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Stories about missions,
by volunteers who have been there
Every year, more than 100,000 people serve in the United Methodist Volunteers In Mission programs. Walter and Betty Whitehurst, longtime leaders in the program, have gathered the thoughts and comments of several dozen long-term individual volunteers and presented them in this ...
Stories about missions,
by volunteers who have been there
Every year, more than 100,000 people serve in the United Methodist Volunteers In Mission programs. Walter and Betty Whitehurst, longtime leaders in the program, have gathered the thoughts and comments of several dozen long-term individual volunteers and presented them in this compelling book.
Truly a kaleidoscope of the Volunteers-in-Mission movement as told by the volunteers themselves. It offers a candid view of the joys, as well as the challenges and perils, of volunteers’ ministries.
-H. Hasbrouck Hughes, Jr., Bishop (Retired), The United Methodist Church
From hundreds of stories, touching people and places around the world, we learn something about who God is and how we are called to live lives that “become the Gospel.” This is a volume to be savored!
-Harriett Jane Olson, Deputy General Secretary, Women’s Division/United Methodist Women
Over the years, Walt and Betty Whitehurst have positively influenced and supported the lives of so many people. What a treasure they have given us to read and enjoy for ourselves!
-Jeanie Blankenbaker, Assistant General Secretary, United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, Mission Volunteers (Retired)
Walter A. Whitehurst and Betty C. Whitehurst have been at the forefront of volunteer mission efforts for United Methodists. They have led United Methodist Volunteers In Mission, Southeastern Jurisdiction, and served as consultants for Individual Volunteers for the General Board of Global Ministries. Walter is a retired clergy member of the Virginia Annual Conference, and Betty is a retired professor of Spanish.
In 1735, the Georgia Trustees asked John Wesley if he and some friends would go with James Oglethorpe to the new American colony of Georgia (named for the reigning monarch) as volunteer missionaries. —From the "Wesley in America" exhibit, Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, Texas, February 2003
Christian Love in Action," the motto of United Methodist Volunteers In Mission, is based on 1 John 3:18: "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." Living our faith is at the very heart of our Christian calling and reflects the purpose that has grown out of our understanding of who we are and what it means to put our faith into practice.
History of the Individual Volunteer Program
United Methodism has a long history of volunteer missionaries, beginning with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who answered God's call to travel to the colony of Georgia, where he had been invited by General James Oglethorpe to establish Anglican churches. After traveling to America, he learned Spanish in order to communicate with the Native Americans who had learned that language from the earlier Spanish explorers.
The individual volunteer program was started when some persons who had served on Volunteers In Mission teams said, "God is calling me to go by myself, not for two weeks, but for a longer time." As inquiries about how that could be done began to reach the jurisdictional UMVIM offices, a program was developed, beginning in the early 1990s, to enable persons to serve as individual volunteers for periods of two months or longer.
Others had felt God's call to mission for many years and were now ready to answer that call. As the program grew, the Southeastern Jurisdiction office of The United Methodist Church was asked to recruit, train, and place individual volunteers for the entire denomination.
By 1999 the program had expanded, and the Mission Volunteers program unit of the General Board of Global Ministries decided to sponsor the individual volunteer program for persons from the other jurisdictions in the United States and from other countries, while the Atlanta office continued to send volunteers from the Southeast.
In all this work, God has blessed the lives of many people through the service of individual volunteers. Even more, God has blessed those who have said, "Here I am, Lord. Send me."
There are many reasons for volunteering. We will mention just a few, with stories and quotes from volunteers as illustrations.
1. "I Was Called to Be a Missionary, but ..."
Martha Oldham's story is typical of the volunteers who felt God's call at a young age but were not able to fulfill it until later in life. Martha has written a book, Africa: Lord, Hang Onto Me and Don't Let Go (Pleasant Word, 2004). The story of her call begins with these words:
As a small child, I felt a call to become a missionary.... I had always heard about my paternal grandpa Geyer's desire to be a missionary in Africa, a dream he never achieved.... As an adult, when I saw stories and pictures in the news showing children starving in places like Somalia and Rwanda, with refugees dying from cholera, my heart would break.... I wanted to go to those places and do something. (17–18) Martha's lifelong dream was fulfilled when she joined a volunteer team organized by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to work with Rwandan refugees in Bukavu, Zaire. Next was a trip to Kenya with Feed the Children, an international Christian organization based in Oklahoma City, and then to Ghana with a Volunteers In Mission team from Oklahoma. After those group experiences, she decided to apply for service as an individual volunteer in Rwanda, where she did outstanding work with women and girls who had been traumatized by the rapes, murders, and other atrocities of the genocidal war between the Hutus and the Tutsis.
