On Sunday, I returned home from a two-week partner visit with the SE Mindanao Jurisdictional Area (SEMJA) of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP). The Minnesota Conference has enjoyed a global partnership with SEMJA since the 1980’s, and has strengthened that partnership through a number of visits both directions over that span of 30 years. This time there were three of us from the Minnesota Conference who traveled to the Philippines; I joined Global Partnership Team members Thom Haines and Josephine Fernandez.
Such visits are a time to build relationships, gain clearer understanding of the other’s cultural and socio-political context, and observe the unique witness of the Church in that setting. We seek to embody partnership values of accompaniment and mutuality in our time together. All of that happened on this particular trip as expected, as we traveled with UCCP leaders, worshipped in UCCP congregations, and talked together about the issues that shape their ministries today in the Philippines.
But for me, this trip was also a bit like going home. Twenty-five years ago, I served in the Philippines as a Peace & Justice Intern on behalf of the UCC’s Board for World Ministries . I was 23 years old at the time, had just one year of seminary under my belt, and was questioning whether or not I was really called to the ministry. Sensing that I needed a break from academics and longing for an experience that would stretch and test me in new ways, I departed for a year of global mission service.
I got exactly what I said I wanted; I was profoundly stretched and tested. My culture shock was severe. I struggled with the language, and for the first few months my naturally extroverted self suffered from enormous isolation because of my inability to easily communicate with others. I was forced to confront my own vulnerabilities and inadequacies head-on, and leaned heavily on my faith and my God in the process. Navigating through that experience was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and yet I can also say with complete honesty that serving in the Philippines was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It was a conversion experience of the best kind.
We don’t talk much about “conversion” in the United Church of Christ. We’re more likely to use words like “transformation” or refer to “mountaintop experiences”, because the concept of “conversion” has been unfortunately sullied for us by the ways more conservative elements of Christianity have used and abused the term. But as we see in the example of Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), “conversion” is simply a way of describing an encounter with Christ that profoundly changes the nature and substance of our faith, how we see the world, and how we understand ourselves. And that kind of conversion is most definitely the work of the whole Church, including the United Church of Christ.
My experience in the Philippines all those years ago was undoubtedly one of conversion. It was during that year that I discovered within myself an inner strength I didn’t know I had. It was the experience that revealed to me in fresh ways the power of God in my life and the lives of others. It was a time of witnessing the great possibility of faith and Christ’s Church in ways that mattered deeply, as I met UCCP pastors who literally risked their lives for the sake of “the least of these” and for justice rooted in their faith understanding. It re-awakened my own call to ministry and sent me straight back to seminary to pursue that call. I was converted from a kind of hum-drum, taken-for-granted faith to a faith that was bursting with new life and purpose. That conversion still shapes my faith and ministry to this day.
As Summer turns to Fall and our ministries in every setting ramp up, my question for all of us is this: how are we creating space for conversion to take place today within our own faith communities? Are we making room for the Holy Spirit to truly move us and change us? Are we giving others the tools to experience their own conversions, and to recognize them when they happen? Or are we just cultivating a sort of “status quo” faith that fails to breathe new life into tired, worn out places and people?
Conversion of the type I’ve described lies at the heart of our task as Church. I pray that what we do and who we are in the United Church of Christ always offers room for conversion….of lives, of faith, of systems and communities. Let us convert all that lacks love and hope and faith into places and people bursting with new possibility and purpose. That’s a conversion we should be proud to claim and cultivate.
With prayers and thanks for your ministries,
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister