How Pandemic Isolation is Like Missionary Life

For the first time since we’ve been overseas, friends and family from the US are as desperate as I am to connect online. As I’ve been talking with people in the US, I’ve realized that there are actually a lot of things about the Coronavirus isolation that mirror our missionary experience.

Here are seven ways the pandemic isolation is like missionary life:

1. Nothing Feels Normal

The first thing we noticed coming overseas (and every time since then) was that nothing had a rhythm to it. When everything is suddenly different there isn’t any pattern to fall back on. As schools and businesses have shut down in the US and families try to homeschool and work from home, so much is changing that there is no “normal” to fall back on. Every day takes intentionality because every day is a new situation, even though it’s the same situation as the day before. We’ve been told it takes about 18 months to fully transition into a new culture. With all the changes within the American home right now, it’s like a new culture! I’m sure no one wants to wait 18 months for life to feel normal again, but give yourself some grace! This kind of change is never easy and doesn’t happen quickly. It’s more likely for you to continue to feel out of joint than it is for you to feel settled. Expecting rhythm to come often leaves us discouraged.

2. Home is the Primary Contact

In moving to a new country, initially those in your home are your primary (or only) source of contact. With the isolation brought on by this pandemic, the only people you can be physically close to are the people that are living under the same roof as you. The American culture isn’t usually this family focused. Americans often find a lot of connection outside of their family unit, but now the rules have changed. Not being able to get out and “go” is very counter-cultural. This isolation is redefining family time, hopefully in positive ways, but it’s hard too. Close quarters with family is different than close quarters with friends. Most of us chose our friends and find them pretty easy to get along with. Our family is not chosen and often contains personalities that are much better at shaping each other (as iron sharpens iron) than easily complementing each other.

These kinds of situations, however, can press us to be more self-reflective and force us to be more forgiving and gracious. These times can be where we see God at work in the toughest places. If the Gospel isn’t reaching into our own homes, we are missing something. That doesn’t mean we should expect Christ-like behavior in all circumstances. It’s just the opposite, actually. As we rub up against one another, we see places in ourselves where we haven’t been allowing the Gospel seed to grow. Maybe we see our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities in a new light. Maybe we surrender areas of our lives to Christ that we previously felt we were handling just fine on our own. Being forced to make your family your primary source of contact forces you to be either reflective or reactive. If you choose reactive only, you won’t last long. At some point you start saying, “Okay, look. We have to make this work so let’s talk about what needs to change.”

3. Virtual Friends and Family

Thanks to technology, friends and family outside of the home can be “seen” online. This is a mixed blessing. It is so nice to see them, but it also punctuates the separation from them. It reminds you that they are not in your world, not truly accessible, not able to be hugged. It seems ironic, but sometimes seeing people online actually makes you more homesick. We enjoy it while it lasts, but once we hang up reality hits harder than ever. You are alone. They still love you but they are not here. And with the current Coronavirus situation, you don’t even really know when you’ll see them again.

4. Learning New Cultural Norms

When you leave your home to get needed supplies, you must adopt new cultural norms. When we moved overseas we had to learn to walk (and drive) on the left instead of the right, something that I always do wrong again when I return to the U.S.! Staying six feet away from everyone else does not feel normal. It feels awkward and it requires constant thought. The rules have changed and you are forced to change with them. Learning to rewire habits is exhausting!

5. Feeling Isolated

Besides the virtual connection to family and friends, life itself is isolated. When you are confined to your home it’s a lot like being in a new location. How do you decide what needs to be done? How do you balance time on media “connecting” with others to time doing work? How much do you work and how much do you create downtime with your family? How much do you allow your kids to disappear into media? How do you create structure through self-motivation? You’ve always had a list of “to do” items for the house. Are they priorities now or is time with family the priority since everyone feels so out of sorts? How do you balance those things?

Isolation isn’t a vacation for most of us. There are things to do. Figuring out how to handle the precious commodity of time is actually a task. And trying to help those in our care cope is equally daunting. Children process isolation differently than adults. They don’t have the same concept of time. Juggling your own cares while trying to support others is no easy task.

