American Missionaries Stuck Stateside

Theresa and her family were missionaries in China until Covid-19 brought their mission work to a halt.

Amelia Lillemo


Reminiscing about leaving China, Theresa remembers when they said goodbye to their Brazilian friends, who they met in China. It was the day after her husband’s birthday and what started as routine ended up being a transformative moment in her life. 

Theresa did not usually cry about such things, but that goodbye felt harder than it should have been. Tears slipped down their faces, even as they expected to see each other in a few weeks. But they didn’t see each other in a few weeks. Theresa Miller, her husband Chris, and two sons, are now stuck stateside, unable to return to China because of the Covid-19 travel regulations. 

In January of 2020, the Millers (missionaries to China) came from China to the States for routine medical meetings, check-ins with their missionary organization, and family business. They were planning to return to China after the meetings were settled, but that’s when Covid struck and travel was closed. All that they had with them were 3 suitcases full of travel necessities and 90% of their clothing. Theresa and Chris now had to find jobs, schooling for their boys, and a house. 

They had to contact their friends in China to ship the Millers remaining necessary belongings to the U.S. They were not able to get all their stuff back so their friends gave away the rest of the items.

Life in China 

The Millers moved to China in 2014 through an undisclosed agency with the goal to reach the Chinese Deaf through Chinese Sign Language (CSL). They lived in China until 2017. Then they moved back to the states and lived in Arizona for a year. In 2019 they moved back to China and lived there until January of 2020 when they got stuck stateside. 

While in China, Theresa wanted to start training CrossFit. But instead, she met a Brazilian couple that invited her to take Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with them; the wife was named Sara. Over the course of the next few years, Theresa and Sara became friends and training partners. 

Both Theresa and Sara interpreted for Chinese Deaf people at a church. They also worked with Chinese Deaf students to offer them self-defense classes that would not otherwise be accessible to the Deaf. The class was taught in English or Chinese and Theresa or Sara would interpret it into CSL. 

Once they were introduced to each other, Theresa or Sara would invite them to go to their church to connect with them even further. At the church, there was a Deaf girl with whom Theresa collaborated on church lesson plans. The girl was an amazing teacher and Theresa helped her by setting up the structure of the lesson plans. 

Part of the difficulty in helping the Deaf in China was the lack of exposure that Chinese people have to Deaf people and their abilities. Deaf people in China are still primarily viewed as a disability and have a difficult if not impossible time finding a job. This is why one of the things Theresa did was to try and get Chinese people increased exposure to the things that the Deaf could do.

It was just 11 years ago in 2010 that the Chinese Government gave their Deaf citizens the right to drive. Unfortunately, the Chinese Government does not share the opinion of King Jordan that “Deaf people can do anything but hear.” (King Jordan was the first deaf president of Gallaudet University in 1988 after Deaf President Now.) 

In recent years, the Chinese Government was really cracking down on churches and Christianity and the church wasn’t able to meet as often. Theresa and her family had a ready pack with their passports and other necessary items from July – late August just in case they needed to run. 

While in China, Theresa mostly homeschooled her boys. But Lucas, her oldest, attended an international school for 3 years and Isaac, her youngest, went to preschool. They were able to connect with kids their age minimally but Theresa thinks the boys will find it easier making friends in the U.S.

Back in the US 

2020 was the first year that the boys had attended a school in the USA. Their school was doing a hybrid option like most schools in the U.S. at the time. Theresa thinks her boys have done well with the hybrid situation and she attributes much of their success to the skills they transferred from being homeschooled. 

The boys’ school was not the only thing that worked out for them in the states. All of their other needs seemed to “fall into place” according to Theresa. 

In mid-March 2020, Chris had a job in finance and Theresa applied to work at a video relay service. On the same day she applied, they were able to close on a house. Chris later applied to work as a 911 dispatcher in Jan of 2021. Theresa was able to get the job as a VRS interpreter and was surprised to find out that Micah was also working there in the cubicle behind Theresa. 

Theresa and Micah first met in 2002 at a Bible College and had stayed distant Facebook friends ever since. Micah liked Theresa right off the bat because she was blunt and honest and no one needed to question where they stood with her. Micah recalls Theresa being a bit of a show off in college, and rightly so, because her interpreting skills were impressive. In school many of the interpreters tried to “out-interpret” each other, but Theresa genuinely wanted the new interpreters to succeed and she built the newcomers up. 

The second time they met was at a holiday tea party in the U.S. on December of 2017. Theresa seemed a bit nervous about something so Micah went and talked to her. She found out that Theresa wanted to homeschool her boys and they discussed homeschool options.

In 2018 the Millers had lived in Arizona and shortly after they went back to China in 2019. Micah said that “[Theresa is] honest because she cares about people, because of her upbringing she has a different worldview but she hasn’t let it stop her. And it actually encourages me to move forward and be better.”

They have been able to get together a few times since the Millers have been in the states. Micah laughed when remembering how they all slip into different languages together. Theresa might sign CSL with Chris but then ASL with Micah, and then switch between spoken and signed languages throughout the day. They hope to continue getting together in the future. 

Despite the circumstance, the decision to stay in the states was still “gut-wrenching” for the Millers. Theresa said that staying in the states was what was best for her boys. She thinks that the circumstance would play out much differently if she didn’t have children, but she wants to make sure her boys are comfortable and have friends. 

At the same time that they were settling into the U.S. Theresa had to bring her sister to detox and rehab. The rest of her family also went to her with their problems. Theresa had to make some boundaries to keep herself in a healthy position with them. She is still able to talk with one of her brothers and dad a lot. 

Theresa didn’t grow up in a situation that set her up for where she is today. Coming from a family of divorce, she lived with her mother, older sister, and two younger brothers while growing up. She didn’t think that she would amount to anything because of all the doubt she grew up carrying. 

Luckily, this isn’t the case. Her doubt didn’t debilitate her life. Theresa attributes her changed mindset to the people that believed in her and encouraged her. It was also seeing her mom and older sister’s mistakes and taking heed of their consequences. The last thing that Theresa thinks helped her was that Chris asked his mother to pray for his future wife, meaning Theresa, and that God followed through on those prayers. 

Future plans

Currently, the Millers are living in Minnesota. Theresa is trying to connect with a Chinese Deaf Program in St. Cloud, it takes deaf interns and teaches them American Sign language. Theresa wants to get involved with the program because of her understanding of the languages and culture of both China and America. 

She and her husband plan to continue living in the U.S. and still keep in contact with their friends and fellow missionaries in China. They want to return to China for short term mission trips once travel has reopened. They will also be able to visit and say a proper goodbye to the friends they left in China.