Illustration by Doug Chakya
What’s more challenging than facing the financial and social uncertainty of a global pandemic? Facing the financial and social uncertainty of a global pandemic while living in a foreign country. This is precisely the situation for most of Mission To the World’s (MTW) 600 field missionaries in 2020. And while missionaries are gifted at adapting to the unexpected — the informal motto of MTW is “semper Gumby” — Brian Deringer, MTW’s director for member care and development, says that throughout 2020 10 to 20 missionaries were in crisis at any given moment.
byFaith spoke with several missionaries in the fall 2020 about their experiences in the field and the unique stresses that COVID-19 has placed on them. The pandemic’s impact on their work varies as widely as the work itself. The one constant has been that they have seen the Lord at work in the midst of the uncertainty. And they covet the prayers of their PCA church partners.
The “Costly Setback” in Japan
Amy Newsome and her husband, Wayne, serve with the MTW team in Nagoya, Japan. Wayne is a church planter, and Amy is a Christian counselor and the head of Member Care for MTW’s Asia/Pacific region.
MTW’s presence in Japan stretches back for decades, but church planting is still difficult work. Every step forward is arduous, and every setback can feel like starting over.
MTW encourages its missionaries to name their losses so that they can grieve them.
When COVID hit Japan in the spring, the Newsomes were in the United States on a home assignment, so they missed the initial flurry of activity as missionaries and church leaders scrambled to learn how to livestream their services and strengthen their digital presence.
“We returned to a church that was very different from what we left. There’s a lot of ground to make up,” Amy said. Even as COVID cases decreased in Japan, church attendance did not return to pre-pandemic levels. Some of the absences are due to health concerns, but some former attendees stay home because of the convenience of watching online church services.
As head of Member Care, Amy supports the emotional health of the missionaries in her region. She sees firsthand the discouragement, stress, and fatigue playing out in the region. Missionaries must make the same adjustments as church leaders in the U.S., but with the added layer of cultural difference. “They need to re-learn their context and the needs. Previous experiences don’t matter as much anymore,” she said. “This a very costly setback.”
With no playbook, bewildered missionaries struggle to maintain the “semper Gumby” mindset needed for cross-cultural, overseas ministry. The extended crisis has worn out field workers.
“I hear from missionaries all over Asia that they are discouraged because every step is hard won in Asia. The churches are struggling for money; they are worried about the future. There’s weariness from people on the ground who are working hard and are just exhausted,” Amy said.
Because pandemic news dominates life, everyone seems to ride the same waves up and down. When things are good, everyone feels it. But when things go poorly — when case numbers rise or the economy slows — there’s collective discouragement. Amy said the stress builds on underlying issues, making everything seem harder.
But MTW encourages its missionaries to name their losses so that they can grieve them. And churches in Japan are supporting each other, standing together in a deeply secular country.
Amy said missionaries need the support and prayers of their U.S. churches even more now. But though the pandemic makes everything more difficult, it doesn’t shake the commitment of missionaries to the Great Commission or their belief in God’s sovereignty.
Caring for Peru’s Orphans
High in the Andes Mountains of Cusco, Peru, Kristen Henson has had her hands full during the pandemic. Full of good things, but still full. For starters, Peru’s strict lockdown guidelines meant her three sons — ages 9, 8, and 5 — spent two solid months indoors. Their school year, which runs from March to December, was canceled just 10 days after it began, and children were not permitted to leave their homes. Now they can leave the house, but Peru has still had one of the strictest quarantines in the world.
While under lockdown, Kristen continued her work running the Josephine House, an orphanage for children under three years old, but the work has slowed as the government offices, which normally find permanent placements for the Josephine House children, stopped their work. As a result Henson cannot accept more children because there are no available beds.
Of the 75 homes for children in Peru, only the Josephine House takes babies. Henson feels frustrated that the government shutdown has created a backlog while the need for safe housing continues. Normally the Josephine House is a revolving door with children coming in and moving on. But COVID has kept that door closed.
