Today's post is by Karen Distefano. Distefano is South Central Jurisdiction UMVIM and Disaster Response Director.
The Virtual Mission program, implemented in April, emerged from the very real need to maintain the connection between United Methodist mission sites around the world and Volunteers In Mission teams during times of quarantine and shelter in place.
The Virtual Mission is based on the traditional VIM team model, with a team leader working closely with the mission site host to understand the ministry and to help the site achieve its goals. Our first Virtual Mission was with the program “Give Ye Them To Eat” (GYTTE) in Puebla, Mexico, run by Global Ministries missionaries Nan McCurdy and Miguel Mairena. Working with Nan, we set the objectives of the mission: to introduce the team to the work GYTTE did and to encourage VIM teams to return to Puebla once the pandemic was over.
Our team consisted of 25 people from across the US, most of whom had never heard of GYTTE before. Like a traditional VIM team, we assigned people to different team “tasks”: construction, meals, devotionals, cultural research, safety, photography, social media, and fundraising. Their task would be very different than if we were on the ground, but still allowed for team members to be able to contribute to the mission. For example, the Meals Group would research the types of food eaten in the area and share recipes that we could make at home. The Construction Group looked at the types of housing that are typical of the area and how much a house might cost. The Photography Group searched for photos and videos of either the geographical area or from the mission site itself (many of the pictures came from GYTTE’s website and Facebook page) and then compiled a team video at the end.
The majority of the virtual mission content, though, was intentionally set by the GYTTE staff. Nan and Miguel, along with two staff members, shared pictures of their ministries and explained what they were doing in the community to empower and improve the lives of area residents. Another crucial piece of the mission was our discussions on videos and readings recommended by GYTTE. The Zoom platform allowed for our team to go into Breakout Rooms to discuss the information we had read or watched. Each Breakout Room was hosted by a GYTTE staff to allow for meaningful dialogue through questions and answers. By the end of the 3-day mission, team members unanimously agreed that they had had a true missional experience, in spite of the fact that we never left home. We forged a relational connection with our hosts and the GYTTE staff that will most likely lead to future teams visiting the Puebla mission.
One of the other intentional parts to the Virtual Mission is what we call the “Local Involvement” component. Team members were challenged to each come up with one idea of how they could continue the ministry(ies) of GYTTE in their own local community. For example, GYTTE has programs in the areas of agriculture and livestock development, water and sanitation, affordable housing, and community health. Suggestions for local mission work in our own communities could be partnering with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, setting up a food pantry, volunteering at a local free clinic, working with migrants, or teaching ESL.
The Virtual Mission can be a powerful evangelism and discipleship tool because it allows more people to explore God’s call on their lives and to see how their gifts and talents are valuable. The virtual model can incorporate people from a broad spectrum of age and life experiences into the body of Christ and allow them the opportunity to explore the gifts and talents God has given them.
The Virtual Mission will look differently for each mission context. It may even be a different experience for each team that goes to the same site. But what remains constant for each Virtual Mission experience is the refocusing on mission itself. Once the excitement of travel is taken out of the picture, team members are forced to see mission for what it truly is. The focus of the mission no longer is about the airline tickets, team t-shirts, and souvenir shopping. It is about the ministry that God has called us to and learning how we can be a part of it.