As COVID-19 continues to spread and international travel is disrupted, Presbyterian World Mission has asked all of its mission co-workers who have the United States as a home base (meaning they are U.S. citizens or permanent residents) to return home as recommended by the U.S. State Department, and is working with them individually to determine what’s best in their particular situations. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also has brought back young adult volunteers (YAVs) serving at its international sites.
Sara Lisherness has served as interim director for World Mission for the past seven months. Lisherness spoke with the Presbyterian Outlook March 25 about what the unexpected transition has been like for the mission co-workers, and about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the PC(USA)’s international work. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
What’s this been like for the mission co-workers?
So far, about 70 mission co-workers have chosen to shelter-in-place – sometimes for medical or personal reasons, or because the airport or border in the country where they serve is closed – and 41 have returned to the U.S. or are in transit. Those who are returning are spending 14 days in quarantine.
“We’re in a place where we have tabs on everyone,” Lisherness said. “Folks are already back in the states, folks are sheltering in place and there are a few people who are waiting for borders and airports to open and will return. Our mission co-workers are so wise, so thoughtful, so dedicated. Everyone was so prayerful” in determining what was best.
In places like the Philippines or Korea, where COVID-19 hit earlier than in the United States, most mission co-workers said “our health care, our doctors are here. We have good access to hospitals. And the countries where we are serving — we’ve already been through this. We’ve been self-quarantining for weeks. If we do get sick, we know what to do. We have access to tests.”
In the conversation with World Mission staff, “every decision was made collaboratively,” Lisherness said “And everyone who chose to stay, chose to stay for exactly the right reasons. I wouldn’t say anyone was trying to be heroic. They really thought through and prayed through why to stay or why to come home.” And once each co-worker had reached a decision, “you need to rest in that and trust that God’s wisdom was present in it.”
She also praised the World Mission crisis response team — saying arranging all the details of last-minute travel and arrangements for quarantine or sheltering in place has been “mindboggling. … We would make reservations with the travel agency, and then a border would close or an airline would cancel a flight, and then we were back at it again. The team was remarkable. Our area coordinators have been remarkable. Everybody has pulled together to make this as successful as any pandemic response could be.”
What will this disruption mean for World Mission’s work overseas?
“Who knows what’s going to happen with coronavirus?” Lisherness said. “It’s hard to say, hard to know.”
Those who have chosen to shelter in place are expected to do so — to stay home, and telework as they are able. “We really want to do our part as global citizens in stemming the tide of this horrendous virus.”
Once conditions improve, “as borders open up, as it feels safe and wise and in the best interests of everyone to do so, we will make arrangements for people to return to their countries of service.”
What has been the response of partner churches?
“Mostly prayers,” Lisherness said. “By and large it has been: ‘We are all in this together.’ ”
Can mission co-workers continue to work remotely?
“In some cases, it’s very realistic” — for example, for mission co-workers who teach at seminaries that are continuing to offer instruction online.
In other cases, it will be more difficult — such as for those working in community health or evangelism. There, “it’s all about being with the people,” Lisherness said. “I’ve only been in this position for seven months. But one of the things I have been amazed by is the level and depth of relationships that our mission co-workers have with our partners, and the communities where they are serving.”
What’s the financial impact for World Mission?
“We have to plan for disasters like this,” Lisherness said. “I believe when people are clear on mission, the money will follow. … We’ll deal with the financial implications when we have a big sense of what that is going to look like. Right now, we’re in good shape. We always have built in a huge contingency for evacuations,” sometimes needed when war or violence breaks out, or for urgent medical needs. “We have to have a cushion in there to meet those needs.”
How has racism been evident in the response to COVID-19?
“It is affecting people’s experiences more here in the United States than internationally,” she said. “It has been top of mind for us. We’ve heard reports of Presbyterians who are either of Korean or Chinese descent having tires slashed. Even right here in Louisville … children in the classroom were teasing a Korean American child, calling them ‘coronavirus.’ It has been on the hearts and minds and lifted up at almost every meeting we have.”
What prayers would she ask for?
“That all of our colleagues and co-workers can find safety and connect with the living God. But I think what the World Mission staff more would ask the world to pray for is for people who are most vulnerable in a crisis like this, the people on the street, who have no place to shelter; the people at the borders who are living in close, confined quarters and can’t leave to find shelter or safety. The health care workers who are on the front lines. The working poor who have no work, no insurance, for children whose parents can’t find sustenance. The list goes on and on.”