At the Mission Celebration ’09 gathering, people told little snippets — of Christians in the Middle East, in the birthplace of Christianity who now feel persecuted and under siege; of Latin American farmers faced with the up-close-and-personal impact of globalization; of the struggles of the spurned Roma minority in Europe, and more. The idea was to give small, on-the-ground glimpses of how Presbyterians are involved in God’s work around the world.
And here’s part of the back-story for that.
The PC(USA) is trying to raise more money to support world mission; it needs the financial support of people at the grassroots. And Presbyterians are busy in so many places, often working through their congregations and without paying much attention to the structure of the national denomination. Often they have pockets of knowledge, knowing what they have seen firsthand or what their congregation is doing, but may not be aware of what’s happening in other places or with other people.
That is changing, to some extent. Increasingly, Presbyterians are working together through more than 35 mission networks, which help to connect grassroots Presbyterians involved in mission in specific places — for example, in South Africa or Madagascar or Brazil. The denomination has just unveiled a new online social networking resource called Mission Crossroads, designed to offer a place for conversation and the sharing of ideas and best practices.
Questions also have been asked in recent years about fundraising for world mission and about what role the PC(USA)’s national staff should play in coordinating those grassroots efforts, about what kind of guidance is helpful and what feels too controlling.
“There clearly is a new direction for world mission,” said Don Dawson, who is director of the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and who chaired the planning team for World Mission Celebration ’09, a gathering of about 700 people held Oct. 22-24 in Cincinnati to showcase world mission, the second such gathering of its kind in recent years.
Dawson said he’d been praying “that our denomination might be more responsive,” and that funding would be found for more mission co-workers. Now, for the first time in more than 50 years, the PC(USA) is increasing the number of mission co-workers it supports overseas, from 190 in 2008 to 206 currently to a hoped-for 220 in 2010. With the increase coming during economic hard times, “that’s clearly a God thing,” Dawson told the conference.
Each of the main plenary sessions during the celebration featured stories of work in a single region: Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, or Asia. At the end of each session, the participants spent time in prayer for those regions. Here are a few of those tidbits of mission.
Guatemala. Dennis Smith, a mission co-worker in Guatemala, talked of historical separations and divisions that are built into the fabric of Latin American society — sometimes based on centuries of injustice. And he told of the dynamics of life there today, of farmers whose livelihoods depend on the seasons and the cycles of planting and harvest; and of giant agricultural interests planting fields of wheat and soybeans “larger than some small countries,” and whose involvement undercuts the prices the local farmers can get for their crops at market.
Unable to make a living in the rural areas, people move to the cities or cross borders, looking for some way to support their families. Despite these hardships, Smith said, many wake up each day and say, “thank you, God, for this day. Thank you for life.”
Middle East. In the Middle East, Christians face challenges “that sometimes seem insurmountable,” said Victor Makari, the PC(USA)’s regional liaison for that area. Those include religious discrimination, restrictions on worship and witness, political repression, military occupation, the movement of refugees fleeing conflict.
“Yes, it is the land that has produced three monotheistic religions,” said Mary Mikhael, president of the Near East School of Theology. “That did not produce much harmony.” It is called the Holy Land, but “that did not give it rest and political stability.”
The region’s history is full of contradictory experiences, she said — peace and conflict, trust and disagreement.
“What do we do?” Mikhael asked. “Keep silent? Emigrate? Sit at home and close our doors,” ignoring what’s happening outside? “We are called to work for peace and reconciliation,” through the hard work of building trust. “If we do not build the bridges, we are cut off from each other. If we do not build the trust, we live in fear.”
Working as the PC(USA)’s regional liaison for Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf region, Nuhad Tomeh has seen the impact of refugees fleeing from the war in Iraq after the American invasion and the persecution and killing of Iraqi Christians.
“Many people in the Middle East are wondering if God is still there or he left for another planet,” Tomeh said. “Or maybe he looks at us and says, ‘These people are hopeless.’ ”
But “God never left us. We left him,” Tomeh said. “People in the Middle East have lost hope and are fearful and worried about the future. … The people who carried the word of the resurrection to the world now need to be reassured of hope.”
Europe. Migration “remains a hot political, social and economic issue all across Europe,” said Julia Thorne, a lawyer who is manager of immigration issues for the PC(USA). And the reasons for this vast global migration are numerous including the economic meltdown; a relatively low birthrate in Europe, producing a need for labor; famine and war in many places.
