“The Big Beautiful World of Church”
Last month, I had the high honor of witnessing the global ministries of the United Church of Christ up close and personal.
First, I attended (and was humbled to speak at) a summit convened by Global Ministries (a joint ministry of the UCC and Christian Church/Disciples of Christ) in Kupang, Indonesia. Eleven nations were represented by our precious partner organizations and churches in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Australia, Indonesia, Timor Leste, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, and the U.S. There were 53 pastors, theologians, activists, and social workers, all doing heart-wrenching work to end human trafficking, a multi-billion dollar industry that preys on the impoverished and desperate across the world and destroys the inherent dignity and worth of God’s precious children.
Over several days, these amazing partners shared their stories and expertise and imagined how we could more effectively work together across national boundaries to educate, advocate, and effect change. Their passionate commitment to ministering to survivors of human trafficking, changing policies and attitudes that perpetuate this social evil, and bringing a prophetic word of faith to the church on this issue was utterly inspiring. This is our wider church in action in the world.
From Indonesia I traveled with the Liddle family to Lospalos, Timor Leste. This is the place where Tom, Monica, Hannah (14), and Simon (8) Liddle have chosen to serve and make their home as mission co-workers on behalf of Global Ministries. The Liddles are part of our Minnesota Conference UCC family. Tom was ordained here and served our church in Cannon Falls. They were members of Peace UCC in Duluth and also attended the Cherokee Park church in St. Paul. The Conference and many of our congregations and individual members gave generously to support their appointment. At our Annual Meeting in June 2016 we commissioned them for their service as missionaries in Timor Leste. And now there I was, watching their amazing ministry with my own eyes.
Each morning, I sat in the patient rooms of the clinic where Monica serves as the only doctor. I watched patients arrive early each morning and fill the benches in the outdoor waiting area, some of them having travelled 1.5 hours, sometimes on foot. Small babies and entire families suffered with scabies or impetigo. One elderly woman had broken her arm in a fall, but the nearest x-ray machine was 3 hours of hard travel away. TB patients came for their daily, months-long treatments. A gentleman fainted and seemed to be suffering a heart attack; when the ambulance service did not respond to the clinic’s calls, Monica and Tom loaded him in their own vehicle to transport him to the local hospital. I watched as Monica and other dedicated clinic staff met each patient with professionalism and care, and witnessed their subtle frustration when the few medicines and treatments they had available were ones they knew were ultimately not enough. Yet this clinic, one of the partner organizations our church supports, is a precious lifeline for many, and Monica’s work there as a Global Ministries mission co-worker is essential.
Tom, meanwhile, did what all pastors do: responded as community members had need, struggled with church finances given extremely meager resources, worked with local church members to imagine new possibilities for their ministry, and prepared worship and Bible study for the church. On one very memorable night, fourteen of us packed into the Liddles’ not-so-big vehicle to travel a short distance outside the city of Lospalos along an unrelentingly bumpy road. There, behind a member’s home that was cobbled together with pieces of weathered tin, underneath a canopy of palm trees where a coconut occasionally crashed to the ground, we worshiped and enjoyed each other’s fellowship. In between the loud crowing of roosters, we prayed and sang and reflected on scripture, a little over 30 youth, children, adults, and elderly members sitting in our plastic chairs in one big circle, the bare dirt beneath our feet. It was so beautifully simple, and so incredibly powerful. This was the gathered church, a faith community more closely resembling the first Christian communities than anything most of us experience in the U.S. And this was our shared ministry at work in the big, wide world.
There is so much more I could say about the Liddles and their presence on our behalf in Timor Leste….I could talk about Hannah and Simon and how they too are extraordinary witnesses of God’s love and joy in that place. I could talk about the complexity of working respectfully and meaningfully with a local church partner. I could mention the importance of mission co-workers fully immersing themselves in the local culture and language, as the entire Liddle family does so genuinely. And I could remind us that as inspiring as our church’s global ministries and the service of mission co-workers are, it is also extremely challenging and often sacrificial work.
But what I really want to say is this: I am so deeply grateful for the ministry of the Liddles in Timor Leste….for their abiding faith, their commitment to service and partnership, and their willingness to embody the Gospel of Christ so fearlessly. I am thankful that we in the Minnesota Conference had some small part in getting them there, and that we can call them beloved members of our family. And I am so awed that this ministry we share in the United Church of Christ is one that extends across God’s globe, brought to life by our historic global partnerships and our dedicated mission co-workers, our brilliant Global Ministries staff at the national setting, and our generous gifts. We are bountifully blessed to share in God’s work of love and hope and justice-seeking world-wide through our global ministries. You can’t imagine just how beautiful and big it is.
Thanks be to God, for all the ways God calls us and sends us to be Christ’s witnesses to love and hope in all the world!
Your partner in service,
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister
(Note: You can follow the ministry of the Liddle family in Timor Leste by checking out their blog at www.timorsite.wordpress.com.)