Julianne Kowalski

Julianne’s Story: Re-Entry From Short-Term Missions in Red Light Districts

Vineyard Missions recently interviewed Julianne Kowalski for a blog that explored people’s missions trip experiences, including their trip length, location, ministry type, and their re-entry experiences. Julianne visited many nations over a 10-month period (part of the time with YWAM) working in all sorts of cultures around the globe, even including ministering in the red-light district of Bangkok. She has many insights to share that we would do well to learn from. Potentially, you may encounter scenarios such as:

  • you have a young friend interested in pursuing a similar calling during a gap year or long term
  • you are a pastor to someone who is returning from such a life-changing trip, or
  • you are making plans of your own to go on an extended missions trip that will be hard emotionally

Gain insights here on heart changes to expect and learn how to prepare yourself to recover well.

Spoiler Alert: Julianne’s reentry was a rough one, but we are happy to tell you that even in the struggle, this millennial has heard God calling her out into missions again. And she said “Yes!”

Name: Julianne Kowalski
Location of Mission: Europe, Middle East, South America, North America, and South East Asia
Length of Stay Away: 10 months
Age during trip: 19 yrs old

Previous World Missions Experience: Indonesia 2 weeks

How long have you been home from your most recent trip?

6 months

What letter grade would you assign to your most recent returning home experience & why?

Julianne: I would assign a C, because re-entry has not been an easy or fun process. I struggled for the first 4½ months pretty severely, and just recently have sort of gotten the hang of being home. It’s a really rough and confusing transition and everyone’s process is going to be different. Coming home I felt like a complete outcast and I really struggled to find my place. I missed Asia more than anything, but I know the Lord had told me to go home and rest for a while. So it was just a tough process to settle in my new reality that was not filled with constant ministry and foreign countries. However, this rest time at home has been an essential season for me and Jesus, and I’ve grown. Even the struggle has been filled with sweet moments with Jesus.

Did you know about and prepare for re-entry before you left or began transition home from the country where you served? How?

I was well aware of the challenge of re-entry as I was preparing to come home, and I did my best to prepare for it, but there’s only so much that one can do. I contacted experienced friends for counsel while still in country but there was nothing that could have prepared me for what it was really going to be like. Re-entry is different for everyone. What triggers one person may not trigger another and vice versa. It is going to be unique to everyone because everyone’s experience is different.

I listened to podcasts and read blogs, but I think what helped me most was debriefing myself while I was still in country. One thing I regret is not asking someone to help me debrief because debriefing myself was quite hard. When I came home I immediately got myself into counseling to help process and debrief. That helped me incredibly. I experienced a lot of traumatic events while overseas, so therapy was a huge help. Even if nothing distinctively traumatic happens, I’d recommend therapy to anyone coming home from a lengthy time in foreign cultures. Also right when I got home I read a book called Re-entry: Making the transition from missions to life at home by Peter Jordon; I highly recommend it. Even though I tried to prepare my family for what it might be like, I think it was very difficult for them to know how to handle it all, too.

How long did it take for you feel settled back down at home after 10 months abroad?

It took me about 4-5 months to feel a little more comfortable at home. By no means is life back to ‘normal’ or do I feel like I completely fit in again yet, but, I have sort of found my place here and am actually starting to enjoy my time home.

How did your prayer life sound in the first two weeks you were home?

My prayer life the first two weeks of being home was kind of non-existent. I found it very hard to pray and get back that intimacy with the Lord that had sustained me my entire time overseas. This is one of the main factors that made re-entry so difficult and confusing. I did not feel close to the Lord; I had a hard time hearing His voice; I did not want to do ministry; it was as if I completely forgot how to read the Bible. My intimacy with the Lord is something I value very highly, so feeling like I didn’t have that made life very confusing and dry.

My normal prayer life returned with time, but it took a while. During that time I had to decide to trust that He was still there even if I didn’t feel Him.

