Jim Winkler as a Mission Intern
By Julia Kayser
When Jim Winkler was commissioned as a Mission Intern in the fall of 1980, he had no idea that he would one day serve as the general secretary for the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). "I really had not even considered a vocation in the church until I heard about the Mission Intern program," he says. But a sentence in a brochure--"The search for justice: the gospel's claim on the rich and the poor"--caught his eye. Even as a young adult, he had a passion for justice and peace. So he committed to three years of service.
His first assignment was to work in Fiji for the Pacific Conference of Churches. "I was the director of a research project looking at the impact of transnational corporations," he says. A decade earlier in 1970, Fiji had gained its independence from Britain. Churches in Fiji and other South Pacific countries "were only recently under indigenous leadership."
But while their nations and churches were independent, their economies were not. Multinational corporations from Europe, America, Australia, and Japan kept a stronghold on the natural and human resources of the South Pacific. This was a subject of much concern. Jim's research was used as a study resource at seminaries and universities, and it helped to raise awareness about the lingering effects of colonialism. "It was a real exploitative relationship," he says. "Their economies were—and still are—largely controlled by corporations."
The Pacific Conference of Churches was also committed to the Nuclear-Free Pacific movement. The world's most powerful countries were using the South Pacific as a place to test weapons and dump nuclear waste. Jim says that the movement to end these injustices enjoyed great amount of public support. Fiji and New Zealand even elected "governments that were committed to a Nuclear-Free Pacific." When Jim returned to the US after eighteen months in Fiji, the Women's Division School of Christian Mission was focused on the South Pacific, and he was able to share his experiences and his research with many local chapters of United Methodist Women.
Jim's time as a Mission Intern was only half over. For the following 18 months, he worked for the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) in New York City. Jim says that, in that moment of history, nuclear proliferation was of paramount concern. MFSA was involved in peace efforts and advocated for a "nuclear freeze" in which "both sides would stop building nuclear weapons and would start getting rid of their weapons."
Jim traveled all over the US, leading workshops and training events on peace. MFSA supported the June 12, 1982, peace rally in Central Park, which was attended by about a million people. Two days later, Jim joined thousands of others in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience outside the UN Missions of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
In 1986 the United Methodist Council of Bishops released a historic public statement against the arms race. In 1987, a military coup in Fiji, possibly supported by outside forces, removed the government that favored a Nuclear-Free Fiji. This continues to be a justice issue in the South Pacific. Jim remains grateful for his opportunity to work for an end to the nuclear arms race from within the church.
As the general secretary of GBCS, Jim continues to be a prophetic voice for our denomination. During his tenure, he has spoken out against war in Iraq, gun violence, and the death penalty, and he has advocated for regulation of tobacco products and health care for all people. He says that he would not be where he is today if he hadn't been a Mission Intern.
"It's a leadership development program," Jim emphasizes, "with significant, measurable outcomes." His own career is a shining example. You can support the Mission Intern program as it develops young leadership by donating to Advance #13105Z.
The most important thing Jim learned from his experience in mission is that "if the church truly embraces the teachings of Jesus, we put those teachings into action, and we stand on the side of peace and justice…even when it threatens the status quo." He says that it's crucial for the church to put its money where its mouth is, and to have young people on the front lines.
"When the church is willing to do that, it can not only empower young people, but it can change the world."
Photo: Jim Winkler with Rev. Albert ToBurua, former president of the United Church of Papua, New Guinea, in March 1981. Photo courtesy of GBCS.