Mission Trips Carry Risk

| January 30, 2010

I've never seen it, but I'm told that somewhere at Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary, there is a wall inscribed with the names of its graduates who died while in the mission field. They died from all sorts of causes, everything from disease to murder at the hands of pirates. It's intended as an inspiration, no doubt, to the seminarians to emulate that kind of sacrifice.

They weren't graduates of any seminary, but the names of Merle West and Gene Dufour would belong on a wall like that somewhere. West and Dufour were faithful members of a Free Methodist Church in Clio, Mich., who went to Haiti for a couple of weeks to help build schools and churches. They arrived about an hour before the Jan. 12 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, and they died when the guest house where they were staying collapsed.

A memorial service was held last week for the two longtime friends here in Lakeland, where they and their wives spent the winter at a Free Methodist retirement community. Their bodies have not yet been recovered.

Free Methodist Bishop David Roller went a few days after the quake to the site of the building, where West and Dufour and the body of a resident missionary, the Rev. Jeanne Acheson-Munos are entombed. He led an impromptu service of his own and, he told me, he reminded those gathered there that those who travel to other lands in service of their faith take risks.

"I spoke of missionary graveyards all over the world. Every missionary goes knowing he may not come back," he said.

The U.S. State Department said earlier this week that 60 Americans are known dead in Haiti and another 37 have not been identified. Of them, at least seven and likely more were church mission professionals and volunteers, according to various news reports. At least two missionaries from other countries were killed as well.

The United Methodist Church lost two of its top mission executives: the Rev. Sam Dixon, director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and the Rev. Clinton Rabb, head of the mission volunteers office of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. Ben Larson, a Lutheran seminary student in Haiti to help out at an orphanage for a week, died in a building collapse, and Clara Jean Arnwine, one of 12 members of a volunteer mission team from Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, died of her injuries.

Of course, these deaths are not more tragic than others and they represent a tiny fraction of the loss, the overwhelming majority of which is being borne by the Haitian people.

The point is that these people are part of a trend. Many American churches in recent years have begun sending their members to other lands on short-term mission trips. They spend a week or two, usually in impoverished countries, teaching, farming, building, worshiping and administering medical care. In the best-case situations, there is a genuine give and take between the mission workers and those they are with. The Americans learn to receive and not just give, and they come away with a stronger faith.

But it is not very often when these volunteers prepare to go away for a couple of weeks that anyone says, "We may not come back." There may be discussions about the usual precautions – hygiene, security, etc. – but in my experience, Roller's articulation of the missionary's risk goes unspoken. We assume that if we do the right things, everything will be OK. What could happen? Death from natural disaster, or from injuries compounded by lack of adequate medical treatment, isn't high on the list of things to expect.

It used to be said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. That is, those who died in the service of their Christian faith were an inspiration that invigorated those left behind. It will be interesting to see the effect that the Port-au-Prince earthquake has on the trend of short-term mission trips. Will average American Christians continue to go – and send their sons and daughters – into places where the danger may be sudden and unseen?

If the answer is yes, perhaps churches will begin to put the names of their martyrs up on their walls as a memorial and an inspiration. They died in the service of God and humanity.



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Category: Mission Trip/Missionary Security