Despite its strict lockdown measures, infection rates have soared in Peru. Over the summer, Peru had more COVID-19 deaths per capita than any other country in the world, with almost 30,000 total deaths in a total population of about 33 million, double the rate of the United States and Brazil.
Keeping everyone safe and healthy at the Josephine House has proved challenging. The hygiene guidelines that Americans have heard ad nauseam since March 2020 — maintain social distance, wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick — are not as ingrained in Peruvian culture.
“We had to explain to people how to wash their hands,” Kristen said. “We had to teach people how not to get COVID. It was so hard to put protocols in place, so we will just keep them in place as long as we can.”
Beyond keeping workers and children healthy, Kristen has worried about keeping everyone employed. But God has provided. Her husband, Nathan, runs a medical clinic in Cusco, and between the clinic and the Josephine House, 70 people depend on the Hensons for employment. To date, not a single person has been let go because of the lockdown. The Hensons were even able to provide back pay for the time their employees missed because the country was shut down.
Erin Pervis suggests that churches take some time to check in on their missionaries and see how they are doing.
But others have not had it so easy. Kristen knows several women who are young in their faith and have faced extreme hardship during the shutdown. But though they face food insecurity, the women have grown in their reliance on God. These women are the most faithful to attend online worship services, too.
As the clinic reopens — with an ophthalmology clinic in Peru plus a dental clinic, physical therapy, and psychiatric services — the Hensons are eager to see how the Lord will continue to move in Peru, even if the pandemic and economic recovery take years.
Discovering Community Among Refugees in Athens
While the Henson family has enjoyed an abundance of time together, the Pervis family in Greece has had a totally different situation. The coronavirus has kept them apart from each other during times of lockdown and crisis.
David and Erin Pervis have served as overseas missionaries for more than 20 years. For the past two and a half years, they have worked with Middle Eastern refugees in Athens, Greece. The Pervises serve as ESL teachers for 10 families living together in an apartment building provided by their church. David also runs a small English club for a church plant in the center of Athens.
Greece’s lockdowns have made lessons challenging. The country has had two separate lockdowns since March, with rumors of a third lockdown after the Christmas holidays. When they cannot meet face to face, families gather around someone’s phone and get lessons from the Pervises via WhatsApp.
“Praying is a mainstay in the English lessons, so I continued to pray with them, even during the lockdown over the phone,” David said. And the Pervises continued to spend time with the families when possible. In between the lockdowns, outdoor classes, swim lessons, and hikes provided opportunities to be with the refugees and hear their stories.
But as the pandemic made its deadly march across the globe, Erin received troubling news: her mother was ill with cancer. Erin returned to the U.S. in February to spend time with her mother, only to find that border and airport closures made it impossible for her to get back to Greece.
For five months David was alone in Athens. It was a hard time for the Pervises to be apart, but in Erin’s absence, the refugees the couple had spent so much time with stepped in to help. In a culture that prioritizes the nuclear family, the missionaries had never received an invitation to join an Easter feast. But with Erin away, David received two invitations to Easter celebrations.
In November, Erin prepared to return to the U.S. and spend time with her mother, perhaps for the last time. Because of Greece’s second lockdown, she was from David for Christmas. But the refugees assured Erin that they would take care of David during the holiday season.
The lockdown also made it difficult for Erin and David to see their college-age children, who attend school in the states. She is thankful for those who have opened their homes to the students of missionaries who were left with few options when colleges closed in the spring.
“God is maturing my children and strengthening their faith,” Erin said. “The body of Christ has been good to my kids.”
She suggests that churches take some time to check in on their missionaries and see how they are doing. But because the pandemic has thrown the world into uncertainty, ministry opportunities also abound. The Pervises asked that churches pray for missionaries to see beyond the financial uncertainty and seize the ministry opportunities around them.