Mission Control by Cheryl Norrie

This story was initially published in The Dominion Post on November 7, 2009.

9 December 2009

Today's missionaries are a long way from the black-clad English clergymen pictured in 19th century paintings preaching to dark-skinned natives. The Anglicans' Church Missionary Society now sends mission 'partners' to regions all over the world - they are usually invited by local dioceses and their desire to work in the third world can be as much about helping the poor as it is about converting the locals.

Young, blonde, and well-educated, Miriam Freeman-Plume is part of the church's new generation. Fired by a burning desire to help AIDS orphans in Africa, in 2006 she left her lawyer's job at the Wellington Community Law Centre for Tanzania's dusty red earth capital, Dodoma, where she worked for 'The Carpenter's Kids' programme, helping orphaned and vulnerable children get an education. The project, which linked parishes in the US with parishes in Tanzania, saw the American donors providing US$50 a year per child for school uniforms, shoes and materials - and breakfast on school days - to a minimum of 50 children in their partner parishes.

Miriam arrived three months after the programme started, and was thrown in at the deep end, facilitating communication between the American parishes and the Tanzanians and helping the organisation with its strategic development. After initially making a nervous commitment to work there for nine months, Miriam found herself staying two and a half years, by which time The Carpenter's Kids was helping to support 4,500 children through school.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic provided a constant backdrop to the work. Miriam travelled with other staff every Saturday into the rural villages to distribute the school uniforms and shoes, and make contact with the children's guardians. "We'd always meet in either a church or a public hall and the guardians would sit on one side of the church and all the children would sit on the other, and in some of the parishes that we went into all of the guardians would be very elderly, and that generation of parents that you would expect to see were just missing."

Newly married (to husband Matthew Freeman-Plume) Miriam has returned to the fold at St Michael's Anglican Church in Kelburn and to work as a programme officer at NZAID, the development assistance division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

She's still thinking about what the experience as a missionary has meant to her, but says it was a privilege to have been involved in The Carpenter's Kids, especially from so early on, and to have been part of developing the culture of the organisation. "There's an immense sense of satisfaction in that. It feels like we've been part of something that makes a difference."

Two of Miriam's fellow parishioners at St Michael's, Martin and Lily Emo, are now serving as mission partners in Nicaragua. Speaking via an internet video call from Managua they say they were drawn to mission work, partly because they wanted to work overseas, but also because they wanted to be part of a local faith community.

Lily and Martin are working with the Council of Protestant Churches in Nicaragua (CEPAD), and learning Spanish on the side. Lily is using her skills in photography and design to help in communications and in documenting project work for CEPAD while Martin, a high school teacher, is helping with English tuition in schools. 

They are still adjusting to big city life in the hot, concrete-paved capital. There are bars on their windows and doors, and a locked gate with razor wire on top at the entrance. Every journey is planned. At night they use a trusted taxi driver they have had recommended to them, and who they know is safe. The local movie guide is filled with advertisements for guns. "(The danger) is always there. It's always in the back of your mind," says Martin.

There have been some surprises. Martin, a Wellington coffee fiend, was pulled up abruptly by the lack of good coffee in Nicaragua, which exports some of the best coffee beans in the world. Dismayed by the sugary sweet coffee made early and then reheated throughout the day, he at one stage resorted to re-roasting coffee beans in the frying pan in his home kitchen.

The couple is able to stay in touch with New Zealand on the internet, and have had conversations with the church back home on Skype. Lily says technology can be a two-edged sword, though, and they don't want it to prevent them from engaging locally.

She agrees their situation offers a huge contrast to the lives of the early New Zealand missionaries. "When their sons and daughters got to school age, they were given 50 pounds to send them back home to school and they never saw them again. Before we came, we were able to Skype to Nicaragua and read blogs of people here and read Lonely Planet. (The early Christian missionaries) wouldn't have had a clue what New Zealand was like."

It was a leap of faith quite literally when Gradon Harvey, now vicar at St Luke's Anglican Church in Waikanae, and his wife Annette set off to work as missionaries in Uruguay in 1989 with their four children, ranging in age from 18 months to six years. Annette wasn't fazed by heading off into the unknown with a young family, and says their decision to work as missionaries can't be separated from their faith. "If you had talked to me when I was 18, I would never have thought I would have lived over there. It's what happened to me in finding Jesus that altered how I lived my life."

During their three years in the outer suburbs of Montevideo, the Harveys established two churches, St Augustine's and St Steven's, and set up a cottage industry where local people could earn an income making eiderdowns out of recycled cloth. Annette says it was always part of their mission to help the locals materially, as well as spiritually. "You can't just go in there and proselytise. We do want to share the gospel, but part of the gospel is not only telling people about Jesus, but also helping them."

Despite the poverty around them, the family was hugely enriched by living in another culture, Gradon says. "Most people lived in an extended family compound because the only way they could live was by pooling their resources and, because of that interdependence, they had a rich way of life."

A visit from an American church group gave them an added boost and persuaded them of the value of short-term mission work. Gradon is now national coordinator of SOMA (Sharing of Ministries Abroad), an organisation that puts together teams of mission workers to go on short, mostly three-week-long, missions in the Pacific.

It's a concept that fits well with the church's current view of mission which is increasingly broad, encompassing short and long term stints, and a realisation that mission is a global undertaking, with more missionaries now originating from Africa, Asia and Latin America, than from the west.

African Steve Maina has come to New Zealand from Kenya as a kind of 'reverse' missionary, taking on to a role as general secretary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) at their base in Christchurch, making the move with his wife Mary and children Rinna (9) and Tanielle (6). Steve is a fourth-generation Anglican minister - a family heritage kicked off by CMS missionaries, who converted his great grandfather in Africa early last century. "It's taken four generations to get to the place where we can bring back the gospel to where it came from," he says.

He says New Zealand's wealth has turned God into an 'extra', unlike in Africa, where he believes poverty has been a driving force behind the church's phenomenal growth. "For many people within Africa as they say the Lord's Prayer, 'give us this day our daily bread' they are literally asking the Lord to provide, because they do not know where their next meal will come from.

"There is so much poverty in Kenya. God is the only hope really."