6. Dining In

A change in country means a change in food. Often your favorite restaurants are nowhere to be found. We don’t have access to any restaurants in our overseas community which means making all of our meals every day. When we are home on furlough, eating out is one of our favorite things to do.

For those of us who haven’t had a lot of experience cooking, this new skill acquisition can create a lot of stress! We make pretty much everything from scratch here. I did not cook that way prior to coming so I had a lot to learn. After we’d been here for a few years, my daughter said to me, “Mom, where did you learn how to make such yummy pizza?” (It tastes different here because I make it all from scratch: the dough, the pizza sauce from fresh tomatoes, seasoning in the sausage, etc.) I answered her, “Here. I learned to make pizza here.”

I truly would have no clue how to make pizza if we hadn’t come overseas. I didn’t have “cooking from scratch” on my bucket list but it’s something life has required. As you try new recipes during this isolation (maybe even just cooking consistently for the first time) and work with limited ingredients, you may be feeling that you “didn’t sign up for this.”

Losing access to dining at restaurants isn’t just about convenience. Restaurants also represent social connection and certain foods create a lot of comfort. Restaurants are also a part of the normal rhythm of life. Sometimes cooking dinner just feels like one more reminder of how much has changed.

7. Insecurity and Fear

Our missionary journey has always carried a lot of unknowns in the area of security. Life in America is fairly stable. If you lose a job, you probably have unemployment. If you are sick you probably can go to a medical clinic. If you need food, you probably can go to a grocery store. We live in a remote location. Our income is based on the generous giving of supporters and often fluctuates. Our medical services are very limited compared to US standards. Our resources (food and supplies) are shipped in and often delayed. Life is very unpredictable. We often have to do without.

With the shutdown of so many businesses in the U.S., many are without jobs. I’m sure many of us are wondering how the economy will rebound, how unemployment can cover the millions who are without work. We don’t know how long grocery stores will stay open or if the items we need will even be on the shelves. We don’t know that there will be space at the hospital if we need services. Everything is very unsettling in the current situation.

Fear can dig its claws in deep when there are so many unknowns. Security is something we value as Americans. It has been taken from us. But maybe it was never really there to begin with. Maybe we were always vulnerable to this kind of a threat; we just didn’t know it.

Our hope has to be in the goodness and sovereignty of God. He is not surprised by all of this. He is still in control. If any of our fears become realities, it will be because He allowed it. He will be in it with us. We are not alone.

Although there are many ways that missionary life and Coronavirus isolation are similar, there is one key way in which they are different: those of you in the U.S. did not choose this experience. You did not train for it. You did not plan or prepare for it. There is no sense of adventure in it. It was thrust upon you.

Knowing God moved us to our overseas location is a source of comfort. When we face difficult things, we know He is with us in them. The same is true for you. He has moved you to this place. You didn’t have to do anything. In fact, you didn’t even have a choice to make, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is where He has you now. At this time, at this place, you are where He wants you. And He is with you.

The fact that you did not choose this experience, is perhaps what makes it so hard. When you choose to go to a different country you know things will be different. When your own world suddenly changes, loss and grief run deep. You had no time to plan or say good-bye. You simply had to accept reality as it was placed upon you. So much of our lives are really not in our control. We think we have control, that we make our own destiny, but this pandemic is reminding us just how vulnerable we truly are.

I am praying for those of you in the US, for the sudden changes, for the losses of security and contact with others. I am praying especially for those who are alone in their homes. May God’s presence be real. May God’s people find fellowship (even if only virtually). May we all learn to trust Him more as we see our own vulnerability.

May this be a time of counting what matters most, of reflecting on God’s Sovereignty. God is still in control. The vast majority of us will survive this pandemic. What is it that God will teach us through this? How will we grow closer to Him? Trust Him more? How will we support one another? How is God at work in your own life and in your family? Who in your life needs a virtual touch from you to keep going?

We were made to live in community. I think we all feel that now more than ever.