Partnership Gives Us the Assurance that God Is with Us.

A Letter from Doug Tilton, serving as regional liaison in Southern Africa

December 2020

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Dear Friends,

Warm greetings to you in this season of hopeful anticipation!

I am sure that many of us can say that 2020 did not turn out as we expected. As I prepared to write to you, I reviewed my letter from last year and was struck by just how large the gap between expectation and reality was for me.

The year commenced pretty much as planned, with a visit to partners in Zimbabwe and South Africa. As I shared in a letter earlier this year, I was struck by the amazing faithfulness of Presbyterians in Zimbabwe, despite the daunting and persistent social and economic challenges they face. I also took part in a gathering of all PC(USA) mission co-workers in Africa, held in Johannesburg in early February.

Not long afterwards, the world changed dramatically. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept around the globe, the PC(USA), like all organizations, scrambled to assess the most appropriate way forward. The PC(USA) formed a Crisis Management Team (CMT) that sought to balance a number of imperatives: seeking to understand the emerging (and sometimes contradictory) medical information, ensuring the safety and well-being of mission personnel, and demonstrating solidarity with our global partners.

Initially, the CMT imposed a moratorium on work-related travel for PC(USA) staff members. On March 20th, in response to the US State Department’s unprecedented global “do not travel” advisory, World Mission urged all mission personnel to return home. Mission co-workers were permitted to shelter in place if they could provide good reasons for doing so. After nearly thirty years, South Africa really is my home, so I requested and received permission to stay. Roughly two-thirds of PC(USA) mission personnel in Africa returned to the United States, often as their countries of residence were going into lockdown and airports were closing.

The PC(USA) ultimately extended moratoria on work-related travel and in-person meetings until the end of June 2021. Despite obstacles, mission co-workers have demonstrated amazing dedication and creativity in setting up routines that allow them to remain in regular contact with partners and to do what they can to accompany and assist their colleagues in their countries of service.

Even before all of the mission personnel relocation issues were resolved, World Mission began reaching out to partners to assure them of our prayers and concern. Regional Liaisons invited African partners to share how they were responding to the pandemic and to identify ways that the PC(USA) could accompany them in these ministries. We received 38 proposals from global partners in Sub-Saharan Africa. Six mission co-workers with professional public health experience in Africa agreed to form a team to review the proposals and to suggest ways of helping them to conform to international best practices on prevention of COVID-19 transmission. World Mission also collaborated with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to make more than $400,000 available for COVID-19 responses in Africa.

These included initiatives in three broad categories:

Medical – Churches are responsible for much of the health care across the continent. Our partners operate 35 hospitals and scores of local clinics throughout Africa. In Madagascar, we are helping the Development Department of the Church of Jesus Christ to provide specialized COVID-19 training to doctors and nurses in 32 rural dispensaries, while in Lesotho, we responded to the Lesotho Evangelical Church’s request for assistance to purchase Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies for health professionals at the church’s two hospitals.
Community education/public health – Churches are present in nearly every community, making them a key network for sharing information and promoting good public health practice. In Madagascar, we helped partners to engage in community education to promote healthy behavior (regular hand washing, social distancing, use of face masks) and also to set up hand washing stations, while partners in Zimbabwe, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo produced and distribute masks with seed funds from the PC(USA).
Food assistance – Social “lockdown” regulations have paralyzed economies and caused severe hunger in vulnerable communities. We accompanied partners in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Madagascar as they provided basic nutrition to households in the greatest need.

I am deeply grateful to the individuals, congregations and mid-councils who contributed to this extraordinary response through their prayers and gifts. I give thanks, too for our sisters and brothers throughout Africa who have been praying fervently for the United States as it has grappled with COVID-19’s threat to public health.

Sadly (but understandably), the PC(USA) experienced a significant decline in giving during the first few months of the pandemic. In response, World Mission offered a voluntary separation package to certain members of staff. In the last four months of 2020, my colleagues and I have said sad farewells to 25 mission co-workers who have left through retirement and voluntary separation. In addition, the Africa Area Coordinator, Rev. Debbie Braaksma, and the Africa Office Mission Specialist, Paula Tibbs, retired. My colleague, Jeff Boyd (Regional Liaison for Central Africa), and I have been tapped to share the Africa Area Coordinator role on an interim basis, in addition to our existing regional responsibilities. As you might imagine, this has imposed additional demands on our time, often through a growing number of Zoom meetings. This arrangement is likely to continue into the second half of 2021, so I welcome your prayers for stamina and wisdom!

While COVID-19 prevented me from returning to the USA for interpretation assignment in the last half of the year as originally planned, one of the silver linings of the pandemic “cloud” has been the opportunity to visit PC(USA) congregations and gatherings virtually and even to “be” in several places at once (as I was on World Communion Sunday). It has been a joy to be able to take part in worship services via Zoom and Facebook, and to participate in a number of Mission Network meetings, including DR Congo, Ghana and Madagascar. I’ve had to learn a bunch of new video editing skills in recent months, but it has been fun to be able to share the stories of our partners’ inspiring ministries in this way. I have also appreciated the opportunity to journey with congregations that have been exploring a deeper commitment to racial justice, often in conjunction with an embrace of the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 vision.

In a year that has been anything but routine, I am grateful for the faithfulness and consistency of the encouragement and support that you provide to me and other mission co-workers like me. As we prepare our hearts to welcome the Christ Child anew, I give thanks, too, for the reassuring rhythms of the year and for the assurance that God is always “with us.” May the hope and joy of Christmastide abide with you throughout this season and the year to come.

Grace and peace,

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