30 years of World Mission: An interview with Hunter Farrell

Hunter Farrell, who has served as director of World Mission for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) since 2007, has announced that he is leaving that position as of Oct. 14 to discern another call. Farrell, 58, had a conversation with the Outlook’s national reporter, Leslie Scanlon, to share some of what he’s learned in his 30 years in international mission work, and talk about what’s next. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Q: How did you decide to leave World Mission, and what do you see ahead for you

Hunter Farrell presents information on World Mission at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting Sept. 16
Hunter Farrell presents information on World Mission at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting Sept. 16

A: “A couple of years ago I told Linda Valentine (the former executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency) that I was open to the next call. When I took the job in 2007 I came from mission work in Peru, we’d been there for 10 years, and was willing to provide some leadership to World Mission at what felt like a critical time. I saw it as doing a term of mission service back in Louisville. She said, ‘How about two [terms]?’ I said OK. So we were thinking about eight years. As that time came closer I thought I’ve been able to do what I think I do best, and I think World Mission has been able to make a turn around a corner that it needed to. Now it’s engaging more deeply with more congregations. That was the goal – that was the focus. … I’m kind of a proponent of terms of office for national leadership. So I think it’s a good time for me to step out and let the next generation come in.

“One of the big challenges to World Mission is to lead in a way that engages the next generation in global mission. I think there are other folks more qualified than I to do that, so now’s a good time to step aside. For me personally, I’ve been really hungering to engage the next generation in thinking together about global mission. I see millennials as very focused on specific global issues that impact all of our lives and draw us together as a global family. I think the church needs to step up and show how we’re engaging in those global issues with our partners around the world. It’s a good time to work at a college or seminary and look for ways to connect young adults with what God’s doing in the world.”

Q: What are some of the issues that you see young adults particularly wanting to be concerned with?

A: “There’s probably a long list and it’s probably varied across a very diverse generation. We can’t put any generation in a box. But I do hear consistently a deep concern for global poverty. People feel that our economies and our global economic structure as it’s set up condemns the majority of people in the world to poverty, and there’s got to be a better way to do that. So there’s some energy among particularly young adults and also 70- and 80-year-olds in the Presbyterian Church, too – a deep concern for what is it that makes people poor, how do we identify and address the root causes of poverty? That’s a critical issue for folks.

“I also see increasing concern for human trafficking. It is an issue that ties us together – it’s Main Street U.S.A. in every town in this country, with a whole global trade in human beings. It really has grabbed people’s attention. They see the global-local connections, which is not something that my generation has been able to perceive as readily. Presbyterian Women has always been there; they see those connections naturally. I think the church as a whole has been a bit slower.”

Q: What do you see as the role of local congregations in World Mission?

A: “I would say congregations play the primary role in global mission for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). A number of our presbyteries have developed some real expertise in engaging congregations and supporting congregations in global mission … . So it’s opened a great door, and that’s a movement of the Spirit. I think the challenge to us now, the flip side, is being able to coordinate, work in strategic ways, to be more effective, more faithful in mission. Because one of the things Presbyterians did so well in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s is we built institutions that lasted. Those institutions together healed, brought to faith and educated literally tens of millions of people around the world. It’s just monumental, the legacy to which we are heirs.

“The challenge to us now is it’s not about institution building. I think it’s about networking, I think it’s about connecting the gifts and skills of each member into flexible, nimble networks that can identify and respond to needs around the world with a lot of sensitivity working with global partners. That’s the challenge now. It’s the connecting – because we’re in an increasingly individualistic culture which makes us think we can do it all ourselves, and in fact you can go and you can package meals for Stop Hunger Now as they do at different events around the church, but you can’t address the root causes of poverty [through that]. It’s difficult even to have a deep conversation with partners, because in general, congregations don’t speak the language or know the culture of a particular place. We need each other to be effective if we’re going to address the root causes.”

Q What are some of the challenges in working with global partners?

A: “There are two primary barriers, two massive barriers, to our engaging effectively with global partners. The first is, they are different. They don’t think like us, they have different experiences, they speak a different language, they come from different cultural traditions. And we consistently as North Americans in our own ethnocentricity, we consistently underestimate the power of cultural difference. It can shut down conversations. We never know it. Our partners go on radio silence and we think they’ve assented to our wonderful project idea. So we move on, and then we’re disappointed a year and a half later when they consistently don’t meet our expectations. And in fact we just underestimated once more the significant cultural distance between us. So I see distance that we just totally underestimate as the first barrier.

