Anthony Gittins describes a missionary experience as a passing over and coming back in his book Ministry at the Margins. He says that this is “the greatest religious adventure of our time”. Many churches have mission teams that have spent months planning and preparing for their mission trip. Some of these were spring break mission trips that canceled at the last minute. Some of these are planned for the summer and are on hold, waiting to see how the COVID19 pandemic plays out, waiting to decide if it will be safe to proceed or prudent to reschedule. Lots of people were expectantly waiting to go on their mission trip, hoping that it would be one of those great religious adventures, where they would step away from their usual routines, spend extra time in prayer and worship, meet new friends, offer a helping hand in some way, and then return home to consider all they had experienced.
A Strange New Experience
Instead, we are all experiencing something unanticipated. People are working from home, students are learning from home, teachers are learning how to connect with their students from their homes, pastors are learning how to connect with their congregations via videoconferencing and livestreams, everyone is having to adapt to keeping physical distance from friends and neighbors. All of this is a strange new experience.
One of the things that Anthony Gittins points out is that the missionary adventure does not necessarily require travel. He says that “in the postmodern words, every city is multicultural and every neighborhood is surrounded by invisible barriers separating prosperity from poverty. Anyone who want to can encounter poor or needy people; anyone who chooses to can pass over and come back.” This is true for ordinary circumstances and most short-term mission volunteers I’ve met also do mission work in their neighborhoods and cities. However, even that kind of work has been impacted by state and county orders to stay at home, with only essential services and businesses exempted.
In western North Carolina there are a number of churches that offer free meals once a week. These are called “Welcome Table” or “Open Table” meals. Volunteer staffers prepare and serve a meal, anyone can come in and sit around a table to share a hot meal and fellowship. Even these ministries have been suspended because of COVID19. Manna Food Bank, our area agency, has continued to provide produce and food distribution services. I know of several other community outreach agencies that are also finding ways to provide food to anyone who needs it. All of these agencies have seen a decrease in volunteers and have had to adapt quickly to keeping those who can continue volunteering safe. The adventure has shifted from meeting and helping our neighbors to trying to keep everyone safe from unseen germs.
Stilled Hands and Feet
Perhaps the religious adventure that we are experiencing is how to be the body of Christ when we must be separate from each other. People of faith who are active in short-term mission or volunteering in their local community have told me that they do so because they understand themselves to be part of the body of Christ, living out faith with their hands and feet. It is disorienting to suddenly have that essential aspect of your faith brought to a halt. It means that we have to think deeply about how we understand what it means to be the church, what it means to be the body of Christ. It means we must rely more deeply on our spiritual practices of prayer and study.
In the late 1800s as men and women signed up for missionary work, they always began with prayer and study. Their commitment was to a life in mission service, and many knew that they might not ever return home. These missionaries had to be firmly grounded in prayer and study before they left because the journey and the work were difficult and long. Short-term missionaries have had the relative ease of being able to quickly return home from their mission work. A critique of short-term mission is that often volunteers are using the experience itself for their spiritual growth. Perhaps in this moment of staying at home, we as short-term mission volunteers can focus on our spiritual growth in understanding God’s mission. Perhaps our religious adventure is learning how to be still and listen for the voice of God active in the world. Perhaps we will learn how to use our stilled hands and feet in prayer, challenged to not pass over and come back in person, yet still encounter God and our neighbor and learn to love them both more deeply.
Quotes from page five in Ministry at the Margins: Strategy and Spirituality for Mission by Anthony J. Gittins, Published by Orbis Books, 2002.