Global Mission: Lessons from the coronavirus pandemic

It is hard to practice solidarity in a crisis when you are stuck at home

by the Rev. Philip Woods, World Mission | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Philip Woods is World Mission’s associate director for strategy, program and recruitment.

LOUISVILLE — The pandemic has forced us to embrace digital technology (Zoom, etc.) like never before, but in many places that has looked a lot different to what it looks like in the USA.

Relying on cellphones and smartphones, text messaging and WhatsApp have been the digital platforms of choice for much of the world and have brought out a lot of creativity enabling worship, small group meetings (like Bible studies) and even college teaching to continue.

These fixes though do not get to the heart of the question of what we are learning from the experience of living with the pandemic. Global mission work is built around person-to-person solidarity, people immersing themselves interculturally to learn from and share with each other. Historically it was not solidarity, but colonialism, the subjugation of cultures and peoples.  Over the years though as most of the world has developed significant indigenous Christian communities, it has morphed into a way of journeying with each other, and the pandemic has really challenged that.

Positively, using digital technologies we have found ways of connecting more people much more cheaply and easily than ever before. This is a breakthrough that should not be lost. We have learned how to connect peoples and congregations across the world that have enabled many more people to have the world church experience.

Most of our global partners cannot afford to send people here, and many people in our congregations cannot afford to join a mission trip, so there has always been a lot of elitism and privilege in global mission work that has skewed it towards a simple, unquestioning charity model, viewed and experienced all too easily as the “haves” assisting the “have-nots.” This is not a healthy relationship, and certainly not an expression of mutual partnership.

As a consequence, we have struggled to escape, let alone understand the white supremacy that initially shaped global mission and continues to impact it today. The pandemic has opened things up a lot so that more people in more churches around the world can journey together, learning from, supporting and encouraging each other as partners in God’s mission.  Entering into these journeys understanding that we all have something to offer and all have something to receive, we may be able to find ways to address the mistakes of the past that have led to and sustain the injustices of today.

Negatively, we have had to remain socially distanced, so that even when mission co-workers sheltered in place, they found themselves working from their homes like many of us have done.  It is hard to practice solidarity in a crisis when you are stuck at home. It is even harder when you are stuck in Louisville and cannot travel because of travel bans and restrictions.

Yes, we have been able to send money and continue other forms of support. Yes, we have been able to talk on the phone or Skype or Zoom or WhatsApp, but our ability to actually walk alongside our partners has been diminished. This has helped me to understand and appreciate more deeply the human dimension of journeying together, that life-changing Emmaus road encounter in which lives are transformed that is only possible through direct contact in a particular context opening hearts and minds to a whole new way of seeing things and being in communion together.

Going forward, these observations need to be held together. The pandemic has impacted and changed all of us. Global and local injustices have been more sharply revealed. We have found new ways of staying connected. Starved of easy human connection we have learned to appreciate it more fully and not to take it for granted. Privilege has been revealed in new ways.  Learning from these things, global mission work will surely change.

The Rev. Philip Woods is World Mission’s associate director for strategy, program and recruitment.


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