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‘God is moving God’s own people much faster than we could ever move ourselves’

World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary hosts a panel discussion on recalibrating mission following the pandemic

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Phot by Amy Humphries via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — How people engaged in mission are recalibrating their work post-pandemic was the topic of last week’s panel discussion offered by the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Dr. Hunter Farrell, WMI’s director, hosted the panel, which included:

  • The Rev. Dr. Marsha Snulligan Haney, a PC(USA) pastor and theological educator who has served in places including Juba, South Sudan, and is the chief enabling officer of, a website dedicated to a new understanding of the transformational value of short-term mission experiences.
  • Dr. Kim Lamberty, the executive director of Quixote Center, where she leads programming focused on sustainable development and advocacy related to Haiti, Nicaragua and global migration. She is the founder and president of Just Haiti Inc., a faith-based fair trade coffee development project.
  • The Rev. Juan Sarmiento, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of San Fernando.

“The pandemic has affected the stuff that binds us together,” said Farrell, the former director of Presbyterian World Mission. He asked panelists to discuss ideas for getting people “out of their chairs and moving again.”

Dr. Kim Lamberty

“For many of us working in mission territories, we are working in places where people are particularly vulnerable. They’re extremely poor with no access to wealth, power or medical care. Covid made that sharply, sharply clear for us,” Lamberty said. “I think that is a call for us as believers, pastors and missioners to concretely address the divide that is abhorrent to God.”

“It hasn’t been just a public health pandemic,” said Snulligan Haney. “It’s uncovered so much that’s wrong with society — social justice, economic, housing, employment. It can be so overwhelming that even leaders want to curl up and let someone else deal with it.” As someone who for 25 years has taught missiology to seminarians, “I wanted students to find joy in responding to the call of God. More than anything, the pandemic has been a time to stop and listen to what the Spirit of God is telling us.”

The Rev. Juan Sarmiento

“There needs to be a rediscovery of the importance of the role of faith in our lives,” said Sarmiento. “The disruption is an opportunity to go deeper into our sense of call and vocation and how faith has been an important part in mobilizing justice and a source of resilience and hope and solidarity that’s been so much needed.”

“For a number of us, this has been a time of lament,” Farrell said. In the 60-member Pittsburgh church where he and his wife worship, “we lost six people in the last eight or nine months, each of them a pillar of the church.”

Sarmiento said he sees two practices going on in his life simultaneously: fasting, where “not being able to get close to people I love has been a fast from the joyful feast of the people of God,” and Sabbath, “which for hyperactive people can be painful, but necessary.”

“We’ve got to get back to the basics. The foundation of mission is relationships — with God, with each other and with the communities we are engaged in,” Lamberty said. “What I keep hearing in Haiti is, ‘You keep coming back. You don’t forget us.’” Poverty, Lamberty said, is “marked by isolation. In an era of Zoom, where in the farthest corners [of the Earth] people are using WhatsApp, we can maintain friendship, solidarity and love for each other … I ask as a missioner, ‘How can I be useful?’”

The Rev. Dr. Marsha Snulligan Haney

From what Snulligan Haney has been hearing from churches, “We are able to see we are not lamenting alone … If there’s a will, we will have to find a way to reach out and make a difference in our community.”

That reminded Farrell of a story told by an alum: When tornadoes ripped through the Iowa neighborhoods of two churches he served, he put on his clerical collar and hopped on his bicycle to see how he might help. “That ministry of presence — we are in a new social space with each other,” Farrell said. “The mayor grabbed him and said, ‘Let’s go! We need to pray for people.’ This disruption has opened up new ways to be the church in this moment.”

Sarmiento shared the story of a man who’d grown up in one of the churches of the Presbytery of San Fernando who’d become involved in gang activity. “But people in the presbytery stayed in communion with him while he was in prison,” Sarmiento said. After his release, the man eventually became executive director of a nonprofit “which has grown tenfold since the pandemic in terms of impact,” Sarmiento said.

“People will go to Haiti to help build a house or they’ll send a check, but real friendship that crosses the divide — that’s extremely difficult to get people to do,” Lamberty said. “We need to refocus short-term mission and have it focus on friendship.”

“It is God’s work. God is the one who sends us in mission,” Sarmiento said. “All of God’s people are being sent — not just the wealthy and powerful. God is moving God’s own people much faster than we could ever move ourselves.”

“It’s also a time of refocusing our resources. We need to receive as well as give,” Snulligan Haney said. “Our mission partners have lived in times of crisis all the time. They have learned to call on their spiritual resources and develop them in ways we have not.”

If church leaders and congregations can develop their own theology of mission, “it will move us forward with excitement into an unknown future,” Snulligan Haney said. “We need courageous leaders who are willing to risk and not afraid to trust God.”

“The word that comes to mind is ‘incarnational,’ the reality of investing ourselves in relationships so we can be vulnerable and corrected by the people we are serving,” Sarmiento said, offering up Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well as an example.

Panelists were then asked: What about mission in our own backyard?

The Rev. Dr. Hunter Farrell

“A new mission field is our neighborhood, our community,” Snulligan Haney said, noting that Sarmiento uses the term “glocal” to describe the mission field.

“The reckoning of racial justice is a global reckoning,” Sarmiento said. “What happens across the world impacts us as well. The Christian community is spread out enough to see things in this perspective.”

“Our kids and our grandkids get this much better than we do,” Farrell said, quoting a Congolese friend’s version of the Great Commission: “As you are going, baptize.”

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