Together we pray and build the church
by Lisa Beth White*
Michael+ thinks about cinder blocks and corrugated tin roofing when he prays.
In the early 1970s, Michael’s pastor invited him to join a team traveling to Panama from their church in western North Carolina. They worked with a group of indigenous people to build a church in Bocas del Toro. When they arrived, they discovered that the cinder blocks the church ordered had not arrived. With only three dugout canoes for transportation, Michael’s team and the church members could not transport the required number of cinder blocks. A government official who had met the team on the plane arranged transport for the cinder blocks to the work site, and together the church and the volunteers were able to complete their task.
J-3s” learn how to use chopsticks, 1948. Cultural training in small-group settings, first class of young adult Japan three-year missionaries. PHOTO: GEN COM ARCHIVES AND HISTORY PORTRAITS #13, P. 23
Michael’s experience was unusual at the time. Today, thousands of United Methodists are familiar with the experience known as a “short-term mission trip” or UMVIM (United Methodist Volunteers in Mission). Before then, the idea of volunteers working on a mission project for a short period of time was not a common part of Methodist mission practice. UMVIM can trace its roots back to the late 1940s.
First steps toward short-term service
In 1948, the Board of Missions and Church Extension sought innovative ways to respond to the needs of the world in the aftermath of World War II.1 The “3s” program was designed as a way for young adults to meet urgent needs through a limited term of service. Single college graduates, ages 21 to 28, were given six weeks of training and sent to work alongside seasoned missionaries. The first groups went to Japan (J-3s) and Korea (K-3s). In 1951, the program expanded to include Latin America and Africa. The Home Department of the Women’s Division of Christian Service trained and sent young women to Hawaii (H-3s) and within the United States (US-2s). As word spread about the 3s program and, later, the Peace Corps in the 1950s and 60s, the concept of shorter terms of service became more widely known. The Board of Missions considered new ways for people to serve in mission.
A group of men from the first of the Japan-3 young adult volunteers (J-3s) poses for a photo in 1947 before setting sail from the New York harbor. GCAH Mission Albums Portraits #13, P. 40 PHOTO: GEN COM ARCHIVES AND HISTORY PORTRAITS #13
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) was the first Methodist program to introduce the use of volunteers in short-term service. In a 1974 report to the Board of Missions,2 UMCOR reported on the work of a volunteer dentist, doctors, nurses, x-ray technicians, and ophthalmologists who had served in Haiti, Guyana, Anguilla, and Nicaragua.
Each was impressed with the needs of people in those countries and sought other medical professionals to join them in volunteer mission work through UMCOR. The following year, UMCOR reported that the Southeast Jurisdiction had established an office for short-term mission service.3 As flights became cheaper and incomes rose, people were eager to volunteer for service.
The Rev. Tracey K. Jones, who would later lead the General Board of Global Ministries, wrote the most widely read mission study in the history of Methodism in 1963. In Our Mission Today4 he wrote that mission is “marked by the meeting of [people] to hear the gospel from the lips of another [person].” Jones asserted that “the calling of every Christian is to be a witness, a missionary, and an evangelist.” Laypeople began to volunteer, not waiting for applications, training, or approval, so eager were they to serve. They heeded Jones’ call, desiring to hear the gospel from people in other countries, and they began to discover the exchange of blessings—the gift of laboring and worshiping together.
Volunteers in Mission begins
In 1988, General Conference approved Volunteers in Mission as an official program. Now in its third decade of practice, jurisdictional coordinators provide training events for volunteer and disaster response teams. Over a million people leave the United States each year to participate in mission trips, and thousands volunteer within the United States. Training offers a way to equip volunteers for cross-cultural encounters and embody a theology of mutuality in their work. Global Ministries continues to develop programs for short terms of service. Nomads On a Mission Active in Divine Service (NOMADS), international individual volunteers, Global Mission Fellows, and US-2s are a variety of ways volunteers can participate in mission service, with many options for the length of service.
As Michael reflected on his volunteer mission work in the 1970s, he recalled working with a church in Haiti. The church construction project was high on a hill. Women of the church carried cement blocks on their heads up the hill all day. In the evening, they helped to lead worship. On the last work day, the pastor found three sections of corrugated tin to finish the roof. Women knelt on the floor, saying “thank you Lord, now when we kneel to pray we don’t have to be in the mud.” Michael said that has stuck with him over the years, and he realized that the Lord has given him enough, more than he needed. Michael led a dozen teams himself and all four of his children participated on mission teams when they were teens. He was marked by the blessing of working and worshiping with Christians in other countries. This he remembers every time he prays.
+Pseudonym — the man interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous, and not receive any further recognition for his service as a Volunteer in Mission.
The Rev. Lisa Beth White is a mission consultant and founder of Sister of Hope Ministries. She currently serves churches in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Fall 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.
Ways to give to this ministry
The work of volunteers in mission can be supported in a variety of ways—through jurisdictional United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM), conference volunteer-in-mission programs and local church teams. Advance giving can also be directed toward Support for International Volunteer Coordinators, #3020761.
1 Board of Missions and Church Extension, Journal of the Ninth Annual Meeting, The Methodist Church, New York, 1948, p. 320.
2 Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, Journal of the Third Annual Meeting, The United Methodist Church, New York, 1974, pp. 242-243.
3 Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, Journal of the Fourth Annual Meeting, The United Methodist Church, New York, 1975, p. 400.
4 Tracey K. Jones, Jr., Our Mission Today: The Beginning of a New Age. World Outlook Press, New York, 1963, pp. 111-114.