and open your mouth,” Michelle said.

Michelle’s plan of self-care action consists of walking to a park near her flat with a slow stride. On the days when she is feeling homesick, she finds her way to a local restaurant that serves crinkle fries and ketchup. She has learned that taking care of her mental health also helps the people she serves; if she isn’t centered and focused, it is hard to be effective.

Michelle also said that the greatest encouragement a missionary can receive is knowing that local churches and communities are praying for them, and an occasional letter from home.

Missionaries willingly leave their homes, jobs, and communities to head into the unknown. Two of their worlds collide and the weight it carries can sometimes feel like too much. Still, they carry on and a soul is won every four minutes because of the relentless efforts of the individuals who go and the Spirit who leads them. 

Church of God World Missions cares for missionaries and their health. Before leaving for the field, each missionary is assessed medically and psychologically. They also serve as an intern for one year to help evaluate their ability to serve on foreign soil. World Missions provides periods of itineration, which allows the missionary to return to family and friends in their homeland, along with a two-week vacation per year.

World Missions is currently in the process of creating an online resource program for the health of the missionary. The resources will be tailored to the life of the missionary and their unique calling. Several of our missionaries are collaborating on this project and new materials will be made available on a continual basis. Also, missionaries have unlimited access to World Missions personnel for listening and assisting with issues on the field.