GOSHEN, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) — Recognizing faithful commitment in an instant-gratification society, Mennonite Mission Network honored 19 long-term mission workers during the annual Overseas Mission Seminar held at Goshen (Ind.) College from July 19-25.
The 19 workers have dedicated more than 300 years of their combined lives to ministry with Mission Network and its predecessor agencies. Many of them serve in sensitive areas where identification by name and location would be detrimental to local believers and co-workers.
James Krabill, Mennonite Mission Network senior executive for Global Ministries explained the importance of mission workers willing to dedicate a large portion of their lives to ministry.
“In virtually every country of the world beyond our own, building lasting relationships is a much higher cultural value than performing short-term, quick-fix projects. ‘Being,’ in other words, takes strong precedence over ‘doing.’ For that to happen, it takes time – time to build trust, time to develop mutual understandings, time to cultivate respect for how others put their worlds together,” Krabill said.
While short-term mission can provide significant learning opportunities for participants, it is a first step toward something more meaningful. Short cross-cultural experiences are almost always enhanced when coordinated with relationships already established by long-term workers who have taken the time to build the bridges necessary for mutual sharing, Krabill said.
Augustín Melguizo, pastor of the Comunidad Evangélica Menonita de Burgos (Evangelical Mennonite Community of Burgos) in Spain, expressed appreciation in e-mail communication for the commitment and maturity of Connie and Dennis Byler, recognized by Mennonite Mission Network for surpassing 25 years in mission work.
“Many missionaries who come to Spain are pressured by their mission agencies to achieve results in a short amount of time. One of the elements that can cause offense when interacting with Spanish people is one's concept of time. First, you must dedicate yourself to getting to know people and winning them with friendship and a good testimony. Then after several years, you can begin to benefit from some occasions to present the gospel clearly,” Melguizo said.
The Bylers have adapted very well to the Spanish culture and their lifetime of service has given stability to the Burgos congregation, Melguizo said.
Responding to an invitation to provide leadership for a dispirited remnant of the “Jesus movement” at odds with the Catholic Church, the Bylers arrived in Burgos in 1981. Through Bible study and living out their faith, they led the young Christians to become, in Melguizo’s words, “one of the major Mennonite centers in Europe today.”
“There are cultures, places and times when you can act with moral authority only when you have walked with people year after year, when you have proven that you are not seeking power or self-aggrandizement,” Dennis Byler said.
Another mission worker who was honored with the Bylers has served as an evangelist, teacher and church leader for 28 years in a country where being identified as a Christian can be life-threatening. Although he is now serving with Mennonite Mission Network, he is grateful that he began working in this country in a self-supporting capacity. Rubbing elbows in the daily grind of earning a livelihood helps create integrity in ministry, he said.
“It helps you see things from the inside rather than from the viewpoint of a cultural anomaly,” he said.
According to this mission worker, an important aspect of long-term mission commitment is the ability to speak in a language that people understand. Often short-term mission workers have an equivalent of a third-grade linguistic proficiency, so the only gospel they can communicate is a simplistic one, he said.
Both the Bylers and the above couple transmitted thank-you messages from the congregations they serve to members of Mennonite Church USA.
In the country where Christians are a tiny minority, young believers have recently caught fire in sharing the gospel.
“I have waited 20 years for this,” one of the anonymous mission workers said. “Our witness is like a candle lighting the darkness. In the United States with churches on every street corner, our little light wouldn’t make such a significant difference.”
Connie Byler described the reality in Spain where most congregations are too small to support a pastor, obliging church leaders to earn a living employed outside the church. Pastors’ off-work hours are consumed by the needs of the local congregation, permitting little energy for the Anabaptist network in Spain and throughout Europe that the Bylers are helping to nurture through teaching, writing, a Web site and youth ministries.
“The churches in Spain appreciate the generosity of Mennonites in America that makes it possible for us to serve the budding Anabaptist movement on this continent,” Dennis Byler said.
Another aspect of long-term mission commitment mentioned by both couples is the stability of home-life for their children, thus, avoiding the search for belonging experienced by many third-culture kids, who often endure numerous transitions throughout their lives.
The annual mission seminar, a joint effort of Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness, offers opportunities for training, conversation and collaboration among workers reporting back to Mennonite Church USA supporters or preparing to begin ministry.
Other honored mission workers from countries without security issues included:
- Christine and Phil Lindell-Detweiler, Liberia, Benin and South Africa, since 1991;
- Kaz and Lois Enomoto, Japan, since 1998;
- Jim and Paula Hanes, Senegal, since 1998;
- Carol and Jonathan Bornman, Senegal, since 1999;
- Irene Bornman, Senegal, since 1999;
- Betsy and Steve Dintaman, Lithuania, since 2003.