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Commentary: Mission volunteers provide more than money

 


Commentary: Mission volunteers provide more than money

April 8, 2005

A UMNS Commentary
By J.P. McGuire*

About 10 years ago, what seemed a once-in-a-lifetime mission opportunity surfaced.

I was asked to bring a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team to the South African township of Umlazi to build a Methodist church.

I was excited about the opportunity, and thought everyone else would be, too. But my bubble was soon burst by one individual at my church. "Why should we spend so much money to send a small team of individuals all the way to South Africa," he asked, "when we could send that same amount of money, itself, to South Africa and tell the people there to use it to hire the work out?"

I knew all the smart responses, which I proceeded to list. But those answers seemed inadequate as I told him that Volunteers in Mission isn’t about the "construction of buildings" but rather building relationships. I talked about connectionalism and asked whether he thought we could raise the money equal to the cost of this team’s expenses and simply send it to South Africa. He and I both knew the answer would be no.

In the years that have followed, I have seen firsthand the answer to his questions, beginning with my first trip to the Umlazi township in South Africa.

Several factors made this particular opportunity unique. The township had a population of 100,000, and yet the church we were to build would be only the second Christian church in the township. The location of the Folweni Methodist Church was to be on the road that marked the dividing line between the Inkarta and the ANC political parties that were, at that time, opposing each other with guns.

Political and safety concerns in Umlazi seemed to mirror the conditions throughout South Africa at that time. However, the desire of the people of Umlazi to have this church was so strong they had begun building one themselves. That flimsy structure collapsed. In response to their determination, our team was recruited.

Because of safety concerns, our team—from Buncombe Street United Methodist Church in Greenville, S.C.—quickly learned it would have to stay in a separate community at night. Each day, we made the 30-kilometer journey into the all-black, poverty-stricken and turmoil-ridden township of Umlazi. And each night we returned to the all-white, upper-middle class, "safe" suburb or Amanzimtoti ("Toti").

The VIM director in South Africa preferred for us to stay with Methodist families in Toti because he knew we would share what we were doing and the concept of expressing our faith through our deeds. He explained that the Methodist Church in South Africa did not have the history of volunteerism that the United Methodist Church had in the United States. He knew we would talk, and he hoped the Toti families would listen.

Our team dug the footings, poured the foundation, built walls and set windows for the new church. We did not have time to put the roof on. We assumed some other UMVIM team would eventually come to South Africa to complete the building.

We were wrong. We soon learned the Toti church folks had gone to Umlazi and finished the job. What the VIM director had hoped would happen did indeed happen. Today, the VIM program is alive and well throughout South Africa. That would not have occurred had we merely sent a check and not included with it our hearts and our faith.

In September 2004, I revisited Umlazi. As I walked through the doors of the Folweni church, I noticed peeling paint, cracked plaster and the floor covering showing extreme wear. My first thoughts, of course, were of sadness the facility was not holding up better.

Soon I realized the "wear and tear" were to be celebrated. With membership that had grown to 400, the church’s building was so overused that it simply could not handle the crowds.

Construction of the Folweni church was merely the beginning. Just 10 years later, there are 25 Methodist churches in Umlazi. I visited one that had been dedicated a week earlier. It was "built by the youth" (funded and constructed by the local community, ages 25 to 35) and already has a membership of 300. I visited another church, dedicated a year ago, that has a membership of 800.

A lesson learned from my recent visit to Umlazi is that our smallest of actions of outreach do indeed make a difference.

Yes, it was the spirit of the Umlazi people that ignited the desire to have a Methodist Church presence in their community. But it was the team of nine volunteers from America who provided that church building and opened a new door to ministry in Umlazi and South Africa.

So for the second time in experiencing the Folweni church, I have pondered the question: "Would this have been accomplished by merely sending a check that could not have included our hearts and our faith?" And for the second time, the answer is a resounding "No!"

*McGuire is the California-Nevada Annual Conference’s Volunteers in Mission coordinator.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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