Transitioning off the Mission Field

Inspiration from Ruth Appell

Posted by Nancy Lee on August 12, 2022

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength . . .” Isaiah 40:31a (KJV)

Are you going through a transition in your life? Are you grieving the separation of loved ones? Missing a place that was once dear to you? Ruth Appell, the oldest in a family of nine children who graduated in 2020 from high school in the Asia Pacific, shares insights she gained from her challenging transition off the mission field. Her words of wisdom are helpful for anyone going through a transition. I met with Ruth last week at a coffee shop. Here is her story:

Ruth moved to the Asia Pacific at the beginning of her junior year of high school with her family where they served as missionaries. Her class consisted of seventeen students from all over the world. About a third of them were Americans, a third were nationals from the country where they were serving, and the rest were from countries such as the Netherlands, Canada, Korea, and Malaysia.

When Ruth first started school there, she resisted getting too close to her fellow students. She knew she would be graduating after only two years at the school, and she might never see them again.

It was impossible to stay emotionally distanced from her classmates with the unique experiences they shared. One of the most memorable was working together to help distribute food, water, and clothing to the thousands who sought refuge in their school’s gymnasiums after a massive landslide swept down the mountain overlooking the school. Over a hundred people were killed, and many homes were demolished. The teachers and senior high students all helped in the relief efforts.

Ruth had tears in her eyes as she shared her memories of family members searching for their loved ones, of mothers holding children sick with fevers, and vomiting up dirt.  This experience drew her classmates together.

Her classmates were also unified through the Outdoor Education trips they took into the bush for two weeks each school year. “Our school was in a developed town with stores and an airport. Our trips would take us to interior locations only reachable by airplanes or helicopters where most of the people lived in huts with no conveniences.”

The students and teachers would bring sleeping bags and sleep in simple wooden buildings. They would use water from an underground spring or rainwater and would dig their latrines.

The students worked hard, but Ruth found the work rewarding. One project she worked on was setting up a water tank in a small village that had no running water. She also enjoyed leading Bible clubs for the children and teaching hygiene and disease prevention classes.

Ruth’s senior year got off to a great start. She was looking forward to her senior trip and the other special graduation events they had planned. She remembers saying to one of her friends in January, “Everything is going so great! This feels like the lull before the storm.” Ruth thought the storm would be graduating and moving on to the next stage of life. Little did Ruth know how prophetic her statement was.

Then Covid hit and everything shut down the week Ruth’s senior trip to Bali was scheduled. First, the shutdown was supposed to be for three weeks, but when the shutdown continued, students started leaving on repatriation flights back to their homelands. Ruth’s family was not able to leave because her youngest sister, who was born on the mission field, did not yet have a passport. With the government offices shut down, it was difficult to process her application.

By the time graduation day came, half of Ruth’s class was gone and participated through zoom. This was not how Ruth had envisioned her senior year. It was hard with many of her classmates leaving suddenly without time to say goodbye. Most of the other students left right after graduation, but Ruth and her family were stuck until they were finally able to get her sister’s passport in early July. 

Ruth on graduation day with her classmates

After the long flight home, Ruth was exhausted. She was scheduled to leave to go to college in Wisconsin three weeks later. The thought of leaving her family so soon overwhelmed her, and she asked her parents if she could take a gap year and stay with the family. What Ruth didn’t know is that the principal of her former school in Sprakers, NY, had already spoken to Ruth’s father about hiring her to work as a teaching assistant in the school.

Ruth is so glad she was able to spend the year with her family. It gave her closure to be able to live with them and work at the same school her siblings were attending.  She lived in the same house she lived in before they first left for the mission field when she was nine years old. The same house her grandfather had built for their family before he passed away in a car accident when Ruth was three.

After a year, Ruth said her goodbyes to her family, and her parents brought her to Wisconsin to go to Ethnos360 Bible Institute, the college run by the mission agency her father was working with. It was hard to leave her family because they were planning to go back to the mission field as soon as their visas were processed. She thought she wouldn’t be seeing them for a very long time.

Then Thanksgiving came and they were still in New York. They had a wonderful celebration together, and Ruth said her goodbyes and left again for Wisconsin. Her parents were still there when Ruth came home for Christmas. Finally, the visas came in. The day before Ruth had to leave for college, she rode with her aunt and uncle the four-hour drive to New York City to drop her family off at the airport. After several hours, she came back to help pick them up from the airport. There was a problem with the vaccination status of some of the children, so the whole family returned home.

The next morning, Ruth said goodbye to her family once more and left for Wisconsin. This time, she didn’t see them again before they left the country. In March they finally had the issue straightened out and flew back to Asia-Pacific.

As much as Ruth’s parents tried to prepare her, the transition was hard. “I feel like I am a pioneer paving the way for my siblings. Neither of my parents grew up on the mission field, and neither was the firstborn,” Ruth said. Ruth explained that transitioning off the mission field and away from your family is like grief. You must go through the stages.

During the time when she kept saying goodbye to her family, it was difficult for Ruth because she couldn’t move on. “I felt like I kept ripping off the band-aid,” Ruth said.

After Ruth’s family left for the Asia Pacific, she threw herself into her studies and her job. At the end of the semester, she was excited about going back to New York to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousins. At first, it was fun, but then it sank in that she wouldn’t be seeing her family for a long time. 

Holidays were especially difficult. She would have a wonderful celebration with her aunts, uncles, and cousins, but at the end of the day, she would be overcome with sadness. She started feeling depressed and lost interest in doing anything. She would go through the motions and still attend events, but her heart was not in it. It helped to talk to her aunt and her pastor’s wife. Both informally counseled her.

Ruth still misses her family but is feeling much better about the separation. She is excited about the new direction God is leading her, and she is looking forward to taking a trip to the Asia Pacific to see her family next year at Christmas.

The advice Ruth would give to anyone going through a major transition is to be patient with yourself. Remember that you are grieving and there is no way to rush the process. Understand that what you are feeling is normal. And don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

Ruth’s next piece of advice is to connect yourself to a community. Ruth has a large extended family in Upstate New York and a supportive church that helped her. If you are not blessed with family or a church in your new location, reach out and find one, even if it is the last thing you feel like doing. If you don’t feel like you are part of something bigger, you will feel isolated, and it will be easy to give up.  Being part of a community will help keep you accountable and help draw you out.

The most important advice Ruth would like to share is to be intentional about waiting on the Lord. A Bible verse that spoke to Ruth during her transition is “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” Psalm 40:31a. 

“When I look back, I realize that, though it was hard, God is the One who got me through. It’s like the poem, ‘Footprints in the Sand.’ God was carrying me.” Even when you can’t see it, God is with you and will help you get through.

More about Ruth: Ruth is leaving next week to start college at Pensacola Christian College in Florida. She will major in English and hopes to become a journalist for a Christian organization. She is an accomplished pianist and loves children.

*Background photo was taken by Ruth of the lake near where she lived in Asia Pacific.

*headshot by Abby Mendels

*Group photo by Angie Seow

Did you miss my story about Ruth's brother? Click here to read: Willard Appell, Teen Missionary: Learning to Trust God in all situations

Interested in reading other missionary stories? Click on the following links:

Anna Deikun, Missionary to Russian Jews

The Allens: Missionaries During Retirement

Joe Hoffman, Cru College Ministry Intern: Out of the darkness into His marvelous light

The Life and Legacy of Alex Deikun: Dedicated to sharing the Gospel with the Slavic people

Jonathan and Roseann Johnson, Retired Missionaries to Ecuador: The Amazing Faithfulness of God