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Kicked Out: Pain, the Police, and the Sovereignty of God

“You have 48 hours to leave the country,” said the police. 

Prior to that day in 2004, MTW missionaries Henry and Sophie Rawlinson* had thought everything was fine. Sure, there had been some hiccups over the decade that they had served as missionaries in South Asia, and visa issues had been a challenge from the very beginning. But lately, things had seemed more secure with the government. They felt settled—were even thinking of buying property.

Yet, here they were: police officers at their door, a two-day deadline for them to leave the country where they had lived and served and built a ministry for more than a decade. It was heartbreaking.

“It didn’t make sense at all,” said Henry. “This was the place of our calling. We were convinced that the things we were doing were significant and would yield fruit long term. We just couldn’t imagine ourselves anywhere else.”

When Henry went to police headquarters to ask for leniency, they granted him 10 days.

Ten days to wrap up 10 years of life. Ten days to pack suitcases, sell possessions, close up a home, say goodbyes to friends and ministry partners and the people they discipled. Ten days to break the news to their kids. Ten days to find somewhere, anywhere, to go.

The details came together quickly: flights, housing, a new school for their kids. The Rawlinsons went first to Southeast Asia, waiting out a semester of their kids’ school until they and MTW decided on their next mission assignment. Then came yet another round of packing bags, goodbyes, and uprooting, and then they flew to yet another new home, the Muslim-majority country where they have now served for the last 15 years.

Change, Challenges, and Growth
At the time, Henry and Sophie’s children were 14, 12, and 8 years old. Each one handled the transition completely differently. 

“Lindsay was just excited about living in a new place,” said Henry. “Matthew totally broke down, and Ellie, she stuffed it away.” 

“We arrived at our new location just before a big earthquake hit, so we were talking about that a lot,” said Sophie. “Ellie was so empathetic. She heard about these families whose homes were completely obliterated, and—at only 8 years old—the first thing that she was worried about was what would happen with all their photo albums, because if they lost those they would have no memories.” 

The transition wasn’t easy for Henry and Sophie either. When they arrived at their new location, they didn’t speak the local language, had no colleagues or friends in the area, and had little idea of what to do or how they were supposed to build a new ministry. 

“It was a very tumultuous time,” said Henry. “We were grieving, and in the grieving process you’re not really willing to accept the new situation. You’re always comparing it to your old situation. You go through a period of nostalgia, like, ‘Oh everything was great in [our old mission field], and it’s not great here.’ … We never felt like we were completely abandoned—God provided friends for us along the way, to encourage and help us. But there’s just a lot of sense of isolation.”

Henry spent many mornings alone, wrapped up in his loneliness and hurt. He had nowhere to go except to God. Yet, he thought, God had let this all happen. How could Henry trust Him? It all seemed so pointless. 

But even in the darkness, the loneliness, and the doubt, God was at work.

Toppling Idols, Healing Hearts
“What we didn’t realize at the time was that there were some fairly significant sin issues that needed to be worked out in us,” said Henry. “That there was a design that God had for us that we couldn’t understand from the perspective of the moment.” 

Their old mission field, Henry explained, was a tough place to live. Surviving and  thriving required a rare combination of adaptability, grit, and stubbornness. But that very stubbornness that helped them stick with it in a tough place had slowly evolved into something more devious. 

“We had developed an unwillingness to consider that God had anything else for us,” said Henry.

“Once you’re in a place for that period of time, you develop a kind of seniority in the mission community,” he explained. ‘We had an expertise with the language. We knew the who’s who of the city and much of the country. We had the pulse of what was going on with all kinds of different mission work and, for me especially, it had developed into a kind of identity. Oftentimes you don’t realize what idolatries you’re developing until they’re challenged, until they’re ripped away. And then you realize: ‘Oh, my identity was completely wrapped up in that.’”

The way Henry sees it, God used that process of being kicked out of their South Asia home to cleanse their hearts, to break down the false identity of self-sufficiency that had become sources of pride, and force them to draw near to Him.

Over time, God began to heal the Rawlinsons’ hearts. Sophie dove headfirst into pursuing a master’s degree in education and started teaching at the international school where their kids were going. Henry connected with several churches and led MTW’s efforts across several countries in the region. Slowly, things got better.

Counting the Costs
Henry and Sophie are doing well these days. They’ve hit their stride and seen remarkable growth for the kingdom in their Asian home.

Now, after all they’ve been through, Henry remains as convicted as ever that closed countries and the hard parts of the world need the gospel, that believers must go to places where being a missionary is difficult, dangerous, or illegal, and share the hope of Christ. Yet he is also convinced that both missionaries and churches need to be better prepared for the challenges inherent to such fields.

“I think it’s important to be realistic about going to places where getting kicked out of the country is a possibility, and weigh the cost ahead of time,” Henry said. “Young missionaries tend to be idealistic and not think about those realities, and therefore we don’t prepare our churches to think about them.”

The way Henry sees it, when churches think about sending a missionary to a “closed country,” where there’s a possibility that they could be expelled, they need to realize that the cost is higher: logistically, emotionally, and financially. And they need to be prepared to make the appropriate investment in the missionaries they send, to support them well and intentionally throughout their service, so that they’re ready when things go sideways.

Churches need to be ready to bear the financial burden when missionaries need to change fields. Missions committees and congregants need to be ready to visit their missionaries in hard, uncomfortable places just as, or even more readily, as they visit their missionaries stationed in exotic locales. Pastors need to have permission to ask pastoral questions of their missionaries just as they would the people in the pews—counseling missionaries who are kicked off their field through the loss of friendships, feeling lost in the world and unmoored from their calling.

“This was 15 years ago, but we’re still dealing with it in some ways,” said Henry. “You never really process something like that completely, but we’ve worked through it.”

Eighteen months after they were deported, the Rawlinsons returned as a family to visit their old country of service, seeing friends and old stomping grounds for Christmas. It was challenging, but, Henry says, it helped them find some closure.

“We still don’t know why we were deported,” Sophie added. “We have to live with that lack of resolution. … We can entrust that into God’s sovereign hands. It frames our current and future work—realizing that we’re not permanent fixtures. The pain doesn’t go away. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. That’s just reality. It’s a broken thing. There’s grieving. But the pain lessens and we move on.”

“That place is still a part of our lives,” said Henry. “It always will be.”

This is the third of four articles in our Kicked Out series. Be sure to check out the first and second in the series if you missed them.

*Names have been changed.

Andrew Shaughnessy Dec 10, 2019
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