One of the biggest reasons that my prayer-life-upset was so challenging was because I felt like everyone was always staring at me, expecting this amazing, wise missionary to have it all together, have the answer to all their problems, and prophesy over people constantly. But I didn’t feel amazing or wise, and I was not even close to having it all together--I was a hot mess!

Having this pressure while feeling completely distant from Jesus was hard. Ultimately these may have been my own expectations that I placed on myself and assumed others had of me as well, but I could not know for sure.

What changes has your missions experience brought into your life?

Since starting my journey in missions, God has given me a heart for His peoples. He showed me His heart and His love for them, and then He gave me the same heart and love.

I see people so much deeper than ever before when I see them through the eyes of Jesus. He has given me a boldness to step out and pray for people I don’t know, like sharing the gospel with the barista at Starbucks. Jesus gave me courage to step out in faith in ordinary life abroad, so when I came home it was natural.

Another change I’ve seen is that God has completely broken my heart over things that break His heart. The fact that so many people still live without knowing that Jesus loves them crushes me; before my journey, I had never even thought about that! I don’t think I ever prayed for someone or shared the gospel until I began doing missions. Now it’s a part of my everyday routine. Jesus loves His people, and I want them to know that.

My spiritual life in general has completely transformed. I used to worry so much about money, and now I live day by day trusting that God will provide the next meal. I have had to completely rely on the Lord for almost everything: housing, food, friends, community, ministry, survival.

I think one of the biggest changes after being in missions is my intimacy with the Lord. While being in certain countries Jesus was literally my only friend, the only one I could speak English to, my only community, the only person I had. I have never felt the Lord more physically with me than when I was in some of these really intense situations. He quickly became my best friend. Even though feeling His presence is something I struggled with in coming home, it’s something I’ll always remember and be able to go back to, knowing that’s He’s so present with me and that He is close.

I also realized that I became way more adaptable and flexible than I ever was at home. I was okay sleeping on the floor; I was okay without showers and toilets; I was okay eating whatever was placed in front of me. These things became a laying down of my rights. That practice is something I have carried home with me. I see that I appreciate things a lot more after having lived without them for so long, but I recognize that they are luxury items that I do not particularly need and that I know I can live without. I now know that things such as comfort and safety no longer have a hold on me and no longer hinder me from stepping out in faith and going and doing what the Lord has called me to do. I can now follow His call--wherever that may be--because I am no longer reliant on any of these things.

What can friends do to help you with transition back to life at home?

This is something I still struggle with, because it is very hard for friends and family to know how to help or handle someone returning from the mission field. When we return we are completely different human beings. We have seen and experienced things most people never will. It’s hard for us to relate to people we knew before; it’s hard to fit in; it’s hard to take a break from ministry; it’s hard that things are so convenient in America; it’s hard to give up control and let God do His thing; it’s hard to be content with where you are; it’s hard to have normal conversations; it’s hard when people don’t ask or seem interested in the work you have been doing; it’s hard to even do simple things like grocery shopping or going to Starbucks; and it’s super, super hard to enjoy the luxury that America provides: comfortable beds, hot showers, clean drinking water, good food.

To be completely honest, I think friends and family probably need to start from scratch and be very intentional with getting to know their missionary all over again. Everything has changed for them: their likes, dislikes, passions, frustrations, the way they dress, the way they act and respond to certain things. Learn who they are now by asking easy questions like what their favorite food is, and ask hard questions like what was challenging or hurtful while being overseas.

It frustrated me that people did not know how to talk about some of the things I had experienced, and so I processed that as if they didn’t care about me. I had to speak honestly and tell them I needed help talking and processing these things. It’s very helpful if people ask specific questions. Please, steer away from questions like “how was your trip?’’ and go with more direct questions like “Why did you choose the ministry you did” or “I want to understand what life has been like for the past year for you, tell me about your day-to-day life.” Questions like these will help the missionary process and debrief, and it will help the family or friend understand more of what they experienced and why they have changed so much.

