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September 30, 2009 > Local church recruits missionaries

Local church recruits missionaries

By Simon Wong

Reverend Amy Robinson, Presbyterian US Coordinator of Pasos de Fe (Walk of Faith) recently addressed an audience at Hayward's Westminster Hills Presbyterian Church to explain her ministry's function. Church members are recruiting volunteers for missionary work in the communities on the Mexico-US border.

Pasos de Fe, one of six Presbyterian ministry sites that stretch from San Diego and Tuuana to McAllen and Reynosa, focuses its work on Juarez/El Paso and surrounding areas.

The Presbyterian border ministry was founded 25 years ago. Each site provides bi-national education with the help of the Presbyterian Church USA, hosts short-term mission groups and builds partnerships between churches in the US and Mexico.

"Much of our work concerns how communities on both sides of the border understand the Church, the partnerships we form and our faith. Our cultural perspectives affect how we apply our faith. Tension and conflict sometimes arise when people have values and traditions and their respective interpretations of a tradition differ. There are language barriers. We try to navigate those misunderstandings to arrive at a common understanding of what it means to be the Church and to have a shared tradition that looks very different either side of the border," explained Robinson.

There are an estimated two million Mexican Presbyterians, predominantly women, who belong to the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico with which Robinson works closely. They are concentrated in the south.

In Mexico, there are different levels of "congregation." A mission has up to 25 people, a group of 26 to 60 simply constitutes a congregation and a church has more than 60 worshippers. Robinson belongs to a congregation sponsored by a church.

Colonialism, benevolent or otherwise, has bequeathed a legacy. Previously, mission work was an extension of control over other regions. Progressive thinkers no longer accept that model. Nevertheless, there is always a danger missionaries might unwittingly impose their own agenda in the communities where they work.

"We mustn't think or believe we know what communities need or want. We're not called to be a church of just US citizens. We're bound in one baptism and celebrate one communion. There are many standard bearers for the reformed faith; we're not the only ones," cautioned Robinson. "Today, mission work also raises awareness of local conditions, human rights issues and enlists the support of external agencies to help ameliorate such situations."

Presbyterian Church USA missionaries are facilitators and partners rather than evangelists. They train locals, who are familiar with local issues and language and can express the gospel with a local "accent," how to minister to a congregation and follow the community's agenda for the church. The local partner is the face of the church.

Presbyterian Church USA has overtaken the Episcopalians as the church with the highest per capita income. In Mexico, Presbyterians tend to be indigenous, working class and the dispossessed with little influence which can make it difficult for Pasos de Fe and its partners to achieve their goals readily.

Besides hosting, bi-national mission education and promotion of justice, Pasos de Fe will help develop new churches, empower the people and communities by supporting local projects and support existing churches' construction and evangelism projects.

Ecumenical relationships are a delicate matter in Mexico partly because of the historical power of the Catholic Church. Mexican Presbyterians tend to regard Catholicism as a colonial force. Presbyterian congregations have grown rapidly in the south where the population is predominantly indigenous. Divorcing oneself from the Catholic Church was a declaration of Mexican independence. Consequently, only 60 percent of the country is Catholic compared with, say, 97 percent in Poland.

"I'm particularly concerned about the issues in the Texas-border towns, hence our desire to send a group to Juarez/El Paso," said Amy Rickard, Director of Christian Education, Westminster Hills Presbyterian Church. "There is a world beyond Hayward, larger than the US, and we need to go where we're needed and do what we have to do to help humanity. Rather than travel there and find a mission, it makes sense to connect with one of our own ministry sites. We're part of Presbyterian Church USA."

Rickard hopes to form a group of 10-20 people. She is speaking with members of her local congregation. Several people in Berkeley have shown interest. A group of 25, by Spring or early June 2010, would be ideal.

"I hope we'll have a diverse group with some wishing to spend a month and others, who need to return home, being able to devote a week. We want Juarez residents to know we're with them, people care and they're not forgotten," stated Rickard.

"Unfortunately, the media presents a negative image of this region and perpetuates stereotypes," added Robinson.

To allay fears, Pasos de Fe's first concern is the safety of short-tem mission groups. The ministry would not accept such groups if it could not keep missionaries secure. Working with local partners and trusting local wisdom is key. None of the border ministry's sites has had a major security incident in 25 years.

For more information, contact Amy Rickard on (510) 782 5795 or visit Westminster Presbyterian Church, 27287 Patrick Avenue, Hayward, CA 94544. Donations to support the mission trips are welcome. Also visit, www.pcusa.org/border

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