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.