VMMissions Sees Hope Amid the Hardships
by Aaron Kauffman and Carol Tobin
The coronavirus has upended lives in countless ways and has lasted much longer than anyone would have hoped. Even so, the staff members at Virginia Mennonite Missions (VMMissions) note a number of ways the pandemic has been an opportunity to learn and even thrive in ministry.
Mission workers have turned obstacles into opportunities. Several international workers sought refuge in their home communities; others opted to go through with scheduled home assignments and ended up being denied permission to return due to pandemic precautions in their host countries. Despite not being on location, these workers have been far from idle. Dan and Mary Hess were able to assist in a relief project in Albania remotely from Virginia. Now back in Albania, they are building on those connections to explore a new church planting opportunity. While Mark and Sarah Schoenhals wait for permission to return to Thailand, they are working hard to compile written resources that enable Life Enrichment Church to continue to grow. Sarah is editing a book of Isaan worship songs written by church members, and Mark is compiling a minister’s manual for young leaders.
People are open to the gospel. The anxiety of the pandemic has prompted people to seek out relationships and explore the deeper purpose of life. In Waynesboro, Virginia, Armando and Veronica Sanchez shared the gospel with a woman Armando met through his construction business. She has since joined the church, Iglesia Shalom, and through her connections with a local non-profit, the church helped provide free flu shots to the community. On the other side of the Atlantic, Shawn Green has been instrumental in helping the Italian Mennonite Church utilize both online and outdoor formats. Both of these have drawn seekers more effectively than traditional services.
Virtual is here to stay. From board meetings to training to worker updates to prayer times, VMMissions has had to learn how to conduct events and meetings through virtual means. While fatigue is common in online gatherings, limiting the length of meetings, providing breaks, and varying the size of groups effectively mitigate some of those concerns. Clearly, VMMissions will continue to use virtual formats long after the pandemic is over.
Relationships matter. A few months into the pandemic, staff members began to notice the toll remote working was taking on their sense of connection to one another. Team leaders redoubled their efforts to check in with the members of their teams. Staff meetings have moved outside in person when the weather permits. A WhatsApp group has allowed staff members to share prayer requests and personal updates. These efforts have created space for staff to connect with and care for each other in important ways.
Fundraising looks different but is still possible. While the economy has certainly been impacted by the pandemic, donors are still eager to support the ministries they believe in. VMMissions is grateful to be one of them. Staff have found that donors are receptive to virtual meetings and events, as well as in person meetings with safety protocols. Workers and Ministry Support Teams have gotten more creative in their efforts, producing video updates or holding unique fundraisers, such as a gourmet popcorn auction online. Others have discovered that old-fashioned phone calls work as well as ever for sharing about ministries and inviting support.
Opportunities abound to love one’s global neighbors. Though VMMissions is not primarily a relief agency, the depth of human need at this time calls for a response. VMMissions is learning sound ways to support relief initiatives with its partners. One initiative was to create the Coronavirus Immigrant Care Fund, which has blessed 98 immigrant families with $29,300 in aid for food, housing, and medical expenses. VMMissions is also one of many partners that have helped Mennonite World Conference distribute over $414,000 in aid to 53 Anabaptist church bodies in 28 countries. Presently, groundwork is being laid to support relief efforts in Central America following hurricanes Eta and Iota.
The primary mandate of VMMissions is emerging all the more clearly. Rapid cultural change can incline both individuals and organizations to lose their bearings. VMMissions is giving fresh attention to articulating the “great purpose” for which God has created this agency: inviting people of all cultures to new life in Jesus Christ. In addition, learning about racial injustice embedded in the wider culture and the church is helping VMMissions uncover obstacles to achieving that vision.
Dependence on God has deepened. The pandemic has reminded VMMissions of the perennial need to rely upon the mercy of God. Staff have agonized in prayer as several persons in the VMMissions network of relationships have struggled through times of illness and hospitalization. Just recently, Klementina Shahini was medically evacuated from Lezhë, Albania, to a hospital in Rome, Italy. After three weeks, she had recovered sufficiently to return to Albania, to the great rejoicing of her husband, Dini, and the school and church community in which they serve.