- Swimming in the pool.
- Eating yummy Thai food.
- Being with Dad, who travels to other countries for work.
Those are some things Emma Hanson, 12-year-old daughter of LCMS career missionaries Rev. Carl and Chenhsi Hanson, says she liked about the retreat for LCMS missionary families serving in Asia.
But best of all was spending time with other children who “understood what it is like being a missionary kid,” Emma said in an email following the retreat, Nov. 7-11 in Phuket, Thailand, presented by Grace Place Lutheran Wellness Ministries.
“Not everyone at my school understands,” said Emma, who lives with her family in Hong Kong. “At the Grace Place, there were many things that we all had in common. I loved playing with everybody.”
Emma’s was one of 18 families who took part in the health and wellness retreat — a first made possible with the help of a Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML) grant and donors to Grace Place, the St. Louis-based LCMS Recognized Service Organization.
Like Emma, the missionaries said they, too, welcomed the rare opportunity to be with their families and ministry colleagues who understand the unique challenges of serving the Lord internationally.
“Due to the fact that many of our mission fields only have one family in one country and that our work often involves a lot of travel away from home, to be together as families was a real blessing and one we will soon not forget,” Carl Hanson, mission facilitator for East Asia, said in an email.
Because of budget constraints, missionaries serving Asia hadn’t gathered as a team since 2004, Hanson said, making this the first time for most of the spouses and children to meet.
Grace Place hosted the retreat to support and encourage professional church workers and their families who, the ministry leaders say, face the same challenges — and more — as counterparts in the United States.
“Maintaining healthy, caring relationships with your family can be hard when you are so isolated and travel so much. Working in sometimes dangerous areas and fundraising pressures also take a toll on missionary health,” said the Rev. Dr. David Ludwig, Grace Place associate director of retreat programs, one of several leaders who shared Christ-centered presentations to strengthen spiritual, physical, emotional, financial and vocational health.
Ludwig noted another missionary challenge: a lack of support from nearby relatives and a home congregation that church workers in the U.S. often take for granted.
“We put a lot of emphasis on the importance [of the missionaries] taking care of self, not in a self-centered way, but as seeing yourself as a gift of God who needs to be healthy for ministry,” Ludwig said.
For the Rev. J.P. Cima, who has served five years in Southeast Asia, the Grace Place retreat offered much-needed spiritual care.
“We are usually the providers of that care, but often starve for it ourselves,” said Cima, at the retreat with his wife, Aimee, and two young daughters. “The Grace Place retreat provided a safe place to discuss, to rejoice, to cry and to pray.”
While their parents enjoyed time together, so did more than 20 missionary children. The retreat featured a separate program for the youngsters, ages 3 to 17. Many of the children live in a different country from their birth or have parents from two different cultures.
Growing up as what Grace Place leaders call “third-culture kids” presents opportunities but also challenges, with some missionary children feeling they don’t fit in — in their native country or their mission field.
“We wanted the kids to have a good time and also have a chance to bond and make friends with others who understand what they might be going through,” said Greg Gillard of Anoka, Minn., a retired teacher and grandfather of two former missionary children, who helped lead the children’s program.
Thank-you notes from the missionary families tell how much the retreat succeeded.
International church workers often serve on the “edges” of the Synod, Cima said in an email. “It is humbling to know that we are valued enough to send such a great Grace Place team to Asia to serve us,” said Cima, adding that his family felt “energized to continue our service.”
The Rev. Joel Scheiwe, who, with his wife, Iantha, serves in Hong Kong, said the couple’s three children enjoyed being with other “missionary kids and realizing that such a life is ‘normal’ and even a blessing.”
Just as the missionary families expressed appreciation for the retreat, the Rev. Dr. Darrell Zimmerman, Grace Place vice-president and chief program officer, praised them.
“All church workers make sacrifices, but none more so than these folks,” Zimmerman said. “For us to be able to share a blessing from their church, to let them know the church is thinking about them, cares about them and wants to help them care for themselves, in body and soul and spirit, was a blessing for us, too.”
The Thailand retreat was the second presented by Grace Place for LCMS missionaries serving internationally — a follow-up to last spring’s retreat in Kenya for missionary families in Africa.
More international retreats are planned, said Dr. John Eckrich, Grace Place CEO, who is working with the LCMS Office of International Mission on two retreats: for missionaries serving Eurasia scheduled in summer 2013 on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, and for missionaries serving in Latin America in 2014. Both also will be funded in part with LWML grant support.
Kathy Ludwig, a retreat leader and longtime LWMLer, said the auxiliary’s generous funding for the retreats is no surprise.
“The LWML cares about missionaries and their families and wants them to feel loved and valued,” she said. LWML members “can feel good knowing they helped give these families an opportunity to be together and rest and process what all they go through.”
The new year also includes Christ-centered health and wellness retreats for church workers in the United States. Grace Place will host its traditional retreats for fourth-year LCMS seminary students and spouses in February, in both the St. Louis, Mo., and Fort Wayne, Ind., areas.
Also on tap are church-worker retreats for singles, couples and educators as well as local Congregational Wellness Weekends for church-work staff and lay leaders. (For more information, visit www.graceplacewellness.org or call 314-842-3077.)
In her thank-you note, Eliada Scheiwe, 10, expressed hope for another retreat for missionary families. After writing about her new friends and playing in the swimming pool, she printed a postscript: “Invite us again please,” she added, “Eliada Scheiwe, serving Hong Kong.”