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International partnerships offer ways to give — and receive

LOUISVILLE — Examples of grassroots mission partnerships can be found all over the world — some carefully planned, some springing up spontaneously. From looking at what’s happening in Latin America, Africa, and Asia — from the people she’s met, and from what she’s seen on the ground level — Miriam Adeney has some advice for congregations about how to form mission partnerships.

Adeney, an associate professor of World Christian Studies at Seattle Pacific University and a member of University Church in Seattle, was the keynote speaker at a recent gathering of the Association of Presbyterian Mission Promoters (formerly the Association of Presbyterian Mission Pastors – a sign of how that organization has changed and broadened). This is an organization of Presbyterians committed to global mission, many of them from larger congregations with a track record of international work, with experience from Mexico to Mongolia.

Adeney taught the mission group through story and example.

She talked about Rose, a Nigerian woman whose father died and who, in the process of trying to help her mother, became aware of the difficulties many widows in Africa face in trying to support themselves, sometimes turning to prostitution out of desperation. Rose collected her resources and found places for a few widows to live. Then she approached a local businessman for help, telling him: “Sir, I believe it is your turn” to help. One by one she approached more people, pleading and persuading, over time mobilizing assistance for more than one thousand widows.

Local people “can liberate a lot of resources if they are affirmed and encouraged to do so” – even those working with the humblest of means, Adeney said.

She told of a mother from Bangladesh who wanted her five children to go to school, but who had no money for uniforms or books. The woman heard of a program, run by a parachurch group from Seattle, which offers microfinance loans to women who want to start businesses. The woman asked for a small loan to buy two cows – knowing that many people in her community did not have an affordable source of milk. She sold the milk the cows produced. She repaid the loan, got another loan, and over time built her herd up to 10 cows and 10 calves. All of her children are now in school.

“This is a simple example of microfinancing, which is one of the greatest elements in community development around the world today,” Adeney said.

By telling such stories, Adeney laid a foundation for describing the ways in which congregations can successfully get involved in mission partnerships.

She spoke about three priorities in international mission: maturing the believers; serving the needy through charity, development, and advocacy; and witnessing and spreading the gospel.

“If people are bleeding from injuries or dying from thirst, charity is the call” – that’s not the time for a small-business seminar, Adeney said.

But those who want to help should also bear in mind that “there is enough food in the world to feed everyone adequately,” and that globally, obesity is more common than malnutrition. The deeper problem, she said, is an inadequate distribution of resources, and addressing that requires advocacy. “Advocacy confronts the structures, political, economic, social – the systems that perpetuate inequity,” Adeney said.

She also spoke of the importance of working with indigenous leaders and spending the time to understand their lives and culture. What are the economic realities of the region – how do the people get food and money; who do they borrow from and lend to; what’s the role of women in the economy? Those are the kinds of questions Presbyterians need to understand in order to build effective partnerships, she said.

And Adeney stressed the importance of Christian groups witnessing to their faith. Other groups can get involved in development and advocacy, “but only we can bring the good news that God has come close to us in Jesus,” she said. “There is nothing more important than telling this story.”

During one part of the meeting, participants told of their most problematic and most pleasurable mission experiences. They talked of not fully understanding the power structure of a partner church; of American donors “with terrible disregard for the people on the ground;” of the joy of a well-planned, long-term partnership built on support and encouragement.

Amgad Beblawi is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s new coordinator for the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia, replacing Victor Makari, who recently retired. Beblawi said he hopes the denomination’s Worldwide Ministries staff can serve as “global connectors,” linking Presbyterians involved internationally, from presbyteries and congregations to ministry networks.

Sometimes, the PC(USA)’s international partners ask “Why aren’t all these groups connected, and why isn’t there one vision, one mission?” Beblawi told the gathering. “Why don’t they talk together?” He wants to provide those points of connection, “so the mission of God is one and we reduce the confusion.”

Hunter Farrell, director of Worldwide Ministries for the PC(USA), said the denominational partners have raised three critical issues they want the PC(USA) to consider.

First, how can American Christians begin to address the root causes of poverty, particularly as it affects women and children?

Second, how can American Presbyterians share the gospel message effectively and faithfully? Some are learning about that, Farrell said, through the example of Christians in Asia and Africa.

And third, how can reconciliation be achieved in cultures where there’s violence, including in the United States?

Both Farrell and Adeney spoke of the importance of building relationships – of taking the time and the care to understand local dynamics, as opposed to the popular short-term trips many congregations prefer.

“Unleashed short-term missions can run wild and trample everything,” Adeney said. “Let me be frank. Short-term missions do not necessarily fulfill any of these priorities except the most superficial kind of charity.”

Adeney talked of the lessons that American churches can learn from the Christian experiences – in places such as China and Africa.

She also spoke of the experience of reconciliation in Rwanda, where local leaders have organized healing and reconciliation workshops for the victims of rape and violence.

The survivors tell what has happened to them, what they have seen and lost — women like Ruth, whose husband, child, and parents were killed in the attacks; who was herded into a camp and raped so many times she lost count; who became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. Later she married and had another child, then discovered she had AIDS. When she went to the market to buy food, Ruth would routinely see men from the camps who had raped her.

Along with stories like those, the survivors would write down memories of nobility and courage. They nailed their stories of suffering to a cross, took them outside, tore off those papers and burned them. They began to worship, with leaders kneeling in symbolic repentance for the wrongs committed. Worship ended with words from John’s Gospel: The light shines into the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Adeney also made it clear that a big budget is not essential for Presbyterians to become involved in international mission.

Some of her ideas are simple – even small congregations with limited resources can use them.

Some suggestions:

»Ask high school and college students what they’re studying in school or learning on their own involving global issues – like war, peace, trade, disease, and access to water. Listen to what they say and pray.

»Challenge church members to pray for at least one item in the international news every week. Talk about what countries and issues they prayed for, and why.

»Look for ways to build connections with immigrants living in your community. Adeney told of how a senior citizen and his wife made friends one day with a single Iranian mom who had taken her son to a local playground. When the boy got the chickenpox, the wife offered to babysit at no charge so the mother could go to work. The couple invited the woman to church, where people offered to work with her to improve her English.

Adeney’s advice to those who want to build such relationships: “Be friends, be consistent, and be themselves.”

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