“The second barrier is we’re convinced that our way is the right way. In social sciences, they talk about an evolutionary anthropology. You assume that everybody’s on the same road. Some day they’ll get to where we are. There’s one road toward human development. And increasingly, we’re aware that that’s simply not the case. People can live in God’s shalom in lots of different ways, and it doesn’t have to be in the way that our country has built itself. With increasing questions arising in our own society, people asking questions of governability of our own system for the first time in my lifetime, I think we’re recognizing that this model may not be perfect for us or for the rest of the world. It opens up a space for us to reconsider what are other ways that people get things done? How are people healed in other medical traditions? How are people educated in other educational systems? How do people make peace in other cultural traditions?”

Q: That really stresses the importance of relationship in doing this work, right?

A: It’s also a matter of asking. I think there are people in our churches – we’ve got new immigrants who come from hundreds of cultures around the world. Last weekend I was with the Congo Mission Network and the 125th anniversary of the American Presbyterian Congo mission. There were 200 people in the room, all gathered to celebrate what God has done through the Presbyterian Church in the Congo. There are two million Presbyterians in the Congo today. And also to ask deeper questions of how do we work together at a time when it feels like, politically, both the Congo and the U.S. are fraying and our political systems are coming apart. So those common spaces – it doesn’t have to mean someone has spent 40 years in a culture, speaks the language fluently, has a Ph.D. in anthropology. What I do think it means is people have to know to ask a question, to be open to the insights of the other, and to choose to sit at the table where they can ask questions and be informed. That wouldn’t work for us; here’s how we would do it. Those are powerful questions we don’t often ask.”

Q: Are there common themes in the kinds of things global partners are asking for? You have said leadership development is among the top requests from partner churches.

A: Since the 1990s, “we consistently hear from partners that the number one request is for leader training. That takes many forms. It’s not merely theological education or the training of pastors or church leaders. It’s broader than that. It’s providing leadership training for traditional birth attendants, midwives; evangelists; teachers and principals.”

Q: Are there other common denominators – big themes you hear from global partners?

img_8302smallA: “It sounds odd to the North American ear, from our secular understanding, where we separate out the sacred from the secular. Our global partners, pretty much across the board, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, want us to be working with them in a way that’s holistic, that responds to the needs not only of the body, if it’s health work, but also the spirit. So one of the areas we’ve moved into in Presbyterian World Mission is called the CHE program, Community Health Evangelism. And it’s what you and I would have called 20 years ago community organizing. It admits the spiritual into that realm. … It allows that element, which is often lacking in community organizing efforts, it allows the spirit into the room. That is a game changer. As people then connect at a deeper, heart level, they give themselves the whole commitment to the particular village-centered project. …

“Our partners, for whom the spiritual is present in all things, kind of scratched their heads and could never quite understand why we at the Presbyterian Church were speaking this secularized language as we looked into health work and education work. … Our partners were saying ‘Please join us, as we see where God is leading us.’… One church leader in Peru said, ‘Sometimes you Presbyterians work like you’re from the United Way. We want you to be a church of Jesus Christ.’”

Q: What are some of the challenges of doing mission work in places where Christianity is not the predominant faith tradition?

A: “I think we are really helped by some of the important work that was done in the generations before us, because our ancestors were deeply concerned about working in respectful ways. We waited a long time before we went to Latin America, because we believed that Catholics are Christians and therefore we need to respect that faith. We looked at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and worked in the early years to try to work with the church and support it, rather than begin another church in Ethiopia. The “Turn to the Living God” paper that the 199 assembly approved – it speaks of three concepts that I think have been present in Presbyterian mission work as we think about sharing faith, as we think about the work of evangelism. And it was the call and the requirement to share faith openly, honestly and respectfully. Those three adverbs are critical and enabled me as a young adult to look at Presbyterian mission work and say ‘this is something I can give my life to,’ because there was a deep concern for global language and culture.

“Today, I’m thinking specifically of the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, places where religious difference has been exacerbated for political gain by different groups across those regions. And in that very contested, conflicted space, I think it becomes even more important – I’m seeing our mission workers finding a greater space from which to speak, because (people) see them as representatives of a church that is not out to impose faith, to convert people to a certain way of Western Christianity or way of living as Western Christians, but rather be there to support local communities in their struggles.

“Right now, the levels of trust shown to us by the governments of Egypt, Iraq and Indonesia is simply unprecedented in our history. It’s a long obedience in the same direction, I think was Eugene Peterson’s title of his commentary on the Psalms. That’s the legacy of Presbyterians engaged in mission. We’re helped by our secular background. We have to be very careful – we can’t be about imposing faith on others. That’s a gift from God for us. But even generations back, our ancestors were very sensitive about issues of difference in language and culture and religious tradition. I love that about our tradition. I think it’s going to be also a great point of connection with the next generations. Younger folks can look at Presbyterians’ way of engaging globally and say, ‘Hey, I’m in. That works for me.’”

Q: What is the impact for Christians in the Middle East or other places in which Christians are in the minority of having a sense of connection with the PC(USA)?

