Missionary work — and image — becomes increasingly diverse
June 21, 2006
|A UMNS photo by Andra Stevens
Missionary Priscilla Legay Jaiah, who is Liberian, serves in Ghana at the Buduburam Liberia Refugee Camp.
By Mary Beth Coudal*
NEW YORK (UMNS) — When you think of a missionary, what image comes to mind?
For many people, it might be the white, male,
English-speaking hero in the Amazon jungle, as depicted in storybooks and
in movies such as “End of
the Spear,” released earlier this year.
Just as today’s reality for women is different from that of the 1950s
U.S. housewife, so too, the missionaries of 2006 stand in distinct contrast
with the stereotypes of the past. The “typical” missionaries of
yesterday have given way to a diverse field of missionaries who can be found
in a myriad of settings.
Take for example, the Rev. Priscilla Legay Jaiah,
who is Liberian, serving in Ghana at the Buduburam Liberia Refugee Camp.
Esther Karimi Gitobu,
who is Kenyan and serving with women’s empowerment for the United Methodist
Church in Cambodia. And there's the Rev. Juarez Goncalves, a Brazilian who
serves in the New England Annual Conference in Brazilian Portuguese Language
The percentage of non-U.S. missionaries serving through the United Methodist
Board of Global Ministries in the United States and internationally is at its
highest. In total, 32 percent of the board's 230 standard support missionaries
come from countries other than the United States. Hundreds more people serve
in mission through the board in categories such as deaconesses.
While the diversity of missionaries has increased,
so has the number of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. In 2005, about
UMVIMs served in 70
countries and in 48 U.S. states, making it the busiest year ever for the program.
In comparison, in 2004, about half of the 2005 number — 68,204 — served
in 51 countries and 37 U.S. states. The increase was driven largely by the
volunteer response to hurricanes on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
|File photo courtesy of the Board of Global Ministries
Clara Mridula Biswas, a missionary assigned as a community worker in Cambodia, visits with a HIV/AIDS patient.
There have been slight increases in the number of people in the individual
volunteers program, who serve for more than two months with Global Ministries
mission partners nationally and internationally, and NOMADS (Nomads On a Mission
Active in Divine Service), mission-minded people commuting from their recreational
vehicles to work on mission projects in the United States.
“There’s a new generation of folks coming out of VIM experiences,” said
the Rev. Stephen Goldstein, assistant general secretary of mission personnel
for the board. “As a result, there’s a different sense of missionary
vocation. They don’t see it as a long-term mission choice. People expect
to make four or five career changes in a lifetime.”
Empowering local people
“The days of missionaries getting on a boat in Baltimore and getting
off in Brazil are over,” Goldstein said.
Kathleen Masters, who now works for the board’s
mission personnel office in New York, served in Africa and Asia with her
“Fifty years ago, perhaps if there was a political upheaval, you moved
from India to Pakistan or from Congo to Zambia (or Rhodesia, as it was known
then),” she said. “Now it is not as common for people to stay in
one region for their whole life. As missionaries, we served in Asia Pacific
for six years. We could not get work visas for more than that. ‘If you
were doing your job well, then you’ve trained someone locally to replace
you,’ the Solomon Islands government believes.’”
After the Solomon Islands, the Masterses served for three years at the Mission
Resource Center in Atlanta, then for four years in Uganda and Zambia.
Today, more emphasis is placed on training people for ministry than was
the case 50 years ago. “We’re trying to empower people to carry on
the ministry. Let’s go in and equip people, train community health workers,” said
Bruce Griffith, missionary in residence for the board. The focus has shifted
away from setting up a clinic with a missionary name attached to it. “That
was more of a colonial mindset,” he said.
In 1936, the average length of missionary service was 21 years, in five-year
increments, according to Griffith’s research. At that time, women missionaries
outnumbered men by about six to one. In 2006, missionaries are assigned for
The continuation of service depends on many factors, including the financial
resources of the mission agency. Gradually, men have slowly increased their
numbers in the mission ranks so that the gender split is almost 50/50.
Larger scope of work
The scope of missionary work is wide, Griffith
noted. “There are HIV/AIDs
educators teaching in Africa; missionaries in Cambodia and in all the church’s
mission initiatives helping plant churches; missionaries helping the Lithuanian
church come back to life.”
Griffith commented on another trend in missionary service: the need for
specialists over generalists. For example, the board issued a call
in January for missionaries
in the fields of immigration law, construction and Native American ministry.
The training of missionaries has changed dramatically in 50 years — and
even in the last five years. “In 2001, we trained for 10 to 12 weeks
with missionaries and their families all in one place,” Kathleen Masters
said. “Now, we have individualized trainings. We are tailoring the training
to the individual and the sending and receiving communities. We’re beginning
to do some distance learning.”
The passage of time hasn’t changed the demand
for missionary support.
“One thing remains the same: there are more requests than we can fill — requests
to become missionaries and requests to receive missionaries …,” Goldstein
said. “And since the 1990s, there has been an intentional commitment
by the General Board of Global Ministries to send more missionaries.”
Missionary programs receive support, in part, through the
United Methodist Church’s second-mile giving program, the Advance for Christ and His Church.
Donations can be designated for “Mission Personnel Inside the United
States,” Advance #982597, “Mission Personnel Support Outside the
United States,” Advance #00779Z, or other programs listed at http://gbgm-umc.org/advance/.
*Coudal is on the communications staff at the United Methodist Board of Global
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.