Missionary daughter Kelly Johnson demonstrates a dance from Tokelau in the Polynesian Islands. W. Evan Golder photo.
As the impact of the United States on persons around the world has changed in the last few years, particularly since September 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, so too has the climate in which missionaries from U.S. churches minister overseas.
"Others are now more aware than ever of the awesome responsibility of the United States toward the rest of the world, and the awesome power of the United States to wreak weal or woe," the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President, told 184 mission enthusiasts gathered for MissionWorks Too, held Oct. 14-16, at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland.
"Americans are now perceived as a dangerous people," he said.
The conference, sponsored by Global Ministries and the Fellowship of Continuing Understanding and Support (FOCUS), a voluntary support group of Global Ministries, attracted missionaries, their supporters, staff and seminarians.
Courage, not fear
The gathering's offerings reflected the new global reality. One panel discussion was called "Serving God in Dangerous Places;" another, "Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear." "A few years ago, Global Ministries had six missionaries in Nepal and two in India," said the Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss, just returned from serving with the Church of South India. "Today those numbers are reversed."
"Turkey is a beautiful country with warm and hospitable people," said Dee Keller, who served for decades with her husband at the Near East Mission in Istanbul. "Yet Turkey is on the edge of danger. Just look at its neighboring countries." She added that Global Ministries has tremendous opportunities to work for peace and help Turkey.
Among the speakers, Marla Schrader and her family in Palestine had lived in the most dangerous situation, facing the daily possibility of being shot by snipers, assaulted by tanks or strafed by helicopters.
"But whatever dangers we faced," she told the group, "it was never, ever as dangerous for us as it was for the Palestinians who lived there." "A bigger danger," she said, "would be if we were not there, not present, not involved. We cannot let systems of oppression separate us. We just cannot let this happen. It is too dangerous not to do it."
ÔMuch needed sign of hope'
In greetings read from the Rev. David Vargas, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Division of Overseas Ministry and co-executive of Global Ministries, he called this meeting "a much needed sign of hope and encouragement."
His co-executive, Olivia Masih White, executive minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries and herself a product of Christian mission in India, referred to her previous career as a geneticist. "You are the DNA of mission, the core of our future," she told the group. "Without you, we cannot do global ministry."
Executives of Global Ministries' six geographical regions each presented perspectives on global issues.
The Rev. Xiaoling Zhu, for example, showed a dramatic documentary from China, where thousands of poor villagers in rural areas sell their own blood to blood banks in order to feed and clothe their families. In turn, however, they often contract HIV/AIDS.
The Rev. Felix Ortiz explained that Haiti is a dangerous place, not because the people are evil but because Haiti has been exploited, divided, isolated and invaded.
Become more involved
One purpose of the meeting was to encourage both individuals and local churches to become more involved in global ministry. For example, congregations intentionally can become a "Global Mission Church" and partner with Global Ministries to gain greater appreciation and understanding of the Christian faith's global context.
Many of the workshops and displays helped to acquaint participants with the many facets of Global Ministries, from child sponsorship to planned giving, from micro-credit to people-to-people pilgrimages, to becoming volunteers or missionaries themselves.
Since 1995, the overseas mission programs of the UCC and the Disciples have worked together in a Common Global Ministries Board. Today, Global Ministries has 166 missionaries in 40 countries, including full-time missionaries, volunteers, interns and overseas associates.
For many participants of the conference, meeting and talking with missionaries was a high point of the event.
"I had thought [missionaries] focused more on evangelism," said Vy Nguyen, a Disciples student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, "but I'm glad to hear that we focus more on the work. Through our work, people see our hearts and our faith, and that's powerful."
"The global ministry workshop really gave me tools and direct access to resources I probably will use," said Gretchen Nace Forbes of Community UCC in Durham, N.H. "I'm a practical kind of person."
"I was pleased to learn how people are doing mission work in different places in the world in spite of problems," said Dorothy Gist of St. Albans Congregational UCC in Queens, N.Y. "Being here is just a high!"
The next MissionWorks is being planned for October 2006.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.
Put yourself in "FOCUS" by joining Global Ministries' Fellowship of Continuing Understanding and Support by sending a check for $15 (annual membership) or $200 (life membership) to FOCUS/WCM, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115-1100.
For mission resources and ideas, including how to become a Global Mission Church, contact Wider Church Ministries' office for mission education and interpretation at 216-736-3209 or firstname.lastname@example.org.