“Some people are not safe in their home countries,” Thorne said. And the growing gap between rich and poor nations produces movement of people trying to move “from abject poverty to a sustainable existence,” she said.
But that migration also produces tensions. As she spoke, screens around the meeting room showed images of protests, arrests, and demonstrations. People fear the immigrants will take jobs away from native-born residents and stress the social service networks, Thorne said.
And, in the midst of this turmoil, churches often are called to do what they long have done: feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Colombia. Volunteers with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship go to Colombia to serve as accompaniers — to stand with Colombian Christians whose outspokenness or work on behalf of the poor and dispossessed puts them at risk of retaliation.
Diego Higuita, of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, told of one man, who had been forced to leave the land he had farmed, to give up his cows and his home, and who came to the city and now each day searches for fruit to sell to feed his family.
One Sunday, the man asked to speak in church. What he said, according to Higuita, was that “I want to give thanks to God. Because, even though they have taken everything away from me, they haven’t been able to pull Christ out of my heart.”
Pakistan. In 1972, the Pakistani government nationalized the schools leading to a particularly dark period for the formerly-Christian schools, and education of girls, while the numbers of madrasahs, or Islamic schools, greatly increased. About a decade ago, the government began relinquishing control of the schools – presenting a big challenge to the Presbyterian Education Board of Pakistan, according to its director, Veeda Javaid. What’s happened since then in the reopening of Christian schools “is a story of hope, trust and faith,” of persistence, courage, sacrifice, and prayer, she said. “We were thinking, `We can’t do it,’ ” but then God and the Presbyterian church said “yes, it can happen,” Javaid said.
The board operates schools and hostels for about 4,000 students, including both boys and girls. About 40 percent of the students are Christian and the rest Muslim, a real-life example of interfaith connection
Forman Christian College, which was nationalized in 1972 and returned to the Presbyterian church in 2003, also has come back to life. The college in Lahore, which Presbyterian missionaries established in 1864, was widely regarded as the best educational institution in the region, was seen as “the Oxford of the subcontinent, the Harvard of the subcontinent,” said its president, Peter Armacost.
When the government nationalized the college in 1972, there was no accountability. “We could give you horror stories of what took place on our campus during that period,” Armacost said.
After years of prayer and negotiation “and the intervening hand of God,” the government gave the college back to the Presbyterian church in 2003. And now, after a lot of hard work, Forman Christian College is trying to be a model for interfaith harmony — with Christians and Muslims working and studying side-by-side — and to educate students in the best of the liberal arts tradition, “how to think for themselves,” Armacost said.
For many students, the chance at an education can be transformative for themselves and their communities. Armacost told of students who, having graduated from Forman, now have good enough jobs that they can afford to send others from their families to college and to support their extended families. Forman has a long history of educating people who have risen to leadership in Pakistan, including presidents, prime ministers and other leaders of government and business.
“These are the future leaders of the Christian community of Pakistan,” Armacost said. “What happens there will have a lasting impact.”
Congo. Presbyterians have been involved in mission work in this part of Africa since the 1800s, although the shape and focus of that work has changed significantly over time, as have the political realities.
Currently, about 35 presbyteries have direct partnerships in Africa. And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, much of the PC(USA) work involves development – done in partnership with Congolese Christians and emphasizing four key principles: those being ownership, partnership, transformation and sustainability.
More than a dozen PC(USA) mission co-workers and national staff members helped explain this work, ranging from sewing projects to teach girls and women an income-generating craft to feeding centers for orphans and other children who otherwise might go hungry.
In these efforts, local Christian partners take the lead — generating ideas, planning the work, helping provide the resources, determining the needs. A literacy program teaches women to read and write. Agricultural development programs emphasize high-yield food commodities such as cowpeas and reforestation through planting palm seedlings – with financial support from Presbyterians in the U.S.
The projects are diverse, including income-generating projects from selling commodities, AIDS education, water purification, and much more.
“What mission does the church of today have for the world of today,” asked Mikhael, preaching during closing worship.
“The world has never been more in need of hope and healing than it is now. Can the church catch the spirit of Christ? Can it provide hope for the hopeless, bread for the hungry, dignity for the marginalized? Isn’t that what Jesus went around doing?”