By Titus Presler
“We try to combine evangelism with social action,” said Bishop Moisés Quesada Mota in explaining the approach of Episcopalians in the Dominican Republic, one of the fastest growing dioceses in the Episcopal Church. “We are a new humanity that Christ has shown in the church. We are the living gospel of Jesus Christ that has come to life in the church so we can take the message to others and show the light to people.”
Quesada was speaking in a panel discussion at the 2019 Global Mission Conference that his diocese co-hosted with the Dominican Development Group, April 3-5, in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. Organized by the Global Episcopal Mission Network (GEMN), One hundred-twenty people from all over the Episcopal Church were wrestling with the role of evangelism in the church’s global mission under the theme, “Sharing Jesus: Mutual Witness in Global Mission.” The bilingual conference included simultaneous translation between Spanish and English.
“The gospel is a different news, a radical news,” said keynoter Bishop Griselda Delgado del Carpio of Cuba. “It is the news of knowing that each human being has a dimension inside of themselves that they cannot fulfill without God – the presence of God and the strength of the Holy Spirit. It is news that is different from the dominant culture, where people have so much anxiety and confusion without a horizon. The gospel is the horizon, the space where we are transformed fully. It is radical and coherent. It allows us to find happiness in our lives.”
It took courage for Cuban Christians to witness to their faith in the ideological environment of communism after the Cuban revolution of 1959, Delgado said as she described the steady and multi-dimensional growth of the Episcopal Church in Cuba in recent decades. “We used to say ‘Cuba for Christ.’ Now we say, ‘Christ for the Cuban people,’” she noted in highlighting the church’s effort to integrate gospel proclamation with the social and economic needs of Cubans today.
“While you are doing medical mission, economic development, gender empowerment – constantly seek, name and notice Jesus’s loving presence,” said keynoter the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the Presiding Bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, who also spoke at Vermont’s annual convention last October. “Put your Jesus lenses on wherever you go. Whenever you see God, name and celebrate that, invite other people to celebrate with you, and let God do the rest.”
“When we go into different cultures or spaces where Christianity is not the norm, if all we have is Christian superiority, that is not going to fly,” said Spellers. As she shared her own story of seeking “a love that does not disappoint,” she declared, “This is a story I can share with Muslims, with atheists. If you haven’t figured this out, take time to identify the difference Jesus has made in your life.”
“People in South Carolina often say they are ‘highly favored,’” said Bishop Bill Skilton, former suffragan bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. “Part of our problem as a church is that we have stopped on being favored, and we haven’t tried being the flavor – the salt. You’ve forgotten your calling to become fishers of people and you’ve become aquarium keepers.” The mission conference was held at the Dominican diocese’s Bishop Skilton Conference Center, so named in honor of his service as a missionary and, later, assistant bishop on the Caribbean island.
The Rev. Anthony Guillén, director of ethnic ministries for the Episcopal Church, noted how simple greetings can be evangelistic: “When we ask, ‘How are you?’ in the U.S. the response is usually, fine, tired, busy, okay. In Latin culture, the response is always with ‘Gracias a Dios’ added, meaning, ‘Because of God, I am fine.’ There is already a consciousness of God in our lives, proclaimed unashamedly.”
Jerusalem Peacebuilders, the Vermont-based mission to catalyze reconciliation among Muslim, Jewish and Christian young people, offered a workshop with the leadership of Jack Karn, a postulant for ordination to the diaconate in Vermont. Other Vermonters attending were Molly O’Brien, a GEMN Board member and now on the staff of the Center for Anglican Communion Studies at Virginia Seminary, and the Rev. Veronika Travis, recently ordained from Vermont and now on the staff of St. Luke’s Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
The array of 18 workshops addressed outreach to under-evangelized people groups, gospel enculturation, the history of Anglican evangelism, digital evangelism, ‘The Way of Love’ in global mission, missional encounter with Islam, mission and community at the upcoming Lambeth Conference in 2020, locally empowered economic mission, asset-based community development, Hispanic evangelism, missionary vocational discernment, and site-specific discussions of mission in the Sudans, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
In GEMN’s 24 years of annual conferences, this was the first conference to focus specifically on evangelism. With the growth of the world church and the intensifying focus on poverty alleviation, the world mission community had pretty much sent evangelism to the back of the line. As the church as a whole is reviving its commitment to evangelism, we on the GEMN Board felt it was important to re-integrate evangelism with global mission.
Conference participants responded enthusiastically to the theme. “So many of the mission teams that come down here to the Dominican Republic are afraid to talk about their faith,” said the Rev. Emilio Martin of the diocese, “but mission is based on faith.”
“If you’re only doing actions and not words, you’re leaving out half the story,” said Veronika Travis. “We’re hamstringing ourselves if it’s only actions and not words.”
“Evangelism isn’t a dirty word for me,” said Anna Sutterish of the Diocese of Ohio and a senior at Bexley Seabury Seminary in highlighting generational differences in Episcopal attitudes toward evangelism. “I’m 29 years old and I have no problem with evangelism.”
Responding to the common question, “Isn’t evangelism disrespectful to non-Christians?” Spellers said, “It’s disrespectful to shove religion at people, to proselytize and denounce other pathways to God. But if you speak with generosity, curiosity and gratitude, then people respond more positively.”
The conference concluded with visits to congregational and medical mission sites on the island.
GEMN’s Mission Formation Program preceded the conference, this year enrolling a record 14 participants to spend a day exploring biblical foundations, mission theology, cultural dynamics and the practicalities of catalyzing mission vision and mutuality with companions around the world. The four participants graduating from the two-year program shared their projects: field research on indigenous spirit rites in the Philippines; work on GEMN’s curriculum based on “The Way of Love”; exploring ways of enabling Honduran women to economically manage their monthly cycles without missing school or work; and a memoir about working in GEMN since its inception in 1994.
The Global Episcopal Mission Network links dioceses, congregations, mission organizations, seminaries and individuals throughout the Episcopal Church to “proclaim, inspire and ignite the joy of God’s mission.”
President of the Global Episcopal Mission Network, Titus Presler is vicar of St. Matthew’s Church in Enosburg Falls. A missiologist with extensive publications, he has taught mission at several seminaries and has mission experience in India, Zimbabwe and Pakistan.
Pictured in the featured image above are most of the participants at the 2019 Global Mission Conference in the Dominican Republic. Photo by GEMN Board Member & Anthony Guillén