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Witnessing in place

Coronavirus lockdowns have radically changed the nature of missions overseas, but cut-off-from-home missionaries say they still have work to do

Witnessing in place

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

In a world turned upside down, Kristiina Day greets another morning by prepping to teach her students online at an international school in Madrid. 

Georgi Dugulescu dons protective gear, gloves, and a face shield before she heads out on food deliveries to elderly residents in Timisoara, Romania.

Jennifer Myhre climbs into her car for the 8-mile drive to Bundibugyo Hospital, a commute that’s changed from routine to risky. She worries that she and her husband, both physicians, may be stopped by Ugandan police because a required “COVID-19 Medical” decal has yet to arrive. The couple carries with them written permission from local officials for essential travel.

The whole globe is navigating life under the restrictions and threats of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But missionaries who have accepted a calling to serve overseas—seemingly accustomed to hardship duty—also are navigating terrain that’s uniquely new. Most find themselves faced with random shortages of everyday supplies and enduring severe restrictions like curfews and limits on movement, not to mention the menace of the virus itself.

SUMY SADURNI/AFP via Getty Images

A Red Cross volunteer takes the temperature of a man before he can enter a market in Kampala, Uganda. (SUMY SADURNI/AFP via Getty Images)

At the same time, the support systems they count on back home are strained. Mission administrators are working under stay-at-home orders, churches no longer meet, and family members themselves are at risk. Back in the States, college-age dependents have no classes to go to or homes they can get to. Aging parents seem more vulnerable than ever and impossible to reach physically. Most organizations have canceled short-term mission trips that provide needed help. Ongoing fundraising in the face of a global economic shutdown is daunting.

“How do we continue to call the North American church to care about the world?” said Matt Allison, director of operations at Serge, the Philadelphia-based missions organization the Myhres work with. “There are acute needs on the U.S. home front, to be sure, but they can become a tunnel that keeps us from seeing the rest of the world in this pandemic.” 

Monitoring the pandemic for Serge and other agencies hit a crisis point when U.S. policies limiting travel began in March. First the State Department on March 14 authorized departure for diplomatic personnel around the world due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Then—as the number of confirmed cases in the United States quadrupled from 2,800 to over 10,000 in five days—officials raised to Level 4 a global health advisory. It warned U.S. citizens against international travel and said Americans overseas “should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”

The following week, the European Union closed its borders, a closure now likely to extend at least through mid-May, and possibly beyond. President Donald Trump banned European travel to the United States. 

It was a “poignant moment” for many of the over 300 missionaries under Serge care, said Allison. Some workers had health issues, expiring visas, or family events that called for upcoming trips to the United States. Suddenly a trip planned in a few months had to happen in just a few days. 

“In those first weeks we had to deal person by person to sort it out, there was no one-size-fits-all policy, and we wanted to be sure our people were where they needed to be,” Allison said.

Like Serge, most agencies WORLD contacted are reluctant to report specifics on missionaries due to security and privacy concerns. But most indicated fewer than half their missionaries made hard decisions to return home, while most decided to remain abroad.  

Some dilemmas, said SIM administrative assistant Susan Snyder, were formidable. During the first weeks of travel restrictions, SIM’s North Carolina headquarters received prayer requests and letters from 169 of its missionary families in at least 38 countries, she said. 

Many faced sudden separation from family members, including a handful who find themselves apart from spouses indefinitely. Others realized they had to leave the country where they serve without time to prepare or say goodbye. Altogether SIM workers faced a collective “heartbreak,” too, knowing that many around the world would be dying “without knowing the healing name of Jesus,” said Snyder.

“Our greatest work is still ours every day—the work of prayer. Prayer knows no boundary, no quarantine, no confinement.”

“Our greatest work is still ours every day—the work of prayer,” said SIM international director Joshua Bogunjoko in a letter to workers. “Prayer knows no boundary, no quarantine, no confinement.”

