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 Mission Challenge ’09. — Jerry L. Van Marter
What do you do when you show up to speak at a breakfast, see tables set for 40, and wind up with eight men (from four churches) in attendance?
You do the best you can to deliver the message that we need more contact between church people and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) missionaries. “I was disappointed, but I went right ahead,” said Dave Thomas, the PC(USA)’s regional liaison for Mexico, of his Oct. 17 visit in North Alabama Presbtery as part of the denomination’s Mission Challenge ’09.
Thomas has been “going right ahead” for two years. He calls himself “a wholesaler of mission connections” — setting up visits by work-groups, coordinating the ministries of different groups in Mexico, and facilitating communication between various groups that are doing mission in the country.
Thomas is not ordained clergy (three-quarters of PC(USA) mission workers are not). He and his wife, Susan, previously served in Nogales, Ariz. They were in charge of one of the six Presbtyerian Border Ministry posts the denomination operates along the U.S.-Mexico border from Baja California to Brownsville, Texas.
Thomas’ requests of his audiences were clear: “knowledge, communication, prayer and financial support.” Only 15% of PCUSA congregations have an official link with one of our missionaries, he said, adding, “In the 50’s we had 1,800 people in world mission. Today we have 220. We have to end that decline.”
Thomas is excited about the use of new telecommunication methods, such as the computer-based service “Skype.” “I had a Skype call with a local church group recently in which we chatted for over an hour, seeing and hearing each other — absolutely free!” he said.
Such easy and inexpensive communication tools can overcome one of the most troublesome challenges in his ministry: the climate of fear in the US about Mexico. “We have to live in faith and not fear,” he said.
Thomas had better turnouts at other venues in North Alabama Presbytery — a kaffee-klatsch in Decatur, a two-congregation worship service in Athens, and a Sunday evening session in Florence. His final gathering was with university students in Huntsville.
The plain-spoken Thomas convincingly believes that a new day in Presbyterian mission is dawning. “Most people expect me to show pictures of starving children and ask for money, he said. “But more of our job is meetings, communication, setting up contacts and linking U.S. groups with partners in Mexico.
“The Presbyterian church has worked hard for 130 years in Mexico. Thank God some of it has paid off!”
The Rev. J. Houston Hodges is a retired jack-of-all-trades in Huntsville, Ala. He has served the PC(USA) as youth leader, pastor, executive presbyter and editor of Monday Morning magazine.