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Nothing Wasted: Missions, Mental Illness and Grace

Nothing Wasted: Missions, Mental Illness and Grace

Mental health challenges don’t mean exclusion from the Great Commission! Below, Leora, who served in East Africa with another organization before joining the staff at the Christar Mobilization Center U.S., shares how God has used her as she’s dealt with a mental illness. She also gives advice to anyone who’s struggled with their mental health and is considering cross-cultural ministry.

I arrived in East Africa young and naïve, on something of a whim. There was no rigorous application process for the organization through which I was serving; but even if there had been, we probably wouldn’t have caught on to what was yet to come. I was 23 years old, and I went to meet a need.

Fast forward about four years. There’s so much I could tell about the interim: the way children at the school tugged at my heartstrings, the joys and trials of living with national staff as my housemates, the love that grew in my heart for my African “sisters.” There were the long days traveling to the capital for more familiar foods, the simplicity of being thankful for warm water and electricity, the other expat staff who became like family, my conflicting loyalties to the USA and East African offices.

And then I had a mental breakdown. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t pretty. I went from overjoyed to be back in my home-away-from-home after a furlough to not even being sure if I believed in God anymore—all in about two days.

I’ll skim over the ugly: How psychiatric help, three hours away, didn’t seem to actually help. How after two months, the couple I was closest to told me I needed to go back to the States. How I spent the next four months at my parents’ home, battling depression and worse. How I false started and tried to get back into East Africa too soon. How I finally received a bipolar diagnosis that made more sense than depression alone. How I thought I could never hold down a full-time job again.

I told a friend recently that I was a flop at living overseas with a mental health challenge. That bipolar killed my cross-cultural life.

But God.

Two little words with such immense meaning!

God has seen fit to use me. He used me in East Africa, and He continues to use me here in the States. Not only that, but by His grace I have found work that keeps my heart for missions alive—and I’ve been there full time for three years now! In the lavishness of God’s grace upon grace, my current ministry isn’t merely a job. On the contrary, it’s a vocation where my two most beloved giftings, administrative helps and writing, are woven together.

While I’ve certainly had ups and downs over the past five years since my breakdown, I know now more than ever that God is the One in control of my journey. I make choices and pick a path to walk on, and sometimes I regret a wrong choice made. But God! He promises to redeem what is broken, to let nothing go to waste and to work all things for His glory and for my good.

And just in case you were wondering, God has graciously allowed me to go back to East Africa to visit my “family” there—and I’m going again at the end of this year!

Here’s my advice to those considering going out to the field, whether they know they have a mental health condition or not:

  • FEAR NOT. You are not disqualified because of what you deal with inside. At the same time, be aware and proactive in handling your personal set of challenges.
  • Don’t disregard familial health challenges. If you share biological ties with a person, you could be subject to the same illness that he or she has—whether mental or physical.
  • At the same time, don’t let those struggles define you. Only God has the right to define you!
  • Seek counsel early and often, and heed it well. This doesn’t have to be only from a licensed counselor; hopefully you also can look to your parents or find a wise mentor who can spot things in you that you can’t see.
  • Don’t internalize your struggles in the process of going to the field or while on the field. Openness with safe people is critical to working through things and progressing well.
  • In all of this, trust in God!

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