We want to talk about our experiences, but it’s so overwhelming to begin discussing it with someone. So if you are coming alongside your missionary, be intentional in letting them unpack everything that has happened. Your interest will mean more than they can say. Ask to see pictures, ask about specific people they met overseas, ask about places and people that stole their hearts, ask them about the hardships and challenges and help them pray through it, if possible.

I would also say to be very patient and gracious with the returning missionary. Normal daily activities can be harder for us because we aren’t used to American culture anymore. If your missionary friend has a breakdown in the grocery store because of all the options, just let it happen and help them choose something. Be patient and let them process however it is they need to. Giving your missionary opportunities to speak, like at Bible studies or churches or events, helps them process and see that people value their stories and heart. But most importantly, give them as much time as they need to get back into normal life, because chances are, they have no idea what that is anymore. Love them and encourage them. They want to feel normal again, they want to feel a sense of belonging, and they want to find their place again.

Do you have any advice for first-time short-termers?

Re-entry sucks and I’m sorry you have to go through this season.

Everything you’re feeling is normal and totally justified. Things might get confusing, and you might feel completely out of place, but press into Jesus because He has so many amazing things for you in this season. Draw near to Him because even when it seems that no one else understands you, He will and He does. Don’t be discouraged if your prayer life or intimacy with Jesus feels off; it happens to a lot of returning missionaries, just continue to push through and press into Him. This season is a great time of growth and is almost another mission trip in itself.

When I came home I had a complete identity crisis (many of my missionary friends told me they experienced similar things). Even in the struggle of reassessing who you are, please don’t let other people decide who you are. Well-meaning they may be, but your friends and family knew the old you, and that is not who you are anymore. Even if they can’t recognize it, they are most likely trying to fit you back into that box that you left behind. You outgrew that box! Look to Jesus for your identity and worth, and trust that what He says about you is true. Your worth is the same whether you are on the mission field or at home in a comfy bed.

Give grace to those friends and family member who may not know what to do with you, but don’t assume they don’t care about you and your experiences. They care because they love you; they just don’t exactly know how to manage the new you.

But don’t be afraid to be open and honest with your needs. If you need them to be more intentional with helping you process and debrief, tell them! If you need some time alone and need them to back off a bit, tell them! Do not be afraid to spend days or even weeks alone. You may need that time to process with Jesus and just rest! Do not feel guilty for resting and enjoying the luxuries of your home country. For me it really helped to jump right back into church and get involved and back with a passionate group of people, but it is different for everyone. Some people may need a break from church and ministry, but for me it really helped to be around like-minded people.

Like I said earlier, I highly recommend seeing a therapist or counselor to help you debrief and process. Because your family and friends might not be the best at helping you process and talk about things, having a professional there to help talk through some stuff could be very beneficial. Most of all, press into Jesus, this dependence is a sweet time with the Father, and He has so much treasure stored up for you in this season.

Oh one more thing, people may say stupid things or be insensitive to the work you’ve been doing. Give them grace! They literally have no grid for what you’ve been living.

What do you see as contributing factors to the experience you have lived during this re-entry process?

I think there are a lot of contributing factors to the experience I have had. Some of which have to do with the fact that most of my ministry occured in red-light districts. This included going into brothels nightly, seeing and experiencing things most people don’t even know actually happen. That alone made it hard to come home, because I was certain no one would understand the intensity of the stuff I’ve seen, and people wouldn’t know how to even approach the subject.

So when I came home I saw people being very intimidated to even bring up the words “human trafficking” because it is such a heavy topic. This was hard for me because I needed to talk about my experiences. Instead of attempting to help me through it, most people avoided the topic all together. That was, and still is, very challenging. So for any missionary, the work they’ve been doing is going to be unique to them, and people may have a hard time relating to them or knowing what to say.

Another factor that contributed to the difficulty of my re-entry process is that I didn’t have anyone from the church intentionally helping me debrief. To know that someone takes interest in what you’ve been doing is extremely comforting, and I think it is important for church leaders to take an interest in their returning missionaries and intentionally sit with them for however long they need and help talk them through, debrief, and process. Honestly, a lot of the tough things that happen during re-entry are bound to happen either way and are just part of coming home and readjusting to western living. It takes time but eventually we get used to living here again.