A: “Our partnership with Christians in the Middle East and many places in South Asia has never been more important. Our partners in those countries are besieged as never before. The outmigration in the Middle East among Christians is unprecedented in the last 80 years. We see levels of suspicion, violence and conflict that we haven’t seen in the last century. These are deeply troubling times for partners, and more than ever, they want to develop deeper relationships with Presbyterian congregations and mid councils. This is the time they say for us to stand together.”

Farrell met recently with an international peacemaker from Colombia, Luis Fernando SanMiguel, and they discussed the peace accords that “were 50 years in the making. That’s half a century of work. And the Presbyterian Church every step of the way has been supporting the Presbyterian Church of Colombia to work for peace. We’ve sent hundreds of Presbyterians who’ve been part of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s accompaniment program. We’ve have developed a relationship where when we pick up the phone in Bogota – one of our mission co-workers calls the U.S. embassy, there is immediate action. … It just shows a legacy of the power of partnership when we’re working together. I covet that for us as we work together, rather than a fragmented denomination that seems to more and more the case.”

 Q: How are the fundraising efforts going? What can congregations and Presbyterians to do to help? 

A: “Last year, Presbyterians gave more to support World Mission’s projects, mission workers and partners than any year in the last decade. I think this shows that Presbyterian congregations understand that World Mission helps them do globally what they can’t do by themselves. So we thank God for this great news!

“At the same, World Mission revenue from unrestricted funding (Shared Mission Support) and from previous generations of Presbyterians (from endowments and bequests) continue to shrink rapidly. It used to be that Presbyterians supported World Mission by contributing to the general offering. That’s no longer the case. If Presbyterians want to further the legacy of our church’s highly-acclaimed global mission program, the need to give directly to our work.

“I would encourage our nearly 2,000 supporting congregations to continue their support of our vital work – and I’d challenge our other congregations to consider tithing their international mission budget to support World Mission’s work. And for people of my generation, who have heard the stories of transformed lives shared by our mission workers over the years to consider including World Mission in their will. Presbyterians want this life-giving work to continue – but they’ll need to step up and give so that it can.”

Q: What impact has the PC(USA)’s decisions to allow its clergy to perform same-gender marriages and to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians who are in relationships had on had on our connections with global partners? There were concerns when the PC(USA) made those decisions that they might hurt relationships with global partners. How has that played out?

A: “When the decisions were being made … we did a survey, kind of an informal assessment to see what we anticipated the impact would be. And by God’s grace, the public statements, the public breaking of relationship, has been less than we had anticipated. So we’re thankful for that. The way that the General Assembly chose to address the need to provide for a recognized place of ministry for LGBTQ folks opened a space for global partners who have theological concerns about our position to continue in relationship with us. The assembly didn’t vote to affirm LGBTQ ordination but we opened the door to that and changed the way we assessed candidates for ministry. That allowed partners in this time of change, when many partners in their own society are undergoing massive change in their thinking about these issues, it gave them some time to reflect in deep ways and several partners have expressed to us that our stance has enabled them to get the issue on the table so they can discuss it, because it’s been something they’ve needed to discuss increasingly over the years, but didn’t have a space culturally in their own church language. So this has opened the church for them.

“We’ve lost relationships with four churches,” those being the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico; the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil; the Presbyterian Church of India, which wasn’t technically a partner church; and the Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelical Church in Peru. “We have struggled with that. That represents a break for us with part of the body of Christ. And at the same time, all four churches have expressed that they are holding us in prayer and look forward to the day when we can come back together in relationship.”

Q: How does the PC(USA) balance respecting global partners and their ways of doing things, their own contexts and their own theology, while also advocating for the full range of voices to be heard, including indigenous people and women?

A: “I had a personal experience, when I was working with a church in Africa. I was working as the coordinator for East and West Africa in the ‘90s, and consistently, to the requests for help in leader development, the candidates consistently came from one ethnic group in that country. And there were five major ethnic groups that the Presbyterian church in that place encompasses. And so I had spent some time in the Congo and I asked the question, ‘So are there folks from other groups, are there women, are there young people who also might be helped with leader training? Can we think about that?’ It was a very short conversation. They were interested in just this particular group. I was helped by a Presbyterian church that backed me up to say, ‘We understand partnership more broadly than that. I would describe that as an inclusive partnership which recognizes there is diversity, and if you’re not seeing women, if you’re not seeing young adults, if you’re not seeing folks from different racial ethnic groups in different cultural contexts, you’re not seeing the whole picture.’

