Kate Widmer began her Mennonite Mission Network assignment with language study and serving as the interim hospitality coordinator for the Paris Mennonite Center in 2019. She was just settling into a new assignment in eastern France when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
In France, we had been in national confinement for four weeks, when on Apr. 13, the government extended our isolation through May. I suspect confinement will continue for longer, perhaps the whole summer. What does mission look like in this strange new reality?
The first couple weeks, I felt agitated and lost. I had only arrived at my placement in Montbéliard in early January. After about a month of settling into a rhythm, suddenly, WHAM! The developing routine came to a halt. While many others of our world can continue with their work digitally, my work — considered non-essential — is done in person.
So much of what makes mission meaningful and effective for me boils down to relationships. Without solid relationships, how will anyone feel the love of God I'm trying to share? Why would anyone trust what I have to say? Why should they listen to me at all? Without these relationships, how will I come to see and know God in different and wonderful ways? And, how is it possible for me to cultivate these relationships during a time of mandated isolation?
My roommate helped me begin to answer those questions. Last year, as a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) participant, her team went to a Central Asian country. While there, one of the team's projects required a public bus ride of more than two hours, each way, to reach a school. By the time they arrived, the YWAM team had only 10 minutes before boarding the bus again for the return journey. They did this for several weeks. At first this arrangement infuriated my roommate and her team. What was the point? How on earth was this worthwhile?
But then they had a breakthrough: The journey was the mission.
Once the team adapted this perspective, everything changed. Being a team of international youth, several members' cultural habits did not match the cultural expectations of the country they were visiting. In this country, there is a very strict expectation that one does NOT engage with strangers on public transit. However, it was the team members' very foreignness that permitted them to break these norms. As a result, they spent as many as six hours each day having conversations that otherwise wouldn't have happened.
"The journey is the mission" is my new mantra.
I live in a small village in a house/community center known as La Maison Blanche (The White House). La Maison Blanche is long-established and well-known in the community. It is also quite visible, situated within easy view of at least half a dozen apartment buildings and twice as many houses. The community knows about every activity that happens at La Maison Blanche.
This visibility did not fully register with me until the confinement. Spring is well on its way here in eastern France and I have started a real garden, a dream of mine for almost a decade. I began to break the ground with only a spade in my hand and enthusiasm in my heart.
After a few days of slow effort, our next-door Spanish neighbor approached our fence to ask what I was doing. When I explained, he told me to stop immediately because after lunch, he would till my soil.
"It's still too early to plant most things," advised a Moroccan neighbor to the other side who has turned his entire yard into a garden. The Spanish neighbors and an Arab friend of theirs who lives down the street all stopped to tell me what to mix into the soil, when it's time to plant, and where to get the things I need for cheap.
I met neighbors I had never seen before the confinement. Many of them pass by the La Maison Blanche each day on their permitted daily hour of exercise, or to fetch their bread from the local boulangerie. As the days pass, more and more people stop to ask what I'm going to grow, to offer advice or encouragement, or simply to smile, wave, or give a thumbs up.
I'm connecting with my neighbors in ways I never thought possible. The journey is the mission.
While gardening, I've been singing to myself "Hamba Nathi (Come, Walk with Us)" from the green Sing the Journey songbook. I invite you to search how you are walking on the journey, even now during these strange times. Let's ask each other and Jesus to "Come walk with us, for the journey is long. Share our burden and join in the song. Come, uplift us, and bring us new life. Give us peace when the journey is done."