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Coronavirus Sparks Responses of Compassion and Creativity at VMMissions

VMMissions workers Pam and Jim Beachy (on screen) share during an online Lezha Academic Center faculty meeting with Dini and Klementina Shahini and other staff. Video screenshot

By Carol Tobin

The last three months of the coronavirus pandemic have introduced unimagined challenges and tragedy to the entire world community. At the same time, this adversity has unearthed deep wells of adaptability, creativity and compassion. This is certainly the story at VMMissions.

Ahead of the governor’s shut down orders, Jon Trotter, Communication Associate for VMMissions, had already made information technology preparations for staff to work from home. The board quickly provided policy guidance needed to address the unfolding situation. Meanwhile, international workers and staff processed decisions of whether to stay or evacuate amidst the anxiety and chaos of cancelled flights and closing borders.

Of the workers in Albania, four of the five families, already having endured the trauma of a major earthquake just a few months prior, made the decision to leave Lezhë. Dini and Klementina Shahini made the difficult decision to stay. Klementina, who serves as executive director of Lezhë Academic Center, oriented all of the teaching staff to online instruction. Through social media they also maintain daily connection with the Guri I Themelit church members. Remotely from his home country of Brazil, pastor Rafael Tartari offers an online version of his preaching and teaching ministry to the congregation.

Others have also continued their work from a distance. “I am teaching my two classes, 12th grade Civics and 11th grade Chemistry to my students,” LAC principal Jim Beachy reports from his stateside home in Dayton, Virginia. While teaching online has its challenges, Beachy adds, “This has been a great time to work on curriculum, writing a teacher and student handbook, and other similar administrative projects.”

Beyond this, mission workers Dan and Mary Hess are using their time in the US to help organize a two-month relief effort among their Roma neighbors in Lezhë and nearby Milot. VMMissions workers in Ecuador, Italy and Indonesia are involved in similar expressions of care for vulnerable members of their communities, demonstrating and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

Regardless of location, VMMissions workers are noticing an important role they can play as followers of Christ, a role sometimes overlooked in busier times: simple presence. In Germany, Dave Stutzman has focused his efforts on meeting one-on-one online, doing discipleship, Bible study and coaching. He says, “Overall, we are thankful and have also marveled at the unexpected ways we can minister during this time. People were calling me out of the blue just to talk. We have found that there is an incredible openness for people to share, to process and to think about life anew.”

For Tyler and Kendra Yoder, serving in Richmond, Virginia, the pandemic is providing new and vital ways to serve. They have been able to help in the distribution of food to families who rely on school meals. Tyler has pitched in with others to “adopt” a recovery house in their neighborhood, providing cleaning supplies and food for them during the crisis. Tyler wants to emulate the example of Christians throughout history who have seen trials, both persecution and plague, as an invitation to join God’s mission, even to their own peril.

Responses of creativity and compassion are not limited to VMMissions mission workers. Office staff have also launched several new initiatives. Seeing a particular need within the constituency immigrant community, Lizzette Hernandez, Latino Ministries Coach, led the way in the establishment of the Coronavirus Immigrant Care Fund. Hernandez works with a team of Latino pastors to field requests from immigrant families in need. They also coordinate their efforts with New Bridges, an immigrant resource center in Harrisonburg. With the help of generous donors, the team has provided $16,700 in aid to 58 families in Virginia and North Carolina.

Immigrant church planters also made staff aware of the need for face masks at local poultry processing facilities. Under the leadership of Lynn Suter, Director of Operations, a face mask drive was launched. Masks poured in from across the community, including a significant number from Old Order Mennonites, in batches of fifties and hundreds, enabling the timely distribution of over 2,500 masks.

Looking beyond local needs, VMMissions is joining an interagency effort led by Mennonite World Conference to respond to requests for assistance from Anabaptist churches around the globe struggling in the wake of the pandemic. In addition to contributing funds, VMMissions is spreading the word about how churches and households can contribute to the MWC Global Church Sharing Fund. Interested persons can find out more at mwc-cmm.org.

Online training has become a priority for Discipleship Ministries Coach, Martin Rhodes, who recently completed a pilot project with a cohort of eight persons from within and beyond Virginia Mennonite Conference. The cohort tested and refined six online learning modules, ranging in topic from worship to race relations to the Great Commission and more. These modules will serve as training resources for both new mission workers and church leaders.

The cancellation of a number of events has sparked creative thinking on the part of Event Coordinator, Abe Hartzler, resulting in the VMMissions Keep Your Distance 5k virtual run, an event that involved 75 participants and generated $4,000. A more significant blow was the sudden death of Steve Leaman, Director of Advancement. With affirmation from the family, VMMissions is exploring several ways to honor Steve, including holding Bike Shenandoah as a memorial ride and creating an endowment in Steve’s name.

Equally important, VMMissions staff have sensed the impulse to pray, grounded in the belief that crisis is an opportunity to turn and embrace God’s kingdom in new ways. Accordingly, VMMissions has begun hosting a monthly Kairos Prayer Gathering via Zoom, drawing participation from workers and partners from Europe, Asia, South America and the Caribbean, as well as board members, supporters, and staff. As Klementina Shahini has expressed it, “The challenges and changes we are experiencing require greater resources of love, care, creativity, inspiration, strength and a host of other qualities which we can only find in God’s grace.”

VMMissions supporters MaryBeth Heatwole Moore and Chris Moore participated in the Keep Your Distance 5K. See other images from the event.

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