“With our own decentralization of mission,” with the focus shifting from the national church to congregations, “it also opens up a deeper awareness for us that our partners also, whereas they may be centralized in structure, the spirit is moving through their congregations. … There’s a congregational twinning program in Russia. We’ve got lots of pairs of congregations in presbyteries. And it just shows the diversity of actors there. I don’t think we would still be working in Guatemala if we hadn’t pushed our way – gently pushed our way into an inclusive partnership with women’s groups and indigenous groups in that context. That’s been critical. I love that about our church, that’s been a part of our DNA all along. But increasingly, we find that with the decentralization of mission it’s become even more important.”

Q: Tell us a little about how you first got into mission as a young man. How did you get started with World Mission?

A: “I grew up in Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas. I left my church at about age 16 because I was frustrated that the church wasn’t more deeply connected with the community and with the world. It felt more like a social club than what I understood the church to be. And I say that with a little embarrassment, some pride but some embarrassment, and maybe the recognition that maybe not all 16-year-olds are as self-righteous as I was. So I walked out the door and I didn’t go back to church. I didn’t attend church through my university years, until I was in my early 20s, living up in Washington, D.C. One of the pastors from Highland Park church, Walt Shepard, encouraged me, [saying], ‘I get that you’ve given up on the church in North America. I understand that. Why don’t you try the church in Africa to see what it’s like?’

“He encouraged me to apply as a Volunteer in Mission in 1981. I went to the Republic of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). There was a couple who were teaching at Fuller Seminary when I went there in the ‘80s who described this sociological phenomenon that happens to some people as they cross over into a new culture. It happened to me. I didn’t have the words for it or the sociological theory behind it, but I really in that year as a volunteer – I was single; Ruth and I were engaged, she was continuing her work with a senator back in Washington. I really fell into the arms of our Congolese partners. I didn’t have what it took to make sense of a very different environment. I didn’t speak the language. And they really just received me. That was such a deep connection that I can say it has impacted who I am, the way that I work, the way I see the world. I read headlines, and there is a part of me that is Congolese, that is reading these headlines from below, reading it as folks who would be in the U.S. political discourse cast to the margins. There is a crossing over that can happen. … It’s like you’re born again in a new culture. You see the wisdom leaders in that place, the opinion leaders, as people who give you wisdom and knowledge. It was a seminal experience that year. It really has colored who I am.

“I think the years of working in Congo,” where he worked for five years, and then as the PC(USA)’s coordinator for East and West Africa for seven years in the 1990s, “that was helpful to learn more about how congregations thought, how presbyteries were organized for mission. … We started the first mission network,” the Sudan mission network in 1994. “It was out of a need. We saw that things were becoming fragmented. There was horrendous duplication, lack of communication, lack of coordination,” with the decentralization of mission. “There was no ability to share best practices. So three presbyteries and a number of congregations came together for that first mission network meeting. … The war was going on [in Sudan] and it was just a desperate situation. … It wasn’t baptized by the General Assembly. It just existed, as networks do. They are informal. There’s a remarkable ability to be nimble and quick and share information and engage at the grassroots level with a lot of energy.”

He then served a decade in Peru. “As a family in mission, that was a really important time for us. We grew together as a family, we adopted three children in those years. Those were the years we grew together as a unit. It gave to us the gift of closeness. … That’s a gift of those years in Peru that I’m really grateful for.”

For him, the seminal experience in the Peruvian years “was the time working with a community group that was trying to reduce the lead poisoning that affected 8,000 kids in the town of La Oroya in the highlands of Peru. That was an opportunity for me to understand what Presbyterians, when we’re at our best, when we’re working collegially and collaboratively, what we can do with global partners, with ecumenical partners, with faith based NGOs (non-governmental organizations), with human rights groups, environmental groups, to see when we’re all working together something that’s very near and dear to the heart of God- that is, to help the children. To be able to work together in an open-hearted, open-handed, open-minded sort of way.

“Because of who we are as Presbyterians, we instantly had the trust of the Jesuits and the Dominicans, the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the evangelicals. Folks from soup to nuts were able to trust us, because we’ve maintained a place of honesty, respect and openness in the way we engage with people. … Kids have lower lead levels today, pollution levels have dropped. It’s not perfect – they have a long way to go. But there has been significant progress made because of the space that Presbyterians made, Catholics, and evangelicals together were able to create. I was really changed by that. … I see that as a model for all we do in World Mission, to seek that space of collective impact. Set the table, and invite congregations, presbyteries, mission networks and all kinds of folks to join us, together with our global partners.”

Q: How is your heart about this impending change? Are you peaceful?

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board honored Hunter Farrell for his years of service with World Mission at the board's meeting Sept. 16.
The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board honored Hunter Farrell for his years of service with World Mission at the board’s meeting Sept. 16.

A: “Oh, yeah. I’m very much at peace. I had 30 great years. This has been my life for all these years. The Spirit’s really saying, ‘It’s time to stop, and discern where is a spot, the space where I can connect with the next generation and with what God’s doing in the world. I’m looking forward to that.”