 

A BRIEF SURVEY OF MISSION agencies shows they have had to make wider-ranging policies to protect workers in the field and at home. Serge postponed scheduled travel until at least the end of May and has canceled a companywide conference scheduled for this summer, one that happens only every four years and involves all its teams. The group hopes to reschedule the gathering in 2021. 

The International Mission Board (IMB), the mission agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, has postponed all volunteer trips to support overseas outreach until June 30. Board leaders planned to review in May whether to postpone or cancel volunteer trips after that.

The Richmond, Va.–based IMB also had to cancel an extensive outreach ministry involving 250 Southern Baptists who volunteered for teams serving the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer (now postponed until 2021).

IMB President Paul Chitwood told supporters in a video message the board wants to protect the safety of its 3,700 overseas workers but also advance the gospel in difficult times. “As people fear death, the gospel rings true,” he said.

Some missionaries say the decision to remain abroad was easy. “When the U.S. embassy warned us to go home, and our director graciously offered for us to go with a clear conscience, without hesitation I agreed to stay,” said Kristiina Day, who teaches English at Life International School in Madrid. “Leaving my students, my neighbors, my friends here during this time of need is unthinkable,” she told me by email.

Handout

Kristiina Day (Handout)

Raised in California, Day has worked since 2016 under TeachBeyond, a global education agency. Life International is a Christian school in its third year of operation, and it draws students mostly from evangelical families. Enrollment this year had doubled before Spain’s coronavirus outbreak forced the school to close.

Spain has had the highest number of reported coronavirus cases in Europe (at 174,000 by April 15). With 18,000 deaths, it also has the world’s highest per capita death rate (390 per 1 million people versus 79 per 1 million in the United States, according to figures compiled by Worldometer).

“By this point it’s almost impossible not to know someone affected,” said Day. Her pastor in Madrid is recovering from COVID-19, along with others in the church who are sick. Many people connected to the school have symptoms, but everyone she knows has been able to recover at home.

Since the government in March closed schools and businesses, limiting activities to grocery shopping and doctor visits, Day has spent days in her flat alone. “I am still teaching online, regularly meeting and praying with church friends, and finding ways to brighten my neighbors’ days by leaving pictures and encouraging notes in the hallways,” she told me. “God has given me incredible peace and encouragement each day.”

Most countries hard hit by coronavirus have stricter social distancing policies than the United States, forcing missionaries to innovate their way—sometimes past language barriers—to virtual connections. 

Janée Angel, who with her husband helps to lead an Arabic--speaking church in Belgium, now helps him hold online services in Arabic. She gives short daily talks online for women in the church—“just a brief word of encouragement”—in English, Dutch, and French. 

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The Khano family (Handout)

With prompting from the couple’s two daughters, a virtual Sunday school class was added via Facebook. “Normally that class would have 5-10 kids, but online we have about 500-600 people watching,” she said.

Angel, who serves with Decatur, Ga.–based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, is an Illinois native. She met her husband, Syrian Hary Khano, on the mission field. In 2011 the couple planted an Arabic-speaking church in Antwerp that has grown into three locations.

Belgium has the 10th-largest number of coronavirus cases in the world and the third-highest per capita rate of cases, behind Spain and Italy. Deaths rose to more than 4,000 in April even with stringent lockdown measures in place since March 17. Those measures include a ban on all gatherings outside families and a ban on travel, including car trips other than to a doctor or for groceries. Those restrictions have been extended into May. 

The Antwerp church has at least three members with the coronavirus, including a single mother and her 20-year-old daughter, as well as high-risk members who need help. Hary delivers meals to those families, and church members try to share shopping errands. 

The girls seize opportunities for tangible service and rare outings. When an assisted living center at the end of their street asked neighbors to deliver cards to elderly residents, the girls made paper hearts with Scripture verses, donned homemade masks, and delivered them to post boxes in the center’s lobby.

