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Called on a mission: UM teams strengthen global ties Bill Fentum, Aug 21, 2009
PHOTO BY CHRIS PORTER
Kids from the Child Rescue Center in Bo, Sierra Leone, gather around the Rev. Tom Berlin (center), a United Methodist pastor from Herndon, Va.
By Bill Fentum Staff Writer
The Rev. Tom Berlin, a United Methodist pastor from Virginia, stood in a hospital room in Sierra Leone last May and watched a man writhe in pain from a deep leg wound.
But he saw God at work when Jessica Mills, a newly baptized member of his home congregation who is also a physician’s assistant, quickly used her expertise to change the dressing on the wound.
“I felt God calling me to go,” said Ms. Mills, of her decision to participate in that spring mission trip to Bo, Sierra Leone, with other members of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Va.
She and her pastor are among the estimated 125,000 United Methodists who travel each year on short-term missions through the denomination’s Volunteers in Mission (VIM) program, serving on medical and construction teams from their local churches or regional conferences.
The trips last only a week or two, but the story doesn’t have to end there. Floris UMC, for example, sends half a dozen teams a year to Bo, Sierra Leone, where they have joined with other U.S. churches to help build the hospital and a rescue center for orphaned children.
“We’re in ministry with people, instead of to people,” said Mr. Berlin, who also keeps in weekly contact via e-mail with partners in the Sierra Leone Conference. “Some of our parishioners have been to the center and hospital enough that they know the names of all the kids and staff. So when we go, it’s like visiting old friends.”
Veteran team members also help to train first-timers. Floris UMC hosts three workshops before each trip to get new volunteers ready for life in Sierra Leone, where some 50,000 people were killed during a civil war from 1991 to 2002.
“Some of the children have very painful memories,” said Mr. Berlin, “and even today they live with AIDS and endemic poverty. All those things affect the kids.”
But the trips, he added, never fail to renew his spirit. A typical worship service in Bo lasts four hours—full of heartfelt preaching, song, dance and multiple offerings. “For all the suffering, they know and rely on the love God has for us,” Mr. Berlin said. “It’s done a lot to strengthen my own faith over the years.”
Floris UMC member Aldo Gonzalez draws the same joy from visits to Cuba, his native country. Raised a Methodist, he fled to the U.S. in 1962 to escape persecution under the Castro government. After some of the limits on Cuban religious activity were lifted in the 1990s, he began leading mission teams to help old friends restore their church buildings.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for me to go back, but a missionary I had known while growing up said she felt I’d be the perfect liaison between the two shores,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who now serves as VIM coordinator for work in Cuba.
The autonomous Methodist Church in Cuba has since grown from 2,000 members to more than 25,000. Work is almost finished on a Methodist seminary in Havana, built with the help of teams from several U.S. conferences.
VIM teams have also delivered gifts of medicine, clothes and money, keeping ministries alive in years when U.S. embargos prevented the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) from sending funds directly to Cuba.
Most of all, Mr. Gonzalez believes, the teams build relationships.
“In 1996,” he said, “the 10-year-old daughter of one our hosts was upset that her dad would allow Americans to stay in their home. Cuban schools had taught her to fear us, but now she’s a woman with children of her own, and she’s like a daughter to me. Our work changes lives.”
Mission volunteers pay at least $2,000 out of their pockets for overseas trips, so many church teams travel closer to home.
Sixteen people from Faith UMC in Humboldt, Iowa, drove across state this summer to help rebuild houses in Oakville, a rural Iowa town flooded by record storms in June 2008. They served alongside teams from other states—painting, hanging sheet rock or simply lifting the spirits of those in need.
“I don’t have a ton of work skills, myself,” said Denise Hartford, a Faith UMC member who has organized several trips, enlisting professional builders in the congregation. “But people tell us that just having someone there gives them hope that things will be better.” Ms. Hartford keeps in touch with disaster response coordinators in the Iowa Conference, who let her know where teams from Faith UMC are needed the most.
Many other churches across the country plan trips on their own or through non-denominational agencies, but VIM leaders say that isn’t a wise approach.
“Those teams go without guidance, training or a sense of being connected to the larger church,” said the Rev. Clinton Rabb, director of mission volunteers for GBGM. “And often, they get to the sites and learn that everything costs twice as much as they were told. A lot of things can go wrong, if there isn’t enough communication.”
Mission opportunities for youth, most popular during summer months, serve almost as rites of passage in some congregations. Bryan Orchard, youth director at Gray UMC in Gray, Tenn., led a team of 22 junior high students in June to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, aware that some of the kids had never been out-of-state in their lives.
Some were a little fearful about the weeklong trip. So Mr. Orchard led morning devotionals at their host church in D’Iberville, Miss., assuring them “that God, through his spirit, allows you to live a life without fear.”
Each day they helped contractors at homes still damaged from Hurricane Katrina, and spent evenings in worship and games with another team from Coral Springs UMC in southern Florida.
“It gave the kids a vision,” said Mr. Orchard, “that there’s a great need for the body of Christ to come together in mission, and they have something to bring to the table. That was a big deal for them.”
Mission Discovery, a program launched in 1992 in the North Central Jurisdiction, sends United Methodists ages 16-26 on summer trips overseas. They partner in mission with young people in the host countries, building friendships that bridge cultural gaps.
The Rev. Matt McClung, pastor of Chapel UMC in Madison, Ohio, led a Mission Discovery trip in August to Costa Rica. The team of U.S. and Costa Rican participants laid the foundation for a new Methodist church sanctuary, and gathered together for a class on mission leadership.
“For me, personally, it helps to open my eyes to the fact that there are other Methodists out there besides those here in the U.S.,” said Mr. McClung, who has led 18 VIM teams to Costa Rica since 1999.
Visiting teams shouldn’t assume they have all the answers for a community. One construction project in Costa Rica failed because volunteers ignored the need for extra ventilation in the country’s humid climate.
“If people have a particular way that they want a building to work, we need to listen,” said the Rev. Larry Norman, VIM director for the Louisiana Conference. “We go there to do what they need us to do, the way they need us to do it.”
Local volunteer coordinators can make a difference, too, hosting orientation sessions for new teams and seeking long-term ties with the churches that send them.
“It’s easy for both sides to hold onto cultural barriers, if they focus all their energies on the work at hand and don’t take time to talk to each other,” said Mr. Rabb at GBGM, who urges U.S. churches to commit to three-year partnerships in several overseas conferences.
“Then we get past the ‘They’re just like us’ or ‘They’re nothing like us’ phase,” he said, “to a place where we’re working together to bear fruit for years to come.”