A Missionary Welcome (Part 1)
by Barbara Olson Bunk (September / October 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 5)
What do missionaries expect to occur during their "home leave" visits? A missionary suggests some ideas to help pave the way for a meaningful visit
Before we even buckled our seat belts for that first of many airplane flights and car rides, before we even stepped inside your church building or your home, before we even dipped our spoon or fork into that first bowl of Jell-O or
tator tot hot dish, we had a relationship with you.
You had already blessed us and supported us long before our first home leave visit. You, as a congregation, decided to sponsor us, a missionary family in Cameroon, Africa. Now, you are ready to meet us "face to face" and welcome us "home" for a short visit.
We tell the Cameroonian people about you and your relationship with them, through us. And now, when we come "home" to you, we are eager to share with you what it is that your prayers and financial support have done to make a difference in their lives. We truly believe that you are "there with us" in this ministry and we look forward to time together with you to tell our stories.
We do have certain expectations of what these visits will be like. We expect, like the apostle Paul, "mutual encouragement." I (we) are "longing to see you so that I (we) may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each others' faith" (Romans 1:11-12, NRSV). Therefore, we expect to arrange a time for a visit that is mutually agreeable.
We are sorry to say that we are not able to visit very many congregations on Sunday morning alone. In the past when missionaries had longer home leaves, they were able to stay for weekend "Mission Festivals." But we try to visit 15 or more congregations during a 2- to 3-month home leave. We move like a rock group "on tour," covering a 6 to 7 state area within a few weeks.
During this time, we are also very active in a four-day Global Mission Event, while on another week we attend a five-day Summer Missionary Conference. Furthermore, we need to squeeze in dental and medical visits and shopping, and our teenage children need to look at colleges. Our parents, siblings, and close friends whom we haven't seen for two or three years often put their vacation plans "on hold" until we first schedule our congregational visits.
Therefore, when we make an initial contact with a congregation as early as January or February, we expect a reasonably quick reply, perhaps within a few weeks. We appreciate any kind of quick acknowledgement which allows us to move ahead with our plans.
Other Key Concerns
Once we've sketched out a fairly tight schedule, we expect further communication with a congregational contact person concerning the actual visit. That person may be the pastor or a person on the missions committee.
We expect clear directions to the church or someone's house, and a clear idea about the time frame for the visit. We need to know if it's a worship service, and whether or not it will be broadcast and therefore under a strict time limit. We need to know if there are other types of events to participate in, such as Sunday School classes, youth groups, adult forums, or potluck meals.
If we want to see some congregations at all, it is often necessary to make visits on week nights in the summer when many people are drawn to other activities. We are fairly flexible about this and are happy to meet with a small group. We hope, however, that congregations can be creative and allow us to plug in to already scheduled activities.
In all of these arrangements, what we've come to appreciate the most is people who give us options about how we'd like to spend our time during the visit. When people are sensitive to our needs for a balance between rest and activity, we are better prepared for a successful visit.
On one very hot summer weekend, a pastor of a sponsoring congregation offered our family the choice of a tour of the city with him, or time to cool off in the motel swimming pool. We actually had a nice balance of each. We relaxed and had some quality family time. Later, when it was cooler, we had a short tour, followed by a nice dinner and conversation with a few members of the congregation.
The next morning, faced with a busy schedule of two worship services, Sunday School, and a potluck meal, we were refreshed and energized for meeting many people.
In another situation, we knew that the only weekend to visit a particular church was at a time which was very busy for them. They worked around their activities beautifully! The host couple had a wedding to attend as well as a family reunion on the same Saturday. They took time to welcome us in the motel, and visited for a while.
The next morning, we had breakfast and a time of sharing at the church, followed by a wonderful worship service. In the midst of the usual Sunday morning activity, they were also setting up for an afternoon open house in their parish hall to celebrate a golden wedding anniversary.
In spite of all this activity, we still felt cared for during the weekend. The people of the congregation did not leave us alone but welcomed us and listened to us.
This is quite different from a story told by a former missionary we know. After several letters and phone conversations between himself and a pastor of a congregation, he was looking forward to a warm welcome and more conversation.
When he arrived at the church at the appointed time, the pastor had left a note on the door. "Make yourself at home," it stated. "You may use my office and wear any of my vestments which are in the closet. I'm thankful for a day off up at my lake cabin."
This missionary preached, shook hands with people, and left after the service feeling quite lonely!
This is the area that seems to be a problem for almost every missionary we talk to. The ELCA Division for Global Mission sends a letter to congregations prior to a missionary's home leave visits. This letter states that the congregation receiving a visit is expected to pay for mileage, meals, and lodging along the way.
As a family, we also send one last reminder a month or so before our visits. This includes our itinerary, and a note stating how many miles we will need to travel to their place from the previous visit.
As mentioned earlier, we do long to see people "face to face" in our sponsoring congregations. The great deal of hospitality shown during these visits has been a real encouragement to us as we return to our country of service refreshed, and ready to continue on in our work.
We are happy to be able to express our thanks to those people in ELCA congregations who so lovingly give of themselves to make it all possible.
Barbara Olson Bunk works as a missionary in Cameroon, Africa. She and her husband, Charles, serve in the area of evangelism among the Fulani people. They reside in Tibati, Cameroon.