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The Rev. Beth Frank and I were traveling partners, members of a delegation from the Diocese of Ohio to the annual GEMN (Global Episcopal Mission Network) conference in Ponce, Puerto Rico. As Beth and I got off the plane, it became clear that we would be doing God’s work without the comforts of our luggage for a few days, which had apparently been sent to Philadelphia. It is amazing that God can take an inconvenience like losing your luggage, and make it a learning opportunity for a week or a lifetime.
We were part of a joint delegation with our companion Diocese of Belize, funded in part by a Province V grant. The delegation included the Rev. Margaret D’Anieri, Ms. Barbara Jones, the Rev. Beth Frank, the Rev. David Kendall-Sperry, and myself from Ohio, and the Rev. Barbara McBride, Ms. Debbie Domingo and Ms. Briannie Young from Belize. More than 120 people from the Episcopal dioceses of the United States and Latin America attended the conference in May. GEMN is a freestanding network of dioceses, congregations, seminaries, organizations and individuals who support one another in world mission and advocate for the Episcopal Church’s deeper global engagement. This year’s conference theme was “God’s Mission with a World in Continuous Motion”, a recognition of the changing landscape of mission work in a world that has seen more than 60 million people displaced in the past year alone. The programing for the conference reflected these concerns: in workshops discussing global mission and migration; in a question and answer session with a multinational panel representing many of the Latin American countries present; in a trip to mission sites in and around Ponce, the keynote address by the Presiding Bishop, and a bilingual Eucharist.
The week began with a day of formation education, and this is where we got to know our partners from Belize. We did an exercise that asked the group to come up with an object that could serve as a metaphor for mission and we chose luggage. Our luggage is not guaranteed (as Beth and I found out), and we should not count on it to carry out our mission. There is a certain amount of physical and spiritual “packing” that needs to take place before a trip so a person may be ready for whatever faces them when they go. And it is often the case that when a person goes on a trip, they bring back more than they brought. It is this last theme that is so important when thinking about global mission.
The most important thing I learned from this conference is how crucial relationships are to mission. Truly getting to know the people that that you are walking with is as important as anything. Far too often, mission is performed with a “what can I do for YOU” attitude. The people who have much go and help the people that have little and that is the end of the interaction. This conference emphasized truly getting to know and understand our neighbors, and allowing them to get to know and understand us. Mission performed in this way is a give and take action, a circle that allows everyone to bring home something extra in their spiritual suitcase. As we got to know the people from Belize, they echoed this sentiment. As I talked to long term missionaries in the Young Adult Service Corps, the Episcopal church’s young adult long term mission program, they agreed that mission is much more then digging wells and building houses. It results in relationships that last forever, breaks down barriers that were previously impregnable, and allows us to share the gospel in ways that I had not thought possible.
I think the Rev. Barbara McBride of Belize said it best when she said “I was very much encouraged by the excitement on both sides to see that the relationship we share continues to grow”. Moving forward, our groups have kicked around ideas of doing a “Happening” retreat with members of the Diocese of Belize, having members (especially youth and young adults) travel up to help with the Wakeman Camp and Retreat Center Project, intern exchange programs, and even a potential trip to the Holy Land. Every member of the combined delegation was engaged and excited about the future we were all helping to build. We have a lot of things to learn in Ohio from their diocese, such as the best way to handle multiple churches with a single priest, lessons in cultural differences, and new perspectives on life and on God.
In all, the conference was an amazing success. Our delegation made amazing friends and strengthened our relationship with our companion Diocese with whom we have a bright and exciting future. We were in the presence of men and women who have heard God’s call to action in this world and have chosen to follow it. We heard God’s call to make a difference in the world, with or without our worldly possessions. We heard God’s call to be flexible in our work, and to look to others for support along the way, and we left Puerto Rico with love and many spiritual souvenirs to keep with us in our lives to come.
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