Expat Clergy on the Front Line for Psychological Support

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

Published originally in the Wall Street Journal Expat blog

“Yes, we would like to talk about it.” The long-term expat couple in Honduras was responding to my question about whether they would return to their home country or remain abroad. With aging parents back home and an urge to move on to something new, they were considering all options. They needed someone to help them reflect on their thoughts and uncertainty.

Another twenty-something member of the church I served in Costa Rica sat across the coffeehouse table from me. A vivacious person always surrounded with the teenagers from a local American school she had come to mentor, I assumed that her life was filled with social activities.

Tears formed in her eyes as she told me, “My best friends here are the people I see on television every night.”

Expats are like anyone else: they struggle through times of trauma, disappointment, uncertainty, death and unfaithfulness as well as joy, fulfillment, success and celebration.

But they are also different: They deal with culture shock, loneliness, frequent moves, separation from friends and loved ones, great uncertainty and frustration that they would never experience back home.

In their home country they would most likely turn to a professional counselor, a psychiatrist or psychologist, a school counselor, a social worker, or a clergy person.

In a foreign land where there might not be a trained, English-speaking counselor, finding someone who can listen and advise professionally is often a struggle.

Enter one of the English-speaking pastors, priests, rabbis and other clergy who serve expats through international congregations.

“The most difficult are troubled people who really should be in their own country where there is a support system,” said a North American pastor in a North African country who asked not to be identified for security reasons. “Recently a woman has been coming to church. She has suffered from depression. She needs help and may be bipolar. But she will not return to France because she has a boyfriend here.”

“I consider us to be on the front-line of offering help,” he observed.

Many pastors and priests provide initial, trouble-shooting counseling abroad as church members and community residents approach them with problems ranging from marital struggles or disturbed children to loneliness and difficulty with cultural adjustment.

“The main issues I encounter include guidance on whether to stay or leave or where
to go,” reported the Rev. Mark Blair of the 600-member Beijing International Christian Fellowship in China.

Rev. Blair also pointed to problems unique to expats, such as not knowing what is really happening with family back home or how to help aging parents or ill relatives.

Then there are temptations related to being far from familiar moral restraints, he said, as well as cultural confusion around dealing with local employers, landlords, and contracts.

In my years serving churches in the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Panama, Kyrgyzstan, and now Honduras, the problems I’ve seen most frequently are extreme loneliness, especially among single, young adult expats, and issues surrounding expats’ frequent transitions.

Increasingly, international English-speaking churches are trying to establish a more formal counseling process for people seeking assistance.

In San Jose, Costa Rica, the Rev. Stacey Steck, who has served at the Escazú Christian Fellowship for nine years, helped his church establish a formal counseling program that was both English-language and faith-based. Adding more hours to his workweek, Rev. Steck says, was a way to gauge whether there was an even greater need for help, possibly through a counseling center with more staff.

In Beijing, the size of the city and the church means that counseling is already available there, says Rev. Blair. In addition to that, the church offers a support group for those with substance abuse problems.

Research proves that emotional issues can grow into bigger problems for expats. The 2012 Talent Mobility Study by Towers Watson, a New York-based global professional services company, warned that assignment failures among expats mainly come from job performance issues and family or personal situations.

Asian companies reported that 53 percent named problems with an employee’s family as the reason an overseas assignment failed. In the U.S., family issues were ranked the second most significant reason for assignment failure, after job performance problems.

The report said that most companies do not evaluate an employee’s family situation when selecting candidates for international assignments, nor do they often provide support for the family to limit problems. Only 15 percent of U.S. companies and 14 percent of Asian companies take those situations into consideration.

That’s where international churches can help. As the pastor of several international congregations, I have worked at not only at identifying and inviting new expats in town to attend our church, but also to integrate them into the life of the congregation and to acquaint them with other, more settled expats.

A Mexican-American student who attended one of our churches told me of her difficulty in getting to know others and in dealing with her homesickness. To help, I asked two young women who had been in the city for a while to invite her to lunch or for a cup of coffee. I also matched her with a Mexican woman in the church who invited her over to make tortillas.

