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Listening: Missionary program is integral for bridge-building, candidates learn

By Matthew Davies
[Episcopal News Service]  A vital component of the Episcopal Church's mission in the world is its missionary program, which embraced 23 candidates for a two-week-long orientation in New York January 7-21, "to aid with discernment and to give the candidates the tools to do the ministry they feel called to do," the Rev. David Copley explained.

Copley and his wife, the Rev. Susan Copley, are seasoned missionaries currently serving as assistant rectors at St. John's Episcopal Church in Hampton, Virginia. They were co-coordinators of the missionary orientation, which is administered by the Episcopal Church's Mission Personnel Office, part of the Anglican and Global Relations (AGR) cluster.

The Copleys have worked as relief workers in Liberia and spent four years as Episcopal Church missionaries in Bolivia.

They described the missionary candidates as "a wonderful group of energetic and enthusiastic people, who have a heart for God and want to serve God and God's Church," adding that it gives them great hope and encouragement for the future of the Episcopal Church.

Throughout the orientation, candidates received practical help in areas such as fund-raising, health issues overseas, culture shock, and language learning, as well as an overview of the Episcopal Church as an institution, Copley explained. "This is needed so that the candidates know what tools are available to them when they are in the field and so that they are fully aware of the scope and diversity of the Episcopal Church."

Participants also received significant teaching about the Episcopal Church's mission history, the development of the Anglican Communion and various issues of polity, relationships of the Episcopal Church in the world, and the many mission networks and other initiatives in the church, explained AGR director Margaret Larom.

Another dimension to the missionary program is the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC), a collaborative effort between AGR and Ministries with Young People, which offers one-year assignments to 18-30 year olds to work with a local church or church-founded institution or program.

Offering support to the YASC candidates were Willis Jenkins, a member of the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on World Mission and former Volunteer for Mission, and Douglas Fenton, staff officer for Young Adult and Higher Education Ministries.

Historically a missionary church, the official legal identity of the Episcopal Church is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, often referred to as DFMS -- thus coordinating a missionary program is an integral part of the church's focus.

For Larom, the most important aspect of being a missionary is the building of relationships. "This leads to bridge-building," she said, "because the missionaries help to transform our churches through their experiences."

Because of their connections with congregations and dioceses back home, the missionaries also encourage Episcopalians to become more engaged with the church globally, Larom said, "and hopefully this enables us to become better partners so that we're better equipped to strengthen the Communion."

Larom also explained that some people are simply called to live and work in different cultures, "so to be able to support those people who feel able to function in a totally different environment is extremely important because not a lot of people can do it."

Finally, there's the biblical mandate, Larom added, "that instructs us to teach and serve and to step outside our own boundaries."

The AGR office contributes to the budgets of missionaries and each individual raises significant financial support, particularly from parishes and dioceses.

There are currently more than 80 Episcopal missionaries serving throughout the world in countries such as Brazil, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Haiti, Jerusalem, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa and Tanzania.

"Coordinating a mission program is, in essence, how the community of God fulfills its Baptismal vows: to be in relationship with God and with each other," Copley explained. "The mission program enables the Episcopal Church, through its missionaries, to be the hands and feet of God and of their brothers and sisters."

It is particularly important at this time in the life of the Anglican Communion for "missionaries [to] perform a growing role as ambassadors of the DFMS, helping to repair and develop relationships with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the communion," Copley acknowledged.

One of the candidates, the Rev. Ndongu Ikenye of the Diocese of Chicago, is hoping to teach pastoral theology and counseling in the Diocese of Thika in the Anglican Church of Kenya.

After two years of vocational discernment, Ikenye, who migrated to the United States from Kenya in 1988 and became a full citizen in 1993, felt that he had the appropriate gifts to share as a missionary. "We need to be in relationship with other members of the Anglican Communion so that we can be bridge-builders," he said.

Ikenye, who was a member of the Diocese of Chicago's Windsor Report Task Force, said that the missionary orientation has helped to identify the gifts and resources of the Episcopal Church and how best to use them in other parts of the Anglican Communion. "We have a lot of gifts but we need to be guided," he said.

Approved by General Convention in 2000, the YASC program "brings young adults into the life of the Anglican Communion and into the daily work of a particular community," said Fenton. "Yet it also intends to bring the resources of the church into the lives of younger people as they explore on what paths their faith may be leading them."

There are currently nine young adults serving in the YASC program, many of whom use their experience as a time of discernment for ordained ministry.

Mary Barber, a nurse from Washington State who is hoping to serve as a YASC member, said that the missionary orientation had been useful in terms of practical and spiritual formation.

"It has also helped to increase my awareness about the disparity between my life and others in the world," she said. "We need to create a higher level of understanding so that we can live together in a just society with more equality."

"I'm sure some of the things we see in the world today are not as God intended them to be," Barber added. "We who have privilege and advantage should share that with the wider world and that is what being a missionary is all about."

Jenkins, volunteer for mission with the Church of Uganda from 1997-8 and appointed missionary to a companion diocese relationship until 2000, explained that missionaries, both sent and received, are a major part of the Episcopal Church's connection to the rest of the Communion.

"They are often the personal face of the Episcopal Church's engagement with issues like AIDS, relief and rebuilding, peace and reconciliation work, and caring for those beyond our own boundaries," he said, acknowledging that a growing number of young adults in the Episcopal Church seek out their vocations through service work.

"Most of the applicants to YASC sense that the peculiar graces of cross-cultural and international service may help them understand how the church can use their gifts and may clarify the direction their faith is taking them," he said. "By offering them the real challenge of building relationships through cross-cultural mission service, the Church takes seriously its future leaders by offering them leadership opportunities now."

The missionary orientation, Jenkins explained, offers a retreat for candidates to understand their mission service as participation in the mission of the church and the mission of God.

"It also introduces mission candidates to the sometimes complex array of Anglican relations, offices, institutions, and resources," he added. "It helps [to] prepare candidates for the difficulties of crossing boundaries of culture, wealth, and nationality. But most importantly, mission candidates inevitably build community of the like-spirited."

Jenkins' own experience of living in a Ugandan village and working with the Church of Uganda "has irrevocably claimed my life," he said. "It is a great privilege to work with the church to offer other young people such transformative opportunities."

Highlights of the orientation included a meeting with Dr. Lucinda Mosher, a Christian ethicist who focuses on inter-religious concerns, on January 19, to engage in dialogue about Christian-Muslim relations, followed by a visit to New York's Grand Mosque at 96th Street.

Hosted for lunch by Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam of New York, the candidates engaged in a lively discussion about Muslim and Christian relations, in which Roskam explained that such relations vary differently depending on the context in which people live.

"I felt very privileged to have been with this group," Copley said. "There was so much energy and life generated that I felt that the Holy Spirit was very much present in a tangible way. The excitement that they have for mission and for the church is refreshing to experience."