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Missionary service is family tradition for Wingeiers

Phil Wingeier-Rayo and Doug Wingeier are part of a missionary family whose service through The United Methodist Church and its predecessors dates to 1896. The son and father, former missionaries themselves, spoke at the Aug. 5-8 "Bridges of Hope" mission gathering at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
A UMNS photo by John Nuessle.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
Aug. 9, 2007

In an age when mission service can mean anything from teaching seminary students to rebuilding houses for hurricane victims, Philip Wingeier-Rayo believes there is still a role for the traditional, long-term missionary.

"Anyone can feel called and God can use people as instruments coming and going to any place in the world," said the 41-year-old United Methodist who served as a missionary for years until 2003 when he joined the faculty of Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C. But, he added, "When you learn the culture and you learn the language and you're there for a number of years, you have special insights."

Wingeier-Rayo and his father, Doug Wingeier, were among the speakers at the Aug. 5-8 "Bridges of Hope" mission gathering at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.

The conference brought together people involved with mission at all levels of the church, according to Norma Kehrberg, a retired missionary and former head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Participants explored the role of mission in the 21st century, analyzed the changes in communities impacted by Christian mission and affirmed ministries of justice and presence as forms of mission.

Family tradition

Missionary service is a tradition in the Wingeier family. Doug Wingeier's maternal grandfather, Charles Buchanan, went to Singapore in 1896, followed a year later by his wife, Emily. They served as missionaries there for 10 years, then served in Java until 1923.

The Methodist mission compound where they lived and where his mother was born later became the campus of Trinity Theological College - the same campus where Wingeier taught when he and his wife, Carol, spent eight years in missionary service in Singapore. "The house where she was born was just a stone's throw from where we lived and where I taught," Wingeier said.

After the Methodist Church there became autonomous in 1968, they returned to the United States. Wingeier, who will be 77 this month, taught at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary for 27 years before retiring in 1997. They now divide their time between Lake Junaluska and the Brooks-Howell Home in North Carolina.

Wingeier-Rayo spent his first four years in Singapore. "Missions were very much a part of our household," he said. "My older brothers and sisters pretty much grew up in Singapore."

His three older siblings - now a nurse-midwife, writer and health practitioner - are not employed by the church, but "they share our values," said Doug Wingeier. In the case of all their children, he said, "We tried to help them become autonomous persons who made their own decisions."

A wider perspective

Although he was no longer a missionary, Doug Wingeier used his sabbaticals to teach, research and live in other cultures, and his youngest son often accompanied the couple on trips. In 1977, when Wingeier-Rayo was in sixth grade, his father enrolled him for a time in a French school in Haiti. As a high school freshman, he spent time in the Middle East.

"Those cross-cultural experiences exposed me to the wider world and made me realize I had it pretty good," he said. "It's helpful to get that perspective on life."

His father suggested he study Spanish in high school, and Wingeier-Rayo said he got the first hint of his own calling when the church he belonged to became a "sanctuary" church, hosting refugees from Central America who were not much older than himself. "I felt it was my obligation as a Christian to go and share with those who had less than myself," he said.

“When you learn the culture and you learn the language and you're there for a number of years, you have special insights.”–Philip Wingeier-Rayo

He also learned it "was fun to go out and serve" when he became a 22-year-old mission intern assigned to Nicaragua through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. "It was exciting to be a part of a movement that was larger than myself," he said.

Wingeier-Rayo also met his wife, Diana Rayo, in Nicaragua, where she was working with the church. After he returned to the United States, they corresponded for about a year until she received a visa and was able to join him. They now have three children, Massiel, 22; Keffren, 21; and Isaiah, 9.

He was planning to go to graduate school when the mission board asked him if he'd like to be the first missionary in Cuba in 30 years. After a pilot project, which involved a six-month immersion in the Cuban reality and a six-month U.S. tour with a Cuban counterpart, the Wingeier-Rayos served from 1992-97 as missionaries in Cuba.

During a study leave, he completed his master's and doctoral degrees at Chicago Theological Seminary and then returned to missionary service as a way of paying back an educational grant from Global Ministries. He taught from 2000-2003 at the Methodist seminary in Mexico City.

Building long-term relationships

At Pfeiffer - a school founded by a deaconess in 1885 and still related to the board's Women's Division - Wingeier-Rayo is now an associate professor of religion. He has helped the university develop its first major in missions and hopes it will fill a need for young people who want to serve beyond Volunteer-in-Mission trips.

Short-term mission work is important, he said, "but I think we have to be careful not to rely on that entirely." In building a long-term relationship in another country, the missionary becomes a bridge "that allows other people to see through you and to see that culture and learn about that culture."

His father, who is still active in peace and justice mission issues and served on Christian Peacemaker Teams in the Middle East, Mexico and Colombia, agreed. He pointed out that during his son's time in Cuba, he was a bridge between factions of the Cuban Methodist church, between the church and ecumenical seminary and between American and Cuban Methodists.

The way his grandparents carried out their missionary service by living fully within another culture "is still relevant and important and essential," Doug Wingeier said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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