(Left, top to bottom) Rev. Carolyn Langford, Joanne Chaytor and Rev. Stanley Isherwood are the new Anglican Volunteers in Mission. (Right) Presbyterian volunteers Chelsea Noelle Masterman and Latoya Bonner kneel at the temple of the Vedanta Society of Toronto, during an interfaith visit, one of the highlights of the orientation program.
“Imagine yourself at the airport,” Mary Helen Garvin told a group of men and women gathered in a circle, their eyes shut as she guided them to a meditation journey. “Who’s seeing you off? How do you feel as you say goodbye to them? Imagine yourself inside the waiting room of the airport – what are you feeling? The flight is called – what are you feeling?”
Throats cleared, tears fell on cheeks, palms curled up into balls as those in the circle listened intently to the firm yet soothing voice of Ms. Garvin, a Christian psychotherapist who had been asked to help the group explore their feelings about moving to a foreign country. The group, with ages ranging from the early 20s to late 70s, included two lay persons and two clergy from the Anglican Church of Canada, three from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and six from the United Church in Canada. All are volunteers who, like Christians many centuries before them, heard a calling to serve in countries most only know by name. Two lay people from Jamaica and one from Trinidad, who have volunteered to serve in Toronto’s tough neighbourhood of Jane and Finch, also joined the group in the exercise, which was part of a three-week orientation program for new volunteers (Anglicans call the outreach program it began in 1986 as Volunteers in Mission or VIM.)
“Feelings are really, really useful because they inform us of what’s going on inside and they help us to proceed,” said Ms. Garvin, who also has a diploma in nursing, a certificate in theology and Christian education, and 15 years’ experience living in Taiwan tucked under her belt. The exercise, which asked participants to explore their fears, hopes and expectations about leaving one’s country to serve another, are designed to identify “stressors” attendant to such a huge transition, she said. These “stressors” are likely to affect their mental and emotional health as they adapt to a new life, she added
Participants talked about the rollercoaster of emotions they experienced during their “journey”: loneliness, exhaustion of travel, anxiety about not being met at a foreign airport, adjusting to a new culture and new surroundings, excitement, fear for one’s safety, fear about fulfilling the host’s expectations, worry about language barriers.
“Everything was either moving too fast or too slow,” observed Rev. Stanley Isherwood, an Anglican priest from Cobourg, Ont. assigned to Belize. (Mr. Isherwood left Canada last Aug. 28).
It was “nurturing” to imagine being given a sendoff party, said Glenys Verhulst, a United Church volunteer from Victoria, B.C. assigned to the Philippines.
The meditation exercise was a segement of the intensive orientation program facilitated yearly by and at the Toronto office of the Canadian Churches’ Forum for Global Ministries, a coalition of Christian churches in Canada involved in international cross-cultural ministry.
The orientation is “a time for learning and growing and self-testing of your calling,” said Jill Cruse, VIM co-ordinator and regional mission co-ordinator for Africa at the partnerships department of the Anglican Church of Canada. The goal is also to equip volunteers with skills that they would need to maintain their physical, mental and spiritual health while they are overseas. They also learn “the ways, means and attitudes which are most likely to help in making friends and integrating into a new culture,” said Ms. Cruse. “The orientation provides a broad outline of what one might expect to experience, some of the joys and some of the common pitfalls.”
It is an “ecumenical event” where Christian volunteers – who at this year’s orientation were housed at the residences of St. Michael’s College in Toronto – also spend time just hanging out and getting to know each other. This year brought a diverse group from coast to coast – among them, a Korean-Canadian couple (David Adrew Kim-Cragg, his wife Hye Ran Kim-Cragg and their two young children, Noah and Hanna, of the United Church) who will be assigned to Seoul; a young, guitar-playing United Church volunteer from Winnipeg, David Ball, who will fly to Lebanon; and Shirley Newell, an Anglican widow in her 70s who wants to use her teaching skills next year in Sri Lanka.
Volunteers are expected to undergo this orientation prior to posting, said Ms. Cruse, dispelling the notion that they are left on their own once postings – which could be anywhere in the world – are found for each of them.
“Programs continue to shift and change to meet the needs of member churches and other participants and to respond to the challenges of living in a global church,” the Forum said in a brochure about its orientation.
The program last July gave participants an overview of the history of mission, “the emerging ecumenical paradigm of mission,” mission in Canada (focusing on the experience with aboriginal peoples), global issues involving human rights and economies, new voices in theology and global religions, among others. And, in a world rife with fears over war, terrorism, and HIV/AIDS, segments were also devoted to a discussion of violence and health; volunteer returnees met with the new volunteers to share their own overseas experiences.
It also involved visits to the Mohawk Chapel in Brantford, Ont., where they met with representatives of First Nations communities, and to a refugee centre in Toronto. There were also inter-faith visits to a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, a synagogue and a mosque.
It also gave them a chance to meet with representatives of their denominations to discuss challenges particular to their church as well as individual concerns. For Anglicans, it unavoidably led to the controversial issue of same-sex blessings, which has divided the faithful in Canada and around the world.
“We’re at a moment in the world where you might be asked about sexuality issues,” said Ellie Johnson, director of the Anglican Church of Canada’s partnerships department. “You’re not representing the whole church but you do have a responsibility to keep the relationship going. It doesn’t mean not engaging in the discussion of thorny issues, but be a Christian.” She added that, “there’s a lot of misinformation about what actions (with regards to homosexuality) have been taken in Canada.” Ms. Johnson advised them that they “have to be able to tell what has and hasn’t happened and (that) there’s no decision yet.”
Rev. Carolyn Langford, a priest from Barry’s Bay, Ont. who is scheduled to leave this month for Uganda, admitted to having “a great deal of anxiety” about the issue of sexuality cropping up when she teaches theology there. “Amongst my students will be seminarians and theologians,” she said. “I have to work at understanding what the bishop’s limitations and expectations are in terms of approaching postulants.”
Joanne Chaytor, a lay volunteer – the first VIM from the diocese of Newfoundland and Labrador – said she did not see the issue as being some kind of a burden to deal with when she goes to Tanzania for two years beginning in 2006. “My not being a clergy might make it easier,” she said. “I won’t be speaking with authority.”
The orientation has helped them to become more confident, the participants said. “It was useful,” according to Ms. Newell who previously taught English in China for five years. “(The) most important segment was the emphasis on Jesus’ teachings of justice and mercy, his empathy for ‘foreign people.'”
Notwithstanding concerns ranging from violence to “creepy crawlies” (unfamiliar bugs) and “will there be Internet access?” participants talked about the thrill of, as one of them put it, “trying to discern God’s presence in the world.”
Ms. Johnson, herself a former volunteer (she spent nine years in Kenya and Nigeria and five years in Honduras) acknowledged this. “I’m a great believer in cross-cultural experience,” she told the Anglican volunteers. “Nothing changes a person (more) than this. You’ll come back completely different, which is an exciting idea.”