Prayer, Solidarity and Courage in Mission
By Thomas Kemper*
It’s not often today that a Christian mission agency finds itself in the daily news headlines, but it happened in June and July when United Methodist Global Ministries launched a campaign to secure the release of three young missionaries detained on spurious political charges and visa issues in the Philippines. “#LetThemLeave” – our campaign of prayer and petition-signing – caught the attention of the global media and, no doubt, hastened the release of Tawanda Chandiwana of Zimbabwe, Miracle Osman of Malawi and Adam Shaw of the United States. All were back in their home countries within three weeks of the campaign’s launch.
Thomas Kemper visits Tawanda in a detention center. PHOTO: THOMAS KEMPER
As it happened, I was in Asia for a regional mission meeting and scheduled in the Philippines for a global health event. I was able to adjust my itinerary, so I could take part in a widely covered “#LetThemLeave” press conference and be present for the release of Tawanda after he spent eight weeks detained. I visited him in a detention center and was permitted to give him a hug as he ran to board his outbound plane. I was also in touch with Miracle and Adam, neither of whom was incarcerated but were, as was Tawanda, accused of consorting with terrorists because they participated last February in an international investigation of human rights violations on the island of Mindanao, where each served with peace-promoting partners based in Davao City. The problems for Miracle and Adam were deliberate delays in visa processing by the Bureau of Immigration.
Miracle smiles as she waits for her flight to depart from Davao to Manila. PHOTO: THOMAS KEMPER
I have been asked repeatedly since I arrived back in Atlanta what Global Ministries and I learned from the experience of the three detained missionaries and the campaign to win their freedom.
After considerable reflection and meditation, I want to offer two types of responses:
• Pragmatic lessons confirmed and
• Overarching realizations about mission today
Two pragmatic lessons were confirmed. First, we recognized the vital importance of having as geographic mission liaisons people with long-term, personal experience with mission partner churches and organizations. It was God’s blessing to have Rebecca Asedillo as our mission executive covering the Philippines during this crisis. Familiar with both church and society in the country, she served as a link to the Philippines’ bishops, legal representatives and the missionaries themselves. Rebecca could explain to our staff and me what was happening in Mindanao that provided the background for the initial surveillance of our personnel; she knew how to interpret or find someone to interpret legal documents. On the cusp of retirement, Rebecca was ably backed up by Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, her successor in the regional position and who is based in the Philippines.
Adam Shaw in Mindanao. PHOTO: ADAM SHAW
Second, mission both in general and crisis situations requires specialized communications strategies and skills, including the willingness to ask for help within and beyond the church. Communicators from Global Ministries, United Methodist Communications, the Council of Bishops, United Methodist Women and others, including an Atlanta public relations firm, pulled together to impact the media. They prompted an international response to “#LetThemLeave.” We received good reception in the general or “secular” media, including our emphasis on the faith-centered vocations of the detained missionaries.
I came away from this crisis with three overarching realizations about mission today: prayer, solidarity and courage.
“Praying: The Heart of Mission” was the theme of the Winter 2018 issue of New World Outlook, our United Methodist mission magazine. The truth of this affirmation was demonstrated in the “#LetThemLeave” campaign, which invited daily prayer at noon each day – wherever people were – until the three missionaries were allowed to leave. More than 18,500 people from over 110 countries signed on to pray to God and petition the government of the Republic of the Philippines. That was deeply meaningful.
I am convinced that prayer was the most powerful part of the campaign. It wasn’t prayer as an effort to get God’s attention or to change God’s mind but, rather, prayer as John Wesley defined it, as a means of grace – God’s relentless love that leads us to affirm mercy and justice. Wesley described prayer as being of “the character of a Methodist.” The power of corporate prayer was evident among the earliest Christians. Professor Thomas W. Elliot of Candler School of Theology, Emory University, has pointed out that when the apostles in the book of Acts prayed together, the Spirit “rocked the house.”
I firmly believe that the prayers of thousands and thousands of Methodists and friends rocked the house of the immigration bureau of the Republic of the Philippines.
The outpouring of prayer and petition-signing was a strong indication of Methodist and ecumenical Christian solidarity in the cause of mission and justice. It demonstrated the global connection of our faith and what can happen when we all join as one to work toward a common goal. The campaign drew support from bishops and migrant workers, students in Zimbabwe and teachers in Minnesota, and our own missionaries and ecumenical colleagues. Support came from every theological perspective and people of many languages and cultures. The World Council of Churches joined in our effort, promoting “#LetThemLeave” among its many member churches.
Just as Global Ministries sends missionaries “from everywhere to everywhere,” a sense of “everywhere” was evident in the responses to our liberation effort.
“We are grateful for unity in our objectives,” said Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, president of the Council of Bishops, in a statement when all three missionaries were released. “May the grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ always bind us together in the causes of justice and compassion.”
Each of the young missionaries was a case study in courage and resolve despite the perilous situations. Accusation or even suspicion of consorting with terrorists is a very serious matter in the Philippines, or in any country, and while the allegation was untrue, it was a frightening experience. The determination and resiliency of Tawanda, Miracle and Adam were really something to admire. They never wavered in their faith in God, their commitment to their mission call and their devotion to the Filipino people. They showed a spiritual depth that can stand as an example to all of us engaged in God’s mission around the world.
United Methodist missionaries are sent to take the gospel of Jesus Christ into all the world, and that includes standing up for life where it is threatened or compromised. What happened in the Philippines will not stop Global Ministries from sending missionaries to everywhere because that is our calling as United Methodists, as Christians.
We rejoice that our three young missionaries were freed, but that joy is tempered with great regret that it was necessary for them to leave their places of mission and ministry.
*Thomas G. Kemper is the General Secretary of Global Ministries.