Thursday, April 11, 2024

Tammy Kuntz: Response to Mission Bound: Short-Term Mission as Pilgrimage

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Tammy Kuntz. Rev. Dr. Kuntz is Coordinator of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM), North Central Jurisdiction. 

Mission Bound: Short-Term Mission as Pilgrimage by Rodney Aist offers a consideration of the short-term mission volunteer as a pilgrim on the journey. He defines pilgrimage as “the experience of God, self, and the Other through time, place, journey, and people and the thoughts, images, and reflections thereof.” (chap. 2) He writes, “[Short-term mission] as pilgrimage is a paradoxical journey of give-and-take, in which we help ourselves by serving others …” (chap. 16)

In making the connection between short-term mission and pilgrimage, Aist emphasizes the importance of the “individual pilgrim who must interpret personal experience and situational context as she navigates her spiritual journey.” (chap. 3) He shares many good concepts for the individual who moves in the world seeking enlightenment. He cites Walter Brueggemann defining “transformation as a movement from orientation to disorientation to new orientation.” (chap. 13)

However, in Aist’s focus on the pilgrim as hero, the focus of service is lost. Aist provides little room for accompaniment, partnering, or the concept of risk-taking mission and service. Examples are offered of pilgrims who dictate the task that will be done and how it will be accomplished to the detriment and disappointment of the homeowner.

There is no hero when we serve with our neighbors in the world, and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission are much more than individual pilgrims. Volunteers in Mission move into the world not as individuals, but as a connected group of people serving as the hands and feet of Christ. They know that their presence in God’s mission is an opportunity to live in mutuality as they serve in new places and in new ways, knowing that the experience may change the way they see the world. 

Unlike a pilgrimage, where the individual expects a transformational experience, an effective mission journey is an experience with a team, living in a new culture and context, engaging in God’s mission. Regardless of location or the way people serve – as a medical team, disaster response team, education team, etc. - the connection with mission partners provides opportunities for learning, engaging, reflecting, and serving in mutuality. The opportunity for transformation is great, yet it may never be understood or may be experienced much later, after the story is shared and the extent of the experience is embraced.

Ultimately, this experience is not about us and our enlightenment as Aist suggests in a pilgrimage. It is about God and the ways we are called to share together in God’s world as we live out the Great Commission. As Rev. Jeremy Bassett said, “Therefore, it is not so much that the church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church.” (A Mission Journey: A Handbook for Volunteers, p. 5.) God calls us to mission not just as individuals but as a church.

A Volunteer in Mission should not enter the mission field alone without effective conversation and prior experience with a team. Connectional support is critical in order to engage effectively. Volunteers in Mission provides opportunities for volunteers to engage in God’s mission safely and effectively while serving in accompaniment with the people of the community - as part of a team, contextualizing the work as they honor one another’s spiritual journey. They realize that many facets of the mission journey are shared in the context of the relationships that are established.

Aist states, “Our theological task is to hold things together, to immunize complexity, to create the pathways for ‘both and’ approaches.” (chap. 5) This presents a challenge to the work of Volunteers in Mission as they engage in God’s world. Part of the job is to not hold on to conflict and challenges. Teams are reminded to remain flexible in planning and engaging. Complexities and alternative approaches create opportunities for cultural competency and engagement with our host partners and allow space for the Holy Spirit to be part of the community.

There is no acknowledgement in Aist’s book of the United Methodist Volunteer in Mission program as a resource for connections with project sites and missionaries and training for all aspects of the mission experience for teams and team leaders and individual volunteers. Training for missionaries of all types provides opportunities for reflection, discussion, and understanding prior to engaging with their project hosts. Volunteer in Mission team leaders are trained to facilitate conversations around mission theology and serving in accompaniment.

It is unfortunate that the Volunteer in Mission movement was ignored in this discussion. Something will always be missed; however, excluding this key resource that is available to everyone at God’s table of grace, for volunteers of all denominations, faiths, and secular groups, leaves the conversation lacking an avenue to engage in deeper conversation around how to serve safely and effectively.

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