Disciple: The Virtual Mission “Trip”
The Chapel of the Cross connects with mission partners without ever leaving home
The world is reopening, and many are excited at the prospect of traveling, whether for business, pleasure or mission. Though it is wonderful to see opportunities present themselves once again, many are not yet ready or able to hit the road for any reason.
One of the many lessons we learned during the pandemic is the power of connecting online. Whether for worship, meetings, book clubs or dinners, relationships were developed, maintained and even deepened as we gathered online to stay in touch.
This past Lent, The Chapel of the Cross (COTC), Chapel Hill, applied this opportunity to utilize online connection to take a mission trip to Ecuador via Zoom.
Without ever leaving home, approximately 55 people participated in the virtual activity; participants included the Rev. Lourdes Inapanta, rector of Cristo Liberador Episcopal Church in Quito, Ecuador, the clergy from COTC, and about 20 parishioners from each parish, along with translators and facilitators furnished by Education Equals Hope. Participants, led by missionary Cameron Vivanco from the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders (SAMS), met virtually for the five Thursday nights in Lent.
The objective for both parishes was to connect, build community and grow in our faith by sharing and worshiping together over the five gatherings. The virtual format allowed parishioners who could not normally travel to Ecuador to be directly involved with our mission partners and those who had been there before to reconnect while travel was still not allowed. The first two sessions included breakouts with an orientation and discussion of the theology and practice of mission work. Week three featured a pulpit swap between COTC and Cristo Liberador ministers, and week four was a combined bilingual lay-lead Bible study and discussion with translators. The final Thursday was a combined bilingual Eucharist. Small bilingual break-out groups were planned throughout the sessions to encourage cross-congregation dialogues and foster relationships and connections.
For a number of years, COTC has provided financial support to Vivanco and her husband, Roberto, as well as Vivanco’s Education Equals Hope ministry. Education Equals Hope provides educational opportunities to those living in “desperate and difficult situations,” assisting thousands of children in Costa Rica, Haiti, Ecuador, Kenya and Rwanda.
SAMS missionary Cameron Vivanco grew up at COTC. She attended Sewanee and became a youth minister in South Carolina before being called to serve as an Episcopal missionary in Ecuador. When in Ecuador serving with Youth World, Vivanco met a young girl, Laura, who didn’t have the $20 a month she needed to continue in school. From that chance encounter, Cameron started Education Equals Hope to provide micro-loans to allow children to continue their education. A high school degree is needed to hold even the most menial job in Ecuador. Even though public school is free, many children of impoverished families cannot afford the required supplies, transportation or uniforms and subsequently drop out.
COTC took its first discovery/mission trip to Ecuador in 2018, visiting with Cameron and Roberto and going to a number of the Education Equals Hope mission sites. We returned in February 2020, just before the start of the pandemic. One of the Education Equals Hope mission sites we visited on both trips was Cristo Liberador.
Cristo Liberador is an Episcopal church that began serving an impoverished barrio in Quito three decades ago. The church pays special attention to youth because they are the most vulnerable. Through the Education Equals Hope scholarships, Cristo Liberador offers financial help with school and also offers additional academic services like tutoring. Their goal is to develop a healthier community.
Thanks to a 2019 grant from the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Cristo Liberador started a micro-market to serve their local community. The concept is to buy basic foods in bulk at discount prices and repackage them to make them available at the lowest possible price. With the diocesan grant and a contribution from COTC, the micro-market opened in January 2020. We were able to visit the market during our 2020 mission trip and were invited into the homes of several parishioners to share a meal. Although it had to shut down during the height of COVID-19, the micro-market has since re-opened and been restocked five times. Because of heightened food insecurities from COVID-19 and the restrictions on travel that were imposed in Ecuador, having an available source of basic food nearby proved a great blessing. The timing of this project could not have been better.
“I HAVE CALLED YOU FRIENDS”
Even though it was confined to Zoom, this mission trip had a lasting impact on participants from COTC. As one wrote, “Being part of the virtual mission trip to Ecuador was something that touched my heart in a way I never expected. I found after each week, when we came to the end, and we were all saying ‘good night’ or ‘buenos noches,’ that I didn’t want to hit ‘leave’ on the Zoom call.” We are planning to continue quarterly Zoom check-ins now with Cristo Liberador, as a way of sustaining our partnership between our trips to see them in person.
The “trip’s” theme was “I have called you friends,” taken from John 15, one of the central scriptural passages undergirding the trip. And over the weeks, we felt the friendship growing and deepening. Another participant reflected, “As our two congregations shared song, prayer, scripture lessons and the Eucharist, I was reminded that neither culture nor geography nor language can limit beloved community, especially thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the abiding grace of God.” The whole experience proved to be a beautiful shared faith encounter, a reminder of our common humanity and the joy we can gain from one another. It was, as one of our college students wrote, “the very definition of a transformative experience. Through our trade of thoughts and emotions about God and the world, all of us learned more about each other and formed a deep spiritual connection across language and borders that will never be forgotten.”
In the months since the trip, those connections have been put to the test as COVID-19 ran through many of the homes of those in Ecuador whom we had gotten to know across those five weeks. Our group was called on to pray for them and assist as we were able from afar. While many in our community have escaped the real hardships and dangers of COVID-19 and only hear about its impact in other countries on the news, this gave a personal attachment to the ravages of this pandemic. And while it may not have been as joyful a connection as we made over Lent, in many ways, being tethered to our Ecuadorian friends in the Spirit through this scary, difficult time has only deepened our bonds of affection and connection.
While COVID-19 kept us from seeing our mission partners in person, thanks to their creativity and commitment, it also opened new opportunities for us to grow in faith and fellowship together.
As we enter a new phase of the pandemic journey, it is okay if we are all not able—or ready—to jump on a plane and travel to new or long-missed destinations. Whether due to readiness, finance, destination restrictions or a myriad of other factors, it will take time before new rhythms of travel are found, including the planning of mission trips by churches.
Moving forward, there is no reason to choose between in-person or online; as COTC learned from our own experience earlier this year, each has its own gifts, and the power of embracing both only serves to deepen our connections and relationships, erasing the geographic distance to bring us together as the Body of Christ. Gracias a Dios!
The Rev. Noah Van Niel is the associate rector at Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill.
Tags: North Carolina Disciple