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Mission leaders meet to talk about being thoughtful travelers during mission trips

Mission co-workers say to plan post-pandemic trips with a high level of intentionality

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Mission co-workers with the PC(USA) are offering advice on how churches and mid councils can plan short- and long-term mission trips. (Stock image)

LOUISVILLE — As travel restrictions begin to loosen worldwide and churches start thinking about long- and short-term mission trips, a group of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission leaders, World Mission staff and mission co-workers joined together on Zoom Wednesday night to talk about how to be thoughtful travelers when visiting global partners in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Christi Boyd, mission co-worker living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, offered advice to the group through a video. She said it is important to approach partner visits with a high level of intentionality by discerning the meaning, purpose and desired outcomes of our journey.

“This process starts well ahead of making travel plans and evolves in consultation with our receiving counterparts. It also includes identifying any necessary preparatory work to be done to be mindful of our intentions. During the visit itself, we would as thoughtful travelers develop a greater awareness through our sensory perception of the context, our mental and spiritual reflection on the experience, and our prayerful and conscious effort to adequately respond to situations that can seduce us to unintended but still harmful acts,” she said.

The Rev. Elmarie Parker, regional liaison for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, encouraged the group to be vaccinated, have medications with them and choose not to travel if anyone in the group has significant health or mobility issues.

“Our hospitals in the area will make way for Westerners. That is one of the ways in which we are privileged in this world. And the challenge with that is that it means that local people who have no other options for medical care are pushed aside,” Parker said. “So that is a way that we can be considerate, also, to simply not travel if there’s any risk that we may be taking medical care away from local people.”

Peru has one of the highest Covid fatality rates in the world, the Rev. Jed Koball told the group. He said the way to be a good traveler is to provide a space where people can share what’s on their heart, because there’s a lot weighing on people’s hearts and minds right now.

“I think now more than ever we should be prepared to listen, because the emotional impact, the mental health impact over the last couple of years has been severe. We’ve all gone through a trauma,” Koball said. “And while we’ve all gone through the same storm, we have not all been in the same boat.”

The Rev. Dori Hjalmarson, speaking to the group from Honduras, her country of service, said constituents who make regular annual trips to visit partners should understand that their partners have likely gone through a transformation, given the pandemic. She gave one example of a medical team who had been coming to Honduras before the pandemic but hasn’t been able to for the past three years.

The Rev. Dori Hjalmarson

As a result, partners are rethinking their dependence on that group for their medical needs. The partner is discerning new and better ways to practice mission and the medical team will have to decide what that means for them and their relationship with the partner. Hjalmarson said some of these transformations were already occurring but were intensified by the pandemic.

“I think in the long run, that’s a good thing to have a time to look back, reflect on what your relationship has been like, and how the pandemic in the years of no contact has affected your ministry,” she said, “what new needs there might be and what old needs may have fallen by the wayside.”

Hyeyoung Lee, mission co-worker in South Korea, said even what you call the group has an impact. She said naming the journey something that implies learning can shape the mindset of the participants, helping them understand they are going to the country to learn from and hear from locals.

Hyeyoung Lee

“So a lot of cases that we do have a close contact with the people who like to come to Korea for short-term travel, that we would have a year-long process of getting to know the group and then providing all the resources and reading lists so that before they even come to Korea, they have a knowledge about what’s happening in Korea in terms of especially U.S. and Korea and the relationship between the two,” Hyeyoung said.

Mission groups have traveled to La Oroya, Peru, one of the most contaminated places on Earth, to plant trees. (Photo by Jed Koball)

There was discussion around in-person visits versus virtual visits. Tracey King-Ortega, regional liaison for Central America, said that global partners have become better at navigating the virtual world.

Randy Simpson, co-convener of the Cuba Partners Network, said that every fourth year the group meets in Cuba. Network members are always worried about putting stress on the limited resources of the partners, Simpson said. But universally they want Americans to come, as many as can.

“I think our experience is that, generally speaking, they want that relationship, you know, yes, they have the relationship, they want that physical contact. And it means so much to them when we take the time to do that.”

The Rev. Leslie Vogel, regional liaison for Guatemala and Mexico, agreed with Simpson, saying it is increasingly unlikely that partners will be able to visit the U.S. because of immigration laws.

“I was just in a conversation last week with a new partner for one of the entities here in Guatemala,” she said. “And the very friendly folks in the U.S. were so excited and said, hopefully this partnership, we’ll not only go to see you, but you’ll come to see us. And you know, I kindly interpreted those words knowing that it’s probably not going to happen that Guatemalans will get a visa to go visit the United States.”

Mission resources for short- and long-term mission trips are available at www.pcusa.org/missionconnections.


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