Kicked Out: The Personal Toll of Missionary Expulsion

Just before his world came crashing down, things were going quite well for Tom Kirkwood.* Over the eight years that the MTW missionary and his family had served in the Middle East, he and his team had planted a thriving church and started two successful business as mission enterprises—a leadership consulting business and a coffee roastery.

People were coming to Christ, being baptized, discipled, and raised up as new leaders. On the Sunday before he was deported, the church plant particularized, graduating to a full-fledged church—a monumental milestone four and a half years in the making.

“I thought everything was great,” said Tom. “The Lord was really confirming the work that we put in and then all of a sudden, this happened.”

In recent years, the country in which Tom and his family lived and worked for nearly a decade had begun cracking down on Christian missionaries, revoking visas and kicking westerners out in droves. Because he operated legitimate, tax-paying businesses and was in the country on a business visa, he was relatively safe—for a while.

When the government investigated Tom, examining his taxes, companies, and activities, they said all was OK at first. But when they discovered that his business partner was a local Christian leader, they immediately suspected the Kirkwoods of missionary activity. When they questioned Tom, asking him point blank if he was a missionary, he told them, “We’re actively involved in our church.” That, in and of itself, was not illegal. But the authorities weren’t satisfied.

“They came to our house when I wasn’t around and interrogated my wife and kids,” said Tom. “They went to my neighbors and asked if we were evangelizing them.”

Tom cooperated with the authorities—he was a legitimate businessman after all, and his documents were all in order. Then, just as suddenly as the questioning had begun, everything went quiet. The authorities backed off, and Tom assumed all was well.

Weeks later, the Kirkwoods were trying to re-enter the country after a visit to the U.S., and Tom was stopped at the border. His wife and daughters were allowed back in the country, but Tom was deported to a nearby country.

“It was absolutely devastating for our family,” said Tom. “The initial shock of it, seeing my kids scream and cry, being pulled away from me while I’m being sent to another part of the airport to leave the country—that was really dramatic.”

Immediately, Tom challenged his deportation in court, hiring a lawyer to represent him in absentia. To Tom’s surprise, the judge did not immediately rule against his case, but the final judgment carried enough weight that it was postponed. The Kirkwoods would have to wait more than six months to hear their fate. In the meantime, they were forced to leave the country.

Six weeks later, Tom was allowed to briefly return to pack up his family’s things and wrap up their affairs. Then, leaving behind their home of eight years—the place of their calling, their business, their church, their friends, their life—the Kirkwoods flew to America. They had no car, no house, just suitcases in their hands and pits in their stomachs.

“It felt like everything had been taken from us,” said Tom.

The Toll it Takes
From the Middle East to South Asia, East Asia to North Africa, autocratic or religious fundamentalist-fueled governments are closing churches, jailing pastors, and booting missionaries at a rate not seen in decades. And MTW’s missionaries have not been spared. Dozens of our workers have been forced to leave the countries where they have served, ministered, and built their lives.

From a big-picture, strategic perspective, this accelerating pattern of missionary expulsion is simultaneously disturbing  and motivating. We mourn persecution and the blows sustained by the Church. But when it becomes difficult or dangerous to bring the hope of the gospel to closed countries, the Church is forced to innovate and seek out creative solutions. But there is another side to the story of missionary expulsion that we too often forget: the personal, human toll on the missionaries and families involved.

For the missionary families kicked out of closed countries, the process of being forced to leave—often quite suddenly—can be traumatic and profoundly painful. They aren’t just dispassionately transferring from a temporary work assignment; they are leaving the neighborhood that has become their home, the school where their children have learned and grown, the place where they have built their lives—sometimes for decades. They are leaving their friends, relationships, and long-term community. Importantly, they are also leaving a work to which they have felt called by God and for which they and their supporters have sacrificed enormously.

It’s confusing at best; at worst, crushing.

For some missionaries, having all these things snatched away in a moment can trigger a breaking point: many sink into depression, doubt their calling, question God’s goodness and purposes. When you listen to enough of these stories from multiple missions organizations, you hear it all: marriages falling apart, faith lost, despair transforming to addiction. Yet you also hear stories of God’s faithfulness, of growth, and of learning to trust and love God’s sovereignty more fully than ever before.

Waiting, Learning, Growing
Back in the U.S., the Kirkwoods felt out of place. Having lived overseas for nearly a decade, they don’t own or rent a house in America, so they had nowhere to live. As they waited and hoped for news from the courts in the Middle East, they shifted from house to house, up and down the West Coast: a few weeks with Tom’s brother here, a few weeks with a family friend there, a month with his grandparents.

“We just kind of wandered and waited because we didn’t know what to do,” said Tom. “We didn’t know if we were going back soon or never going back.” For three months, Tom sank into a deep depression. Most days he wouldn’t even get out of bed, consumed by despair, self-loathing, anger, confusion.

“I felt like God was taking me for a ride,” he said.

Tom’s family missed their home, too. Many evenings, his kids would cry and ask questions like, “If God loves us, why would He do this? We were there to serve Him.”

Eventually, the Kirkwoods landed in California—moving into a house provided by a supporting church. The kids, who had by this point missed an entire semester of school, were able to dive back into their studies, and the family began to settle into a new routine.

In February, much to Tom’s surprise, the court ruled in his favor, declaring that he had not broken any law. Technically, the Kirkwoods should now be allowed to return to the Middle East, but the government has still not issued him a new visa. 

“That might be another court battle,” said Tom. “It’s not over yet by any means.”

For now, the Kirkwoods wait, and pray, and learn. Helped by some good friends who are pastors in the PCA, Tom emerged from his depression. He keeps himself busy by working on another graduate degree and doing church-planting training. His heart is still in the Middle East, but God has used this experience to break him down and build him up again, better than before.

“My struggle with heart idolatry has been around finding meaning in ministry success,” Tom explained. “I was in a place where the church was really succeeding and the ministry was really going well. I took a lot of joy at that success and I worked really hard because I didn’t want it to fail. I had a big fear of failure. And when I got kicked out it felt like failure, like death. I think one of the gracious things that God was doing was showing me that I didn’t need that church to know that I was loved by Him. I didn’t need to have that success to know that I was doing what He called me to do. … You don’t really realize that Jesus is all you need until He’s literally all that you have.”

“Our calling isn’t dependent on a location,” he added. “We’re still called to be God’s salt and light in this world. We’re still called to use our gifts for His glory. It doesn’t matter where you are. I think it took this process for me to really understand that.” 

*Names and locations have been changed for security reasons. 

Andrew Shaughnessy Nov 27, 2019
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