Reentry: Thoughts on returning from a mission field

by Rob Burgess

Reentry reflections

After graduating from Southern Nazarene University, Rob spent a a year of volunteer missionary service with SNU's mission to Bulgaria. In this article, Rob shares his re-entry thoughts.

It doesn't seem all that long ago that I boarded an airplane in Dallas, Texas. I was headed to Sofia, Bulgaria via Frankfurt, Germany. I remember thinking: "Lord, what have I gotten myself into? A a year away from my family and friends? Am I going to make it?"

As we landed, I was excited about being in Bulgaria. Then they put me into a tiny Bulgarian taxi. I had only been in the country for an hour and suddenly there I was in a taxi with a driver who spoke no English. He accelerated quickly, swerving in and out of traffic at top speed. It seemed like the the little taxi was going as fast as it could without falling apart. Sitting in the backseat, I prayed that we wouldn't be killed. We finally made it to our apartment which we thought would be housing four of us for a few days. We soon realized that it would house six of us. WOW! Dorm life again.

It wasn't just that taxi ride that made it clear we were living in a different culture. For instance, the day after arriving, we toured the "whole" city -- by foot. Then we discovered public transportation. We rode trams and trolleys and buses. There were never enough seats for everybody, so most of the time we stood up, hanging on for dear life. Standing on those crowded trams and buses, you're "glad you use Dial" and wish everybody did.

That I was living in a different culture really hit me one evening during the second week. We went to a restaurant which was Bulgarian Tex-Mex run by a Canadian (you figure it out). Going into that place, we almost felt like we were back home. American music was playing and a big Texas flag hung above our heads. When we left, however, culture shock hit me full force because outside the front door was an elderly gentleman going through the trash looking for something to eat.

As I look back on those experiences, I realize how much I miss Bulgaria. I miss seeing the gypsy children begging for money. I miss seeing the elderly gentleman and his wife walking down the street with one holding a small cardboard box and the other holding a fiddle in one hand and leading a trained bear by a leash with the other. There are so many needy people in Bulgaria. There are handicapped people sitting in wheelchairs holding cardboard boxes and elderly people doing the same. Walking down Vitosha Street, I often saw people with weight scales waiting patiently for someone to come by and give them a few leva to be weighed and they in turn can go and buy a loaf of bread.

Did we make a difference in these lives? I wasn't sure at the time, but as I look back I realize that we did. Week after week, we visited elderly people in their homes and took them a sack of food. We started with five homes in December and then saw our list grow to thirty-three homes by May. We not only went to the elderly, but we went to the invalids also. We visited one woman who was crippled for life because a doctor performed the wrong surgery. Each week, we went to see Grandpa Ivan who is blind as well as very deaf. He lives with a friend who is also blind.

As we read Scripture to these people, sang with them, and prayed with them, they saw hope. We saw lives changed. Zlatka, for one, went from a woman who disliked people and only loving cats to someone who had a smile on her face when she came to church, shaking hands with everybody .

The children with leukemia were a joy for me to visit. At first, it was very hard for me to go because we would never know who would be there from one week to the next. Because those children were staring death in the face, they needed to know that they were loved. Seeing the children with tubes sticking out of their hands and seeing the little marks around their shaved heads became something very special for me. We were bringing hope and friendship into their lives, and also Christ.

I have never been watched as much as I was that year. We became friends with several teenagers who watched us closely to see if we were part of some strange religious sect. They realized we weren't and at times they would ask us about our faith.

Once I was drugged and then mugged. In the aftermath of that experience, I had two friends, Latcho and Ivy, ask me about my faith. They were amazed that I was not angry at the man who had done that to me. Yet they were not ready to accept God's free gift. Two other friends though, Peter and Rouslen, would talk about God. Rouslen is a believer who is looking to become stronger and understand fully what it means to be a Christian.

My feelings, now that I've returned to America, are mixed. I like it here, but I also want to be back in Bulgaria. I see how convenience-oriented we are, specifically in the way we pay our bills. Here in the U.S. we slip a check in an envelope and put it in the mail. In Bulgaria, you pay all bills in person. Paying the telephone bill could take an hour or more because of the lines. Waiting was something we had to learn to do. It is a way of life. I have watched people here in the U.S. get irritated because they have to wait a couple of extra minutes in a check-out line. It's funny to watch them.

In Bulgaria I was involved people's lives every day, making a difference. There was always someone to pray with or go see. There were always people to invite to the apartment to make dinner for them to show that they were special and we cared about them.

Here in America though I find it easy to feel alone. Loneliness is a big factor here. Maybe it is because of the change of always having people around and not having enough days in the week to do what we had to do. Then again maybe it is because I am away from my support group. In Bulgaria, the five guys on our team of volunteers learned how to depend on each other as well as on God.

People here have changed as well as I have, but my views have changed too. I have been stretched by the Lord in so many ways this year. I have had to depend on Him for so many things. God has shown me that I need to love people. He's shown me that I can be satisfied with what I have and that I don't have to constantly have more.

If I could go back to the broken-down public transportation, certain smells, people begging for money on almost every corner, I would do so in a heartbeat. Why? Because I can see I was making a difference.

Many of the elderly Bulgarians have no one who will take a few minutes out of their week to visit them. The orphans are housed in the hills outside of the cities so they won't be seen and can be ignored. Those orphans need to be loved.

The teens and college-age young people are very afraid of begin taken in by religious cults. They need to see that there is a real God who loves them and cares for them as individuals. The gypsies need people to share Christ's love with them and let them know there is a better way of life than stealing and prostitution.

My feelings from the past year run deep. God is at work in Bulgaria. People there are hearing the gospel. Now, we need to pray that they will be willing enough to accept it.

Originally published in the New Covenant Society Journal of Southern Nazarene University

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