“We are learning just like you are how to do life in this new normal way,” said Janée. “And, remembering Romans 8, we see no comparison between the present hard time and the coming good times.”

Hectic days don’t diminish worries for family members far away: “My dad has congestive heart failure and his kidneys are failing. I’m an only child. My concern is if something happened to him, I cannot get back to the States, I would be quarantined, and I can’t be there to help my mom.”

 

MANY OUTREACH GROUPS are learning to depend on locals with the departure of foreign nationals. Serve the City International, a not-for-profit organization that grew out of an international church in Brussels, is now sending its local teams of volunteers to help communities manage their coronavirus crisis. In Dublin that means helping at mobile testing sites; in Paris, distributing food to the homeless; and in Romania, where Georgi Dugulescu lives, it means mobilizing to help the elderly and others confined to their homes. 

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Georgi Dugulescu (Handout)

Carlton Deal, the American founder, told volunteers in a letter, “The important thing is not to decrease our serving activities, but actually seek to increase, in safe and creative ways.”

Life for many during the pandemic appears on hold, but not for front-line health workers like Scott and Jennifer Myhre. The road they travel to Bundibugyo Hospital in Uganda’s northwest each morning is mostly empty. The wards upon arrival are full. Babies are sick and some are dying. 

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Jennifer and Scott Myhre (Handout)

Absent an ability to test for COVID-19, doctors are on the lookout for respiratory illnesses, which are prevalent, while critical treatments for malaria, TB, malnutrition, and birth trauma must go on.

Uganda had 55 COVID-19 cases on April 15, but African leaders, watching the exponential growth curve in more developed countries, are taking drastic steps to enforce social distancing. They know if the virus takes off, with only a handful of ventilators and few other resources, it will be catastrophic.

Police in Uganda enforce lockdown protocol, prohibit foreign travelers, even bar taxi rides and all but essential businesses. President Yoweri Museveni gives nightly televised pep talks. In one, the 75-year-old leader demonstrates his exercise routine, jogging laps in his office.

Morning staff meetings at Bundibugyo Hospital now take place outdoors, with medical personnel standing apart as they discuss the day’s caseload. Surgical masks are worn all day, and when the Myhres leave the hospital, they place theirs on top of the dashboard to be sanitized in the hot sun as they drive home, ready to be used again and again.

The Myhres in 1991 joined Serge (then World Harvest Mission) and have served in hospitals in Kenya and Uganda, raising four children at Bundibugyo who currently live in the United States. Between 2007 and 2008 Bundibugyo became the epicenter of an Ebola outbreak that left 39 people dead, including one of the first Ugandan doctors the missionary couple helped to train.

“For us, the feeling of being here alone and no escape route, of being on the front line of danger, of the potential that any human contact could be fatal, that is more like Ebola,” Jennifer told me by email in April. 

Then, they had no treatment for Ebola and as deaths mounted sent their children to live elsewhere. “It was a time of standing only on God’s mercy. And because our closest friend and colleague died, we knew that God’s mercy did not equal our preferred outcome.”

In similar times now they work to maintain a familiar sense of purpose. The coronavirus threat is real, but in the meantime malaria and other complications they see every day “will take more lives than Ebola and COVID-19 combined in Africa this month,” said Jennifer. 

Uganda has a 7 p.m. pandemic curfew. The Myhres, who serve as East Africa area directors of Serge missionaries in five countries, use evenings to connect with other teams and hosted a virtual Passover Seder meal with them in April.

Researchers estimate 93 percent of the globe is living under coronavirus-related restrictions, with 3 billion people living in countries completely closed to foreigners.

“This pandemic is a unique equalizer,” said Serge’s Matt Allison. “People in rural Africa are practicing social distancing, and people in New York City are practicing social distancing. It’s also a time for unique empathy. Our challenge in missions is to bridge cultural gaps in America, but our struggle in America looks more like our struggles on the field right now. We are all lamenting the same things.”

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.