2. "There's More to Life Than This ..."
When asked, "Why do you want to be an individual volunteer?" people often reply, "I've been so blessed that I want to give something back out of gratitude to God." Especially after being exposed to poverty through a Volunteers In Mission team experience, they realize there is more to life than material blessings and want to find true meaning in their lives through service to others. A statement we have often heard is "It's payback time."
A dramatic example is the story of Larry Cox, who went with a volunteer team to Chile, and upon seeing the difference that volunteers can make in people's lives, decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life making that kind of difference. Several years after Larry became a full-time volunteer, his daughter Marie wrote a paper that sums up what the volunteer experience is all about. She wrote:
My dad was the chief financial officer and senior vice president for a flourishing company in Dallas. Now many people find it hard to believe that my dad was once a shrewd businessman, a workaholic of sorts, who worked seven days a week and had time for little else. Consequently, my family was climbing the social scale and indulging in all the amenities that accompanied our incipient wealth. During this time, I was a happy fifth grader and I enjoyed the security of my life and family. I didn't know it, but my dad was not happy, not even close. He severely disliked the hypocrisy and tedium present in his job.... Perhaps the reason my father rejected that which he once pursued was due to his trip to Chile. The summer before he quit his job, my dad traveled to an impoverished section of Chile with a church group to build a school for the children of a small village. After my dad returned, both my mom and I could tell that the experience had changed him. About six months later, my dad told me that he had resigned from his job. Naturally, this confused me because I thought my dad enjoyed his job; so I asked him why he would ever want to quit. I will always remember his reply: "Well, Marie, if I kept this job it would be like repeating the fifth grade over and over again." Of course, I immediately understood after he said this, for no fate would be worse for me, a fifth grader, than to repeat the fifth grade.... So how have my dad's actions affected me? He exposed me to a world that reached far beyond my white suburb. He taught me at an early age that money does not equal happiness. He showed me how to reject convention in the face of uncertainty. Truly, in a world of poverty, vice, and boredom he taught me to cultivate my garden. Larry began his volunteer work in Dallas, Texas, as the North Texas United Methodist Volunteers In Mission coordinator. In addition to facilitating UMVIM work, he was instrumental in founding several charitable institutions to serve the needs of inner-city residents, especially immigrants and persons with handicapping conditions.
Having visited Methodist churches and social outreach programs in Matamoros, Mexico, adjacent to Brownsville, Texas, Larry decided in 2002 to leave Dallas for Matamoros, where he could be personally involved in the ministries there and help volunteers from Texas serve more effectively. The number of teams and individual volunteers Larry receives each year is phenomenal, and the stories he tells of the people who have become like family to him are amazing and inspiring.
3. "It Was a Life-changing Experience ..."
Volunteers In Mission teams have often been the impetus for long-term volunteering. Dr. Charles M. "Chuck" Wheat described this kind of call:
It was just ten years ago, when I came to Oklahoma to escort Mother to that year's memorial service in Dad's honor, that I first became aware of the Volunteers In Mission program. Once we had entered the church, Mother abandoned me to visit with her lifetime collection of friends, and all of my own friends disappeared into their meetings. With nothing better to do, I started scouring the tables for any sort of reading material and picked up a little flyer about a VIM mission to Costa Rica to build houses for victims of the April 1991 earthquake. I had heard somewhere that Costa Rica was a beautiful country and a tax-friendly haven for North American retirees. Since the mission in question happened to be scheduled for August, in the interim between summer school and the fall term of the university where I taught, I decided to sign up and check it out. That proved to be a truly life-changing decision—I could not have, in my wildest imagination, visualized the outcome! That first mission was in equal measure fulfilling and frustrating. Our team was highly motivated and several of the members were skilled workers, but we were frustrated by the lack of organization, sufficient materials, and an inadequate supply of tools and equipment. It was clear to me that the program could not be completed with the teams scheduled, so I asked permission to go down "solo" to do some work and help prepare for subsequent teams. Through this effort, three of the houses were completed, but there were no resources available, and no teams scheduled, for the fourth house. In my view, failing to build the fourth house would have been a tragedy—it was designated for a single lady who was caring for a young girl suffering from multiple sclerosis and confined to a wheelchair. Their nights were spent under the eave of the public library. To get Casa 4 (House 4) done, I organized my first team under the Mission Costa Rica flag from students in the international finance class I was teaching at Stephen F. Austin University over the 1992 spring break. Since that modest beginning, I have been blessed to work with nearly one thousand people from forty-five teams, ranging in size from seven to seventy-four members (averaging about twenty-two), in several major projects. [Authors' note: The total number of teams and volunteers has now more than doubled.] Bob May, who later became a missionary with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, inquired about becoming an individual volunteer after he served on a Volunteers In Mission team. Because he was a highly skilled computer professional, we told him about the need for someone to go to the Philippines to help install computers in a United Methodist seminary and university, and teach faculty and staff how to use them.
