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Editor’s Note: Programs manager Emily Norton shares how her participation in the FMS Re-entry Retreat for Class 29 led to the realization that she never fully let go of her own mission experience.

For 2.5 weeks in January, I had the privilege and honor to journey with our Class 29 missioners (Val, Hady, Mary, and Nate) during their FMS Re-Entry Retreat here in Washington, DC.

It was a blessing to have Beth Riehle (Returned Missioner, El Salvador, 2006-2009) facilitate the two weeks of powerful prayers, guided reflections, and faith sharing that were all centered around different daily themes. Each theme helped the returned missioners reflect and process their two years of mission in Bolivia, their current feelings on being back in the US, and their plans of how they are going to continue living out the Gospel in the next step of their life journeys.

Class 29 Re-entry

Class 29 Re-entry

I served in Ecuador several years ago with a Catholic lay mission program similar to FMS, but I did not have a re-entry program when I returned to the U.S., so assisting with the FMS Re-Entry Retreat was an incredibly enriching experience for me. It was an emotional one as well, though– as I listened to Hady, Val, Mary and Nate share their Bolivia stories, I was reminded of my own time in the Andean region of Latin America and my own difficult transition back to life in the U.S.

One of the retreat day’s themes was “Transitions and the Challenges of Letting Go.” Like with the other sessions, I found myself constantly nodding in agreement when Beth shared with the returned missioners what challenges they might expect as they deal with reverse culture shock and continue processing their mission experiences. Beth began to share her own experience about it taking several years for her to finally accept that her time as a lay missioner had ended.

Then she said something that hit me like the ice-cold showers I had taken in Ecuador:

“You have to accept that it is over before you can start the next chapter in your life.”

I was left in shock and my heart was shivering.

“You have to accept that it is over.”

This phrase kept ringing in my ears. I did everything I could to keep my composure, but inside I was weeping. Even though I have been back for several years now, I always felt like my time in Ecuador was incomplete. There were so many more moments that I felt I needed to share with the kids at my after-school program, the patients at the Hansen Disease hospital, my adult English students, and all the beloved neighbors with whom I had become friends!

This sense of incompleteness has gnawed at me since I left Ecuador. I obviously know that I am back in the US, but Beth’s matter-of-fact statement gave me the realization that I have never accepted it. Since I have been back, I have had numerous enriching experiences, met amazing people, and tried to live out my faith in different ways, but I think my heart has always been in Ecuador.

I need to let go.

I will always cherish the many gifts, learned lessons, and relationships formed during my time in Ecuador. It was a transformational experience that has shaped who I am today. HOWEVER, I need to let go!

God is calling me to fully immerse myself in each new experience that He provides me. I can no longer have one foot in Ecuador and one foot in the US.

Have you ever been to a glassed-in bird sanctuary at a zoo, where there are two sets of double doors? There is always a sign that warns visitors that they must close the exterior doors before opening the interior doors into the bird sanctuary. Since I have been back from Ecuador I have been stuck in the 4ft by 4ft wide space clinching onto that opened exterior door afraid of letting go.

I have been able to peer into the glass door and look at all the beautiful blessings and joys that God continues to provide in each new step of my post-Ecuador journey, but I have not been able to fully appreciate them since I am still holding on to my opened Ecuador door. I can only look through the glass door and admire from afar.

Estoy lista.

I am ready. It is going to be very hard, but I am ready to finally be able to fully appreciate this new sanctuary that He has provided me.

Reflection Question: What door of your life do you need to close in order to open the one God has put in front of you?

Featured image: adaptation of photo by Wikimedia user TheDailyNathan – creative commons