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Working with, not working for

Mission co-worker learns value of humility, partnership in Philippines

October 19, 2009

GUTHRIE, Okla.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about the more than 50 Presbyterian mission workers and international peacemakers who are speaking in more than 150 presbyteries in the coming month as part of World Mission Challenge. — Jerry L. Van Marter

As part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s World Mission Challenge, the Rev. Paul Matheny traveled to Oklahoma’s Cimarron and Eastern Oklahoma presbyteries Oct. 9-18 to share the good news of God’s work in the world.

Matheny and his wife, the Rev. Mary Nebelsick, are mission co-workers, serving in the Philippines at Union Theological Seminary in Dasmarinas. There, Matheny teaches theology, philosophy of religion and ministerial studies. Nebelsick teaches biblical studies, focusing on the Old Testament. The couple has served as missionaries there since 2001.

As a child raised in the church, Matheny’s sense of call to this kind of work seemed to form naturally. He remembers hearing the stories of missionaries and how important that connection was. With Nebelsick’s background as a child of missionaries, the idea of living and serving abroad was appealing.

Matheny said that his sense of call was a simple recognition that it was possible to live overseas, share the love of God, and help those in need.

“I needed to do this ... It’s part of who I am,” he said Oct. 13 at First United Presbyterian Church in Guthrie, Okla.

For Matheny, all ministry is a form of mission. But it’s not his mission, he says, or even the mission of the PC(USA).  The mission belongs to God, who is working throughout the world. Matheny’s experience in the Philippines has allowed him to be more aware that God’s work is not limited to the church in the United States.

“If we focus only on what we do here, we miss out on what God is doing in the rest of the world,” he said, adding that he thinks the work God is doing through mission workers is not just a renewal of the church abroad, but a renewal of the whole church. 

As a professor, Matheny has encountered challenging cultural differences. For instance, striving to teach theology so it makes sense in the context of a Filipino pastor has caused him to re-think the theological language he uses in the classroom and his teaching methodology.

And while North American seminary students may not first go to their seminary professors for assistance in a crisis, Filipino students routinely knock on the Matheny and Nebelsick’s door, sometimes late at night. It’s not unusual for the couple to feed hungry people, buy medications for children in the community or even drive a van full of sick people to the charity hospital. The community members know they can depend on them to help, regardless of the situation. And for Matheny, being able to assist is a joy.

While the Philippines can be a violently dangerous country, the couple feels safe there. Matheny said that people appreciate the missionaries’ presence in the country because they “bring compassion to a country where there’s not much compassion.”

Humility is something Matheny has learned to practice during his time in the Philippines. It’s important to try to see things from the perspective of the Filipinos, to try to understand from them what is needed there.

Matheny said he’s learned the spiritual discipline of backing off, of not being in control and allowing the Filipino people to guide him in his work among them. A generation ago, it would be said by the missionaries that they created the churches in the Philippines. Now, Matheny recognizes that while he and Nebelsick are there to help, it is the Filipino people who build the churches in their country.

It’s important that Filipinos know that Americans accept them fully as Christians and that their ministry in their country is equally important, Matheny said. He sees tremendous opportunities when we learn to support each other and work in a mutual partnership.

Matheny’s year away from the Philippines has been spent going to local churches and presbyteries to communicate what Presbyterian mission workers are doing and have been doing in more than 100 years of service. 

He hopes that some of the stories he tells about his time in the Philippines will help renew the local church’s mission. He asked for continued prayers from the denomination, for continued financial support for mission work and gave thanks to churches and presbyteries for what they’ve done and are doing to support God’s work abroad.

The Rev. Carol Waters is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Okla. She lives in Cordell, Okla., and enjoys poetry and gardening.

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