When he came to the orientation/training session, Bob told the other volunteers that he was leaving his job in the computer industry to spend several months volunteering because he wanted to recapture the deeply satisfying emotions of the volunteer experience. "It was the greatest experience of my life," he said, "and I wanted it to continue on and on."
Bob stayed in the Philippines even longer than he had planned, thanks to financial help from church members back home in Virginia. He eventually returned home and notified us that he was ready to volunteer again. We had just received a request for someone to upgrade the computer system for an ecumenical mission agency in Afghanistan, and, of course, Bob was the ideal person for that task. At the time, since the Taliban was in control of the country, we could not tell others where he was assigned. He was listed as serving in Central Asia. His experiences there were so compelling that when his work was completed he applied to become a full-time missionary and was accepted, serving first in Bethlehem (Israel/Palestine) and more recently in Tonga, teaching computer classes at Queen Salote College.
4. "I Saw It on the Internet ..."
Volunteers sometimes apply for a specific position they have seen advertised on the Mission Volunteers website (http://gbgmumc.org/vim) or in a national or regional church publication, because it seems to be something for which they are well suited and would enjoy doing for a few months or longer.
A dramatic response to a specific need occurred one January when we received a request for a volunteer pastor to serve an English-speaking congregation in Milan, Italy, while the pastor was on sabbatical. We placed a notice in Newscope, a national United Methodist newsletter, and it was picked up and published by the Minnesota Conference UMVIM newsletter. We received more than sixty inquiries about the position in sunny Italy, most of them from icy Minnesota. A retired North Texas Conference evangelist was assigned to Milan, but a Minnesota pastor went to the Casa Materna orphanage in Naples and served there for several years as a result of sending her application to go to Milan.
On another occasion God sent us the perfect volunteer for a difficult assignment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United Methodist Committee on Relief requested a French-speaking volunteer architect or building contractor to help build covered marketplaces in that war-torn country so that people in the villages could begin to rebuild their local economy.
Shortly after we placed the request on the Mission Volunteers website, we had a reply from Dominique Gettliffe of Boulder, Colorado. Dominique is an architect and building contractor, originally from France, who had been searching for something meaningful to do in addition to his work building homes for affluent Americans—something that would help people who could not afford to repay him. The request from UMCOR sounded as if it had been written specifically for him. We heard from Dominique just a few days before our next scheduled orientation/training, to be held in Dulac, Louisiana, and on very short notice he arranged to be there.
The training weekend itself was a confirmation of God's call for Dominique. We found that the people served by the Dulac Community Center, where we held the training, are Houma Indians whose first language is French. After attending their French-speaking church service on Sunday, Dominique enjoyed visiting with the pastor and other church members who were thrilled to find that one of our volunteers spoke their native language.
Several times we have received a request for a librarian. Iquique English College, a bilingual Methodist elementary and high school in northern Chile, asked for a librarian who could help them computerize the library. We had just received an application from a retired librarian, Elizabeth Parker of Wichita, Kansas, and asked her about going to Chile. She said she could not do that because her mother would not want her to leave the United States. We found a place for Elizabeth at Lon Morris College, a United Methodist institution in Jacksonville, Texas, and later she served at the Servants in Faith and Technology (SIFAT) center in Lineville, Alabama, and at Henderson Settlement in Frakes, Kentucky.
5. "I'm Glad You Asked ..."
Some persons have studied the list of opportunities for individual volunteers found on the Internet and have been led to apply for a specific position listed. Others say, "Here I am, Lord. Send me wherever you will. I want to go where the need is the greatest."
Sometimes we have received a request from a specific location and shortly thereafter a person has called who is interested in serving anywhere, and we have said, "This request has just come in. How does that sound to you?" It has been thrilling to fill a need that has just been shared with us, although it is equally satisfying to find a volunteer for a position that has been on the list for a long time.
Volunteers often hear God's call in person, through someone who tells about a need for volunteers. In August 2004, a missionary in Honduras spoke for about fifteen minutes to a large group of volunteers and former volunteers at a combination orientation/training/reunion at the Wilderness Retreat and Development Center in Lawson, Missouri. Later, several persons who had heard the missionary volunteered in Honduras. Hearing of the needs from someone who had recently been there made the mission challenge come alive for them.
Excerpted from Following God's Call by Betty C. Whitehurst Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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