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Discernment and prayers guide World Mission Crisis Management Team

All mission co-workers are safe in the US or are sheltering in place

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Mission Co-Workers Richard and Debbie Welch and Eliane Menezes reach the Mexican border and prepare to walk across. This photo was taken by the driver as proof they reached their destination. (Photo provided to Leslie Vogel)

LOUISVILLE — When it comes to keeping mission co-workers safe in the face of a global pandemic, there is no one-size-fits-all decision. Each situation is different, and each decision is individual.

For mission co-workers Richard and Debbie Welch and Eliane Menezes, returning to the United States from Guatemala was by no means simple. The airport in Guatemala City had been closed since March 16. World Mission Regional Liaison the Rev. Leslie Vogel began investigating flights offered by the U.S. Embassy, but there was no way to guarantee a seat — so she looked at the possibilities for flying out of neighboring Mexico.

“Just in the 15 minutes between my finding flights on Expedia and their logging on to purchase tickets, those flights were all sold out and all three of them had to find alternate flights,” said Vogel.

Vogel and a trusted driver picked up the Welches from their apartment at 5 a.m., then traveled to Guatemala City to pick up Menezes at 9 a.m. Vogel walked home as they  began a 4.5-hour trip to the Guatemala/Mexico border crossing known as “El Carmen,” due west of the department capital of San Marcos.

At about 2 p.m. they crossed the border on foot, where they had their temperature taken upon entering Mexico, then met another driver recommended by mission co-worker Mark Adams. The driver took them to a hotel in Tapachula, where they waited for their flights two days later. They are all safely back in the U.S. now, in self-quarantine.

Vogel remains in Guatemala, sheltering-in-place. It was a personal decision.

“Guatemala is my ‘home’” she said. Vogel’s sister and 87-year old mother live in Utah and she believed traveling there could put her elderly mother at risk. She has never lived there, staying only for short family visits.

“There was a whole discernment process for each of us, and each of us had to make decisions taking into account not only our missiological beliefs but also our personal, family and health care needs,” Vogel said.

Sara Lisherness, interim director of World Mission, said many of the mission co-workers who have returned because of family concerns or underlying health issues continue to struggle with having to leave their partners behind.

Vogel said there were currently Haitian and African migrants trapped on the border between Guatemala and Honduras, barred from entering either country and lacking food and shelter.

The Revs. Scott and Elmarie Parker, then together in Lebanon, prepare to videoconference with a U.S. congregation. (Scott Parker selfie)  

Revs. Scott and Elmarie Parker, mission co-workers in Lebanon, are sheltering-in-place, but in different countries.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Elmarie Parker was set to attend a partner meeting in New York City. She decided to come early to visit churches. Eventually the meeting was postponed, followed by a ban on international travel. She is in Oregon with her parents. Scott Parker is at their home in Beirut.

The Beirut airport has been closed since March 18 and Lebanon is under a strict 7 p.m.- 5 a.m. curfew. Grocery stores let in their last customers at 5 p.m. so people can get their groceries home before the curfew begins. Elmarie Parker said that Lebanon has taken the pandemic very seriously. The newly elected government has taken many precautions. The military is helping citizens by delivering meals to those in need.

Thus far in Lebanon there have been 438 cases and 10 deaths. No cases have been reported in the Syrian or Palestinian refugee camps.

Both Scott and Elmarie have stayed in close communication with their mission partners.

“It’s been difficult because this culture is so deeply relational,” said Elmarie. “It’s painful for them to be cut off from one another.  Of all the challenges faced by the people of Syria and Lebanon, violence and civil war, they could still get together and support one another. This separation is weighing heavily on their spirit.”

She said she had learned a great deal from their partners about how to prepare for crisis situations, both emotionally and physically.

“Elmarie and I love to do most of life’s stuff together, but we have to weather this crisis on separate sides of the world,” said Scott Parker. “I’m waking up when she’s going to bed. So, one of our practices is to send each other messages and pics via WhatsApp at the beginning and end of our days. El’s missing Ringa and Kazi quite a bit, so she gets daily kitty pics.”

In Oregon, Elmarie said when she is suffering from frustration or news overload, her mind has been drifting to Isaiah 43:19 (NIV):

“See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.”

Mission Co-Workers Cobbie and Dessa Palm work from a table in their home. (Contributed photo)

Cobbie and Dessa Palm were born in the Philippines. Cobbie’s parents were longtime Presbyterian missionaries James and Louise Palm, and Dessa is of Filipino descent. The Philippines is their home and they are sheltering-in-place with their two dogs. Ninoy Aquino International Airport has been closed since March 14.

When the U.S. Department of State issued its call for U.S. nationals to return home, there was only one positive COVID-19 case in their community of Dumaguete. Now there are four.

Although they cannot leave the Philippines, they are comfortable with their current circumstances. “The emotional and psychological stress of leaving this present situation where we know our doctors and feel in control of our surroundings including our sources of food, medical care, and support system will be adversely affected if we place ourselves as dependents on family members in the United States for an indefinite period of time,” they said by email.

Dessa, who is the Young Adult Volunteer site coordinator for the Philippines, helped her international YAVs return to the U.S. She continues to be in contact with the young members of her theater group, always practicing social distancing. A few group members have initiated sewing face masks and making other protective gear for the local health care providers.

Lisherness enacted World Mission’s Crisis Management Team several weeks ago to assist the mission personnel team in making certain that all mission co-workers had a plan to safeguard their health by sheltering in place or returning to the United States.

“This was a tremendous undertaking for everyone involved — mission co-workers, area offices and the Young Adult Volunteer team,” said Lisherness. “People gave up meals, family time and sleep to mobilize this effort. It has been humbling to see such dedication and commitment, to one another and to our partners.”

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