Oher churches have developed specific programs to orient new arrivals to the city. “Every fall, when most of our new folks arrive, we have a several-week ‘Welcome to Beijing’ program following our Sunday services,” said Rev. Blair. The church also produces a Welcome to Beijing booklet with language tips, maps, lists of restaurants, government offices, and other information.

The Rev. Scott Herr, pastor of the American Church in Paris, where 700 people worship each Sunday, uses a similar methodology. “We have been offering an orientation course to life in Paris called ‘Bloom Where You’re Planted’ for the past 40-some years,” he said. “We also publish a book that is a survival kit encyclopedia of helpful information.”

Jimmy Martin, an elder of the International Christian Fellowship in Oberursel, near Frankfurt, Germany, said that women in the church can help. “Finding a ‘home away from home’ in a loving group of women who understand many of your own challenges is a tremendous help to moms and wives,” he said.

Stewart Perry, the former pastor of the 300-member International Church of Bangkok, Thailand, explained that his church identified newcomers in the community and worked to integrate them into various activities.

Expats don’t have to join a church to get some help. Many of the more than 1,000 English-speaking, international congregations worldwide open their doors to non-members in need of friendship or dealing with difficult adjustments and circumstance. Some of them can be found at www.internationalcongregations.net, www.micn.org,www.ibc-churches.org and www.internationalchurches.net.

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From a few seeds…

We were thrilled to read this story from CNN about the growth of the evangelical church in Atucucho, the sprawling squatter community that sits high on the side of Mt. Pichincha, over 1,000 feet above Quito’s 9,300 foot altitude.

Polly and I have a special attachment to that community.

It all began when I visited the hardscrabble village with some social workers from Children International. I was preparing material for my radio program on relief and development work when they took me to Martha Carina’s house perched perilously on a huge boulder clinging to the side of the mountain. The family was dirt poor, had no food and slept on bare wooden frames without a mattress.

There, standing against a rock wall stood Martha Carina, certainly not more than two years old—dirty, hungry, cold.

The agency offered us the chance to sponsor her through a monthly donation which we did for nearly 15 years. And, an article in the Miami Herald that was spawned by that visit brought donations from readers which built a new, larger and more solid house.

A few years later we hauled a movie projector, a sheet for a screen a Christian film to the community for a night-time showing on the street. Some of the kids helped us to string a line across and sling the sheet over it. People stood on either side or sat on nearby rocks to watch the film. Many of the kids were poorly clothed in the cold climate with just a T-shirt and bare feet.

We couldn’t sleep that night. As we had taken films to many towns, villages and neighbohoods in the Quito area over several years we had talked about which community we might try to work in to alleviate some of the conditions and help proclaim the Good News.

This was it. The needs were obvious, the interest of people clear, and the call of God strong.

Several days later we met with the pastor of the fledgling church that had sponsored the film showing. It was the only evangelical church in the community at the time and was struggling to stay alive.

He ticked off the things they needed: Bibles, training for Sunday school teachers, a clinic for health care, someone to lead a Bible club.

It was amazing how quickly the Lord provided for each of these:

  • An HCJB missionary was holding a teacher’s training event in the southern part of the city. We drove some women from Atucucho to attend it.
  • Some supporters donated money to purchase the Bibles.
  • HCJB’s health department, which sent mobile clinics around the country, didn’t have an opening for months until a church somewhere canceled out and we could reschedule within a few weeks.
  • A volunteer with Bible Study Fellowship International at the initial mobile clinic was inspired to initiate a micro-enterprise project for women.
  • And, just as we were preparing to leave the country, Polly met a missionary friend in line at the money exchange who confessed that she felt God was calling her to start a children’s Bible club ministry.

It’s amazing what has happened since then. HCJB (now known as Reach Beyond) constructed and opened a full-time clinic in the community which provides health care on a regular basis. And, according to CNN, today it is impossible to walk more than two blocks in the community without finding an evangelical church.

That is similar to the growth of Christian churches throughout Ecuador. According to a recent article by the AFP news service, “the number of protestant churches (in Ecuador) soared from 40 in 1980 to 2,500 today.”

We marvel at what has happened in the impoverished community where we served over 15 years ago. With the few initial seeds that were planted that night of the film showing, the Lord has worked in a mighty way to bring the Gospel to those people. We thank Him for all He has done.  

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