Despite the economic downturn, area church leaders say their congregations still have a yen for mission work, both foreign and domestic. And it’s not just about giving money, they say. Church members are more willing than ever to do mission work themselves, like the 30 people — including 15 high school students — from Calvary Temple Christian Center in Springfield who are headed to Calcutta, India, this May.
Despite the economic downturn, area church leaders say their congregations still have a yen for mission work, both foreign and domestic.
And it’s not just about giving money, they say. Church members are more willing than ever to do mission work themselves, like the 30 people — including 15 high school students — from Calvary Temple Christian Center in Springfield who are headed to Calcutta, India, this May.
While the church has supported Dr. Huldah Buntain and her Calcutta Mission of Mercy financially for 20 years, a personal appearance by Buntain in Springfield spurred church members to action, says Rena Johnson, Calvary Temple’s mission director and junior high pastor.
“We had people immediately say we need to go there,” recalls Johnson, who will be leading the two-week trip.
A substitute vacation it’s not.
Those going will work among the poorest of the poor — Mission of Mercy maintains a hospital for the blind and a feeding center among its operations — and will pay for the privilege.
“It’s a pretty serious commitment,” Johnson said.
The Rev. Reg Mills says his church, Central Baptist Church in Springfield, also has a strong mission consciousness. Among the top 2 percent of the 5,500 American Baptist Churches USA in financial contributions to the missions, the church has developed strong ties to projects in El Salvador and Nicaragua over the past decade.
When Mills and other ministers from Central Baptist mapped out a ¾-mile radius around the church across from the governor’s mansion, they found its newest mission partner in Graham Elementary School.
As for the question of supporting foreign or domestic missions, “it’s not either/or, it’s both/and,” Mills says. “If all we’re doing is sending people to Nicaragua and not taking care of people close by, you wonder what the motivation is.”
Choosing mission work
Mills says that while the economy makes people more selective about their giving, they’re “still stalwart about it.”
The church experienced a 2 percent decrease in monies received and disbursed in 2009 — a total figure of $101,000 — but Mills says that that number doesn’t reflect volunteers spending their own unrecorded out-of-pocket money participating in disaster relief projects or overseas missions projects.
To that end, people weren’t shy about participating in the church’s 2009 mission to Nicaragua, Mills says. Of the 14 participants, five were first-time missionaries.
“I haven’t seen any clear and direct correlation (between people skipping trips) and the state of the economy,” Mills says.
It’s a sacrifice some are more than willing to make. Mills points to one church member who had to take unpaid leave from his job, and then pay for his own plane ticket and necessities, such as shots.
“But he always says that he was the one who got more out of it,” Mills says.
Calvary Temple’s “hall of missions” shows where 72 missionaries the church supports labor around the world, from South Africa to the east side of Springfield. Pastor Mark Johnson says the church doles about $8,000 each month to missionaries on an ongoing basis, although the church does more in special projects.
“Even though people have faced tough economic times, (2009) was the highest year of giving,” Johnson notes. “People have been committed to giving.”
Johnson says the church promotes among its members “a broad world view.” Past missionary trips have taken church members to South Africa, Guatemala, Russia and Argentina; youths have experienced “urban plunges” in Peoria, Chicago, East St. Louis and Boston.
“The people I’ve traveled with, they catch the real spirit of the passion of mission work,” Johnson says. “There are people who see a need and feel compelled to go for whatever period of time.”
‘It adds meaning’
Mission trips have taken Dave Matheson of Springfield to several Central American countries since 1997. A semi-retired subcontractor, Matheson and his wife, Carol, spend up to half the year working on overseas projects: providing hurricane relief in Puerto Cabeza, Nicaragua, or working at a health clinic in Costa Rica.
“I believe once you have a spirit for missions, you will always have it,” says Matheson, 59, a member of Central Baptist. “Mission work is very much a part of our lives, so we adjust our lives so we can be there.
“Working with these people is so gratifying. So is being with people spreading joy and hope to those truly less fortunate.”
Adds Pastor Mark Johnson: “Missionaries are the heroes of this generation, people giving their lives in tough areas of the world.”
Mills says a touchstone of how much his parishioners care about people halfway around the world was played out this past Christmas, when Central Baptist launched Advent Conspiracy.
The idea in part was to get church members to give one less Christmas present and to donate the money they saved to a project that provides clean drinking water in remote areas of Thailand.
Mills was hoping to raise $500, the cost of one project. The final tally, he says, was $3,500.
“It speaks to the heart, of what Christmas is supposed to be all about,” Mills says. “I had one couple come up to me afterwards, who decided not to give each other presents so they could bring clean water to the kids.
“It adds meaning to people’s lives.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at (217) 622-1788 or firstname.lastname@example.org.