Posted by: Titus Presler | April 27, 2020

Pandemic brings some Episcopal missionaries home while others continue in place

This is one in a series of posts about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on global mission. 

‘All of our people are safe and well,’ said Mission Personnel Officer Elizabeth Boe in an April 23 interview about the situation of international missionaries of the Episcopal Church amid the coronavirus pandemic.  ‘Some are home, and many are still in place.’

‘We’d been following this for quite awhile before the State Department released its Level 4 Global Health Alert,’ Boe said.  The March 31 alert read: ‘The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19.  In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.’

‘After the alert we gave people the option of coming home to the United States, or to their country of origin,’ Boe said, explaining that some Episcopal missionaries are from other countries.  ‘Most people did not want to come home, and the majority of our people are still out there.  We told them it was better to shelter in place rather than to travel.

‘We still have 18 people out,’ Boe continued.  ‘Some couldn’t come home because borders were closed quickly, especially in Central America.  I myself was supposed to visit some missionaries in Central America but then decided it wasn’t viable.  I could have gotten into El Salvador, but six hours after I would have arrived travel was banned.  I was supposed to go on to Guatemala and Honduras, but they quickly closed their borders.  We still have people in those three countries.  At this point the borders and airports are still closed.’

‘People who came home decided there was little they could do where they were.  For instance, schools had closed down,’ Boe said.  ‘Everything depends on the context.’

There are currently 33 people on the missionary roster, Boe said; nine are with the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC), and 24 are Episcopal Volunteers in Mission (EVIM).  The 18 still abroad include five in YASC, and they are serving in Bahrain, El Salvador, England, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Jerusalem, Oman, Qatar, South Africa, Spain, United Arab Republic, Dominican Republic and Tanzania.

Missionary blogs offer direct access to the reflections of those serving abroad.  Recent examples include Emma Wright’s blog from Oman and the blog of Joe Pagano and Amy Richter in South Africa.

‘International mission service helps prepare people for this type of situation,’ Boe said, explaining that going abroad in mission is inherently isolating.  ‘Resilience-wise, they are well prepared and doing well.’  In their places of service missionaries are adopting new ways of carrying out their ministry, much as Episcopalians in the USA are.  For instance, the three clergy serving in the Persian Gulf region are holding worship via the Zoom online platform.

Boe is keeping in touch with the missionaries through Zoom meetings.  At one recent meeting, the Order of the Holy Cross member who had been chaplain to missionaries during their orientation held at the order’s monastery in West Park, N.Y., joined in the conversation, and the missionaries were delighted to be reconnected with him.

‘This pandemic is showing us that we are truly interconnected globally, whether our daily lives show that or not,’ Boe reflected.  ‘The global Anglican Communion matters.  There are beautiful stories of communion happening in many different ways.  We need each other. This situation is showing that to all of us in a new and dramatic way.’

However, the pandemic has also curtailed plans to send new missionaries.  ‘We had to make the sad but responsible decision not to hold a mission orientation in June, so there will be no new appointments this year,’ Boe said.  ‘We’re sad about this, but from a safety standpoint we wouldn’t be able to do the orientation.  We couldn’t be sure that the pandemic would be controlled enough to send people around the world.  We have a duty of care for our missionaries and also for our Anglican Communion partners who welcome people into their communities.’

Boe wrote several weeks ago to the missionaries who were in the pipeline for the orientation.  ‘That was one of the sadder emails that I’ve had to write.  We were looking forward to seeing them again in June.  It was hard to write an email that I knew would take what is already a challenging and confusing time and add more chaos to it.  I told them we would happily hold a spot for them next year if that’s what they want, and a few of them have taken us up on that.  In the fall we’ll reach out to them again.’

Eight of the missionaries who came home would like to go back, Boe said.  ‘That could happen when it’s safe and our partners and we agree that it’s possible for them to return.’  Three of the YASC missionaries would like to do a second year beyond the standard one-year term of service.

‘How do we incorporate what we’re learning now into how we recruit, train and support people?’ Boe asked as she considered the future.  ‘People see that their stories matter, even in the midst of what seems ordinary.  Sometimes asking people how they’re doing is the best gift we can give, whether in a pandemic or not.  People who are already away from home and experiencing isolation appreciate that people are thinking of them and praying for them.

Elizabeth Boe served in Tanzania with the Young Adult Service Corps from 2008 to 2010.  She joined the staff of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Global Partnerships in 2011 and has been Mission Personnel Officer since 2017.

The Office of Global Partnerships is a member agency of the Global Episcopal Mission Network, which convenes mission-activist dioceses, congregations, organizations, seminaries and individuals to catalyze global mission throughout the church.



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