Monday, July 29, 2013

New Wilmington Mission Conference (NWMC)

After the third worship song on Wednesday evening, we joined the chorus of missionaries throng towards the platform.  Couple by couple, family by family, person by person, our names were announced along with our countries of mission service and the total amount of years we had served.  A woman dressed in all black with a veil sat next to us.  Her name and location were not mentioned due to security reasons.  Don Dawson, the indefatigable director of the conference, gave the final total of years served amongst missionaries gathered – 1,072 years.  Wow!  What a legacy.   

This last week marked the 108th annual New Wilmington Mission Conference (NWMC).  It is perhaps the longest standing mission conference in the United States, dating from the days of the Student Volunteer Movement when thousands of young people were signing up to go serve as missionaries to all parts of the world.  One of the early participants of NWMC was Robert McQuilken, founder of Columbia International University which has trained thousands of pastors, church leaders, and missionaries, serving all over the world.  Thomas Alexander Lambie, also an alumnus of NWMC, would become a dedicated missionary doctor serving in Sudan.  He would later become the first American missionary to serve in Ethiopia, where he launched the Abyssinian Frontiers Mission which would merge with the Sudan Inland Mission (SIM).  He would later serve in Nigeria and Palestine.  Within the last couple of decades, Harold Kurtz became a much loved participant of NWMC.  He was the first director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship (PFF), an agency which seeks to make the Gospel known to unreached peoples.

P1200374Some of the flags from different countries
represented at NWMC


This year nearly 900 people descended upon the small town of New Wilmington (PA) to spend a week together at Westminster College – worshipping, fellowshipping, praying and playing together.  Families have been coming to this conference for generations.  At the golf fundraiser on Thursday, I sat across from Larry Ruby who has been coming to this conference for 51 years.  He met his wife Linda here.  Others have also been coming every year for decades.  NWMC is geared towards the next generation.  The highest proportion of participants are high school and college age.  The music is loud, the spirit is fun-loving yet serious, and everyone is made to feel at home.  Every evening after the benediction in the large outdoor Anderson auditorium, we would all sing “Surely the Presence of God is in this Place” while embracing those around us and swaying gently from side to side.  For us it felt like a homecoming, though this was our first year to attend.


P1200386 A spirit of youthfulness pervades NWMC! 

As part of the missionary staff of NWMC, we were charged with speaking to high schoolers every day for about forty minutes.  We were admonished to engage with them, telling them about ourselves and our mission work.  I found this part of the conference most rewarding.  They had great questions and stayed awake despite a packed-out week of activity.  Kristi and I also spoke to young adults, children, and we shared during the vespers-hour one evening.  This conference felt like the crossroads of the Presbyterian mission world, and it was great to connect with old friends and make new ones as well.

P1200383 These high school girls were so attentive and had great questions
even on the last day of the conference

Some may ask, “What good can come from the Presbyterian Church (USA) these days?”  An easy answer is this – The New Wilmington Mission Conference.  Presbyterians are serious about God’s mission and having fun.  Please consider being a part of NWMC next year.           


P1200379Govinda and his family are missionaries to the US
from Nepal, serving in Lynchburg (VA)       

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Toxic Charity

I just finished reading this thought provoking book by Robert Lupton. I must admit that sometimes I had to read it in small chunks – just one chapter at a time – because it felt like so much to think about. I have studied international development and missions, worked with several different organizations in different contexts, and experienced situations where I struggled with questions of dependency and long-term impact. Yet, I felt like in this book Lupton articulated in a fresh and poignant way the harmful long-term effects that we too often have with our charitable efforts. For example, the unintentional battering of parents’ dignity when their children receive presents from strangers rather than from them. Or a church that makes an annual mission trip which over time weakens their partner rather than empowering them. It felt a little jarring and hard-hitting at times, but definitely a message that could be the wake-up call that we need.

Lupton writes from forty years of experience in urban community development, and involvement with churches in that process. He tells poignant stories that include insightful perspectives from people who have received help in building houses, tutoring children, or cleaning up neighborhoods in poor communities. I want you to read the book, so I don’t want to give away too much. But these are common situations…we know that the world is in crisis in so many places, and people are suffering. We want to help, and doing a food drive sounds like a great way to meet one need. Or sending a team to Mexico to build houses. Most of us have participated in some effort like that, or in some way supported those who did. It is these common actions and strategies that Lupton challenges us to reconsider. “Wherever there was sustained one-way giving, unwholesome dynamics and pathologies festered under the cover of kind-heartedness.” (pg 35) The action itself is not wrong, of course, but it is good to be challenged to evaluate our strategies and priorities in the process of trying to help.

While his focus in this book is rightly on charitable efforts within America, Lupton does discuss charitable efforts outside the U.S. as well, and cites the book Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo for statistics and examples. I have read Dead Aid, and recommend it as a book that also sheds light on efforts in international development. But in Dead Aid, Moyo bases her statistics and findings exclusively on government to government aid (e.g. the U.S. government giving a loan or grant to Congo). So – my one reservation in Toxic Charity is that sometimes he is using statistics from Dead Aid that might not be the proper fit for the context.

Lupton lays out some good principles to guide our efforts to help, including his Oath for Compassionate Service. One message stands out clearly in his book that we heartily endorse – relationship, or partnership is key. We (as westerners, or anyone trying to help someone else), need to make sure that we are not disempowering those we are trying to help, or imposing our own goals or strategies for how the problem should be resolved. This is hard. I am a person that loves to help, and likes to be efficient. Sometimes, I go overboard, in doing something “helpful” for Bob, and he has to remind me that he would have preferred to do it himself. Even more so in a cross-cultural or partnership situation do we need to exercise restraint and respect the decisions and priorities of our partner.

We encourage you to read this significant book – and you can join us to hear Robert Lupton speak and discuss more about healthy engagement in missions at the Big Tent World Missions conference in Louisville, August 1-3.