What, if anything, has surprised you about this re-entry?

So many things surprised me! Even though I prepared as much as I could, still things caught me off guard. I remember intensely feeling like an outsider. I was prepared to feel a little on the outside, but I felt completely like a foreigner. It was rough for a really long time. At church, with friends, and at family functions, I felt like no one knew what to do with me, like I wasn't a part of the group or family anymore. They didn't understand me, and I didn't understand them.

Something else that I didn’t expect at all was the strain that would be put on my friendships. I expected things to snap back to the way they were before; I’d be able to chill with my friends like a normal person. Unfortunately my relationships suffered, and I didn’t even know it. It was nothing like before I left.

What I didn't know I needed until recently was for my friends to get to know me all over again. I needed them to get to know the new Julianne instead of trying to stuff the new me into old Julianne's box. It didn't work at all. It felt constantly like that’s what people were trying to do, because they expected everything to be the same too; they didn't understand what to do with the new Julianne. It was confusing to me, because I’d kept in such good contact with my friends. But when I came home, everything felt different. I still feel like they don't know me at all.

The fog also surprised me. Life often felt like a fog when coming home. Physically I was there, but my head was often in other places. The first couple months of being home I honestly felt like I wasn't all there. My body was, but my heart and mind were elsewhere. I actually don't remember much of the first couple months home because I was taking in so much while trying to process what had happened overseas. It was a weird time, to say the least.

What steps did you take in the throws of re entry to cope and care for your body & soul?

This is something that really challenged me coming home. I realized quickly that I didn't know how to prioritize myself and make sure I was taken care of - another reason my re-entry was a mess. I learned a lot though. Practically, my coping came through going to therapy. I started reading. I spent a lot of time trying to process and journal. I got caught up on my favorite shows. I got a couple massages. I remembered things I liked to do like painting and singing and getting coffee with friends. And I learned to incorporate into my new life the new things I liked to do like watching movies and reading.

I realized I needed to take care of my body by eating healthy foods and working out. I learned to prioritize my time with Jesus and just soak in His presence letting Him speak what I needed to hear and heal the broken parts of my heart. I often went to church, worship nights, and Bible studies! I still go as often as I can, almost nightly because I didn't get good fellowship in a lot of the countries I was in. I did get involved in my church’s outreaches, but I had to remember that it was a “time off of ministry” for me so I had to make boundaries and ask Jesus how much I could do. I got very involved in my church’s young adult group which provided me with such rich community. An added bonus here was that because I didn't know any of them before I left, no one tried to fit new Julianne into old Julianne. It was refreshing.

Most of all God constantly reminded me that I just needed to rest! And it was hard as heck to sit and do nothing all day, but boy was it necessary. I was always worried that I wasn't resting right but then someone reminded me that I can't fully rest if I'm worried that I'm not doing it right. I listened to podcasts and sermons and used essential oils and spent time with my dog, and I actually started enjoying it. I also got very connected with the older women of my church, and they continuously speak life and truth to me which is always refreshing and encouraging.

Who has been your greatest support and how did they help?

I would say my older sister has been my greatest support system because she has been involved with missions and has a heart for the nations; therefore, she understands a lot of my heart. She was very intentional with helping me process and debrief. She was also supportive of whatever I needed, whether it be time alone or watching a movie with her or actually going out. She encouraged me in it all. Sometimes she just held me when I cried and didn't have to say a word. I found (and still find) it very hard to talk about some of my experiences overseas, and she was so good with letting me “word vomit” if I needed or just holding me while neither of us said anything.

She is still helping me so much and encouraging me...as I begin to prepare for God's latest adventure for me...moving to Southeast Asia!

Update: Julianne is now serving full-time as a long-term missionary. As of this writing, she plans to be in Bangkok, Thailand for a year and then move to Bali, Indonesia permanently. You can follow her journey on her private blog here: http://juliannekowalski.net/

Going With the Return in Mind: Re-Entry Resource Guide