Deaconess & Home Missioner Ministry

Answering the Call in the Time of COVID-19

Deaconesses and Home Missioners responding to God’s call to service

Answering the Call in the Time of COVID-19
George McClain speaking at Church of the Village in New York City in 2014.

The restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic have not sidetracked the laity answering God’s call to service as United Methodist deaconesses and home missioners. In 2020, all core-studies classes were offered virtually. The Reverend Dr. George McClain taught Theology of Mission via Zoom in October 2020.

Theology of Mission lays the foundation for those embarking on their journeys toward ministries of love, justice and service in connection with The United Methodist Church. McClain, who began teaching the class in 2006, said the class is “where we grapple with deepening our social engagement and living into the contemporary understanding of Christian mission.” He said each class is a little different as he tries to model how mission efforts adapt to serve the current needs. “In October, I felt that several ongoing challenges deserved a closer look: the national reckoning with systemic racism (we discussed Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist); the deepening climate catastrophe (examining key resolutions in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2016); and the present threat to American democratic institutions (reading Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century).

Garlinda Burton

Deaconess Garlinda Burton, Interim General Secretary on Religion and Race, spoke to the class on “Where do we go from here?” and dismantling systemic racism. She also talked about the history of racism in the Methodist Church and growing up in the Central Jurisdiction, a separate jurisdiction for Black churches that was created when the Northern and Southern branches of Methodism reunited in 1939 and existed until the Methodists and United Brethren joined together to form The United Methodist Church in 1968.

Clara Ester

As an active participant in the civil rights movement beginning in the 1960s, Deaconess Clara Ester added valuable first-hand testimony to the discussion on racial justice. It was interesting to see how the work of United Methodist Women and its predecessor organization (Women’s Division) has played a role in the ongoing struggle for racial justice throughout her life. She grew up in Memphis and was a member of Centenary Methodist Church, where civil rights leader the Reverend James Lawson served as pastor. Ester said that in the early 1950s the Women’s Division sent Lawson to India as a missionary for three years. While he was there he studied nonviolent resistance as taught by Mohandas Gandhi, which helped shape his work as a civil rights activist and as a mentor to Ester and others. She continues to share the lessons she learned through her leadership with the DHM community, United Methodist Women, and the church as a whole.

The DHM Community

Other members of the DHM community were presenters for various mission frontiers and ministries the class explored: Home Missioner Helen Ryde, an organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network, spoke to the class as part of the learning on sexual discrimination; Deaconess Anne Hillman shared a presentation addressing the mission frontier of interreligious relations; Deaconess Laura Kirby, Executive Director at Haywood Street, a United Methodist mission congregation and faith-based non-profit in Asheville, North Carolina, spoke about carrying on the work during the pandemic; and Deaconess Joy Prim, a missionary working for the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, spoke via Zoom from Hong Kong about the human rights abuses carried out by the authoritarian leadership in the Philippines. Deaconess Megan Hale moderated a discussion on modalities of mission and the charity-justice spectrum and presented a slide show on the emergence of the Deaconess movement, in addition to providing technical support throughout the course.

Virtual Class

Holding the class virtually meant McClain had to design the lessons without many of the elements that enhance meeting in person. He said, “I’m committed to experiential learning—not just reading and discussion but having new experiences of mission. I believe having new experiences gives God a chance to help us grow. When we held the class in Manhattan, we would participate in the weekly Jericho Walk around the federal office complex where the regional office of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is located. That’s where so many immigrants must fearfully confront the officials that control their fate. We would join others in walking silently seven times around the complex—in white robes—as a walking prayer that God bring down the walls of discrimination, racism and cruelty and implant mercy, compassion and justice into our immigration policies and practices.

We would also visit The United Methodist Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, where we would learn of their close partnership with a mosque and a synagogue, a collaboration that was measurably deepened right after the 9/11 tragedy. We’d also experience their food pantry ministry where those in need would be treated as ‘customers,’ with broad discretion in the choice of food to take home. Since we moved the class to Asheville, North Carolina, we have joined the Haywood Street congregation’s weekly dinner and worship. Two deaconesses guide us through Haywood’s Respite Center, which they started. Here homeless persons coming out of the hospital can stay until fully recovered. We always go away deeply touched by this congregation’s profound commitment to envision church in the way Jesus would today.”

Charity and Justice

Helping candidates understand the difference between charity and justice is always a goal of the course. At the end of the week they were asked what new understandings they had gained, and Gigi Mencias said, “The word ‘justice’ is profound for me… justice is deeper…it takes personal interaction; justice is transformative, and once a person’s eyes are opened (to injustice) they can’t go back. Justice changes society and protects the rights of everyone.” Ruth Serquina said she was liberated from her moralistic view of people who identify as LGBTQI+ and gained a broader understanding of racism. She also found the spiritual practices outlined in McClain’s Claiming All Things for God, (one of the books used in the class) valuable. Candie O’Dell said learning more about the situation in the Philippines, with extra-judicial killings and baseless arrests, left her hungry to know more about what the church and the United States can do to alleviate the suffering there. Jeff Fuller said he also gained a keener awareness of what is happening in the Philippines, and that his sense of racism was broadened. As District Lay Leader he plans to work toward more inclusiveness and provide opportunities for the lay people of the diverse ethnic communities in his district to serve the district and develop their spiritual gifts. Isaiah Witcher said examining resolutions related to climate change in the Book of Resolutions motivated him to learn more about the issue and bring in a speaker to help his church learn more about being caretakers of creation. Cecilia Hayes said she learned about different types of justice, and that “justice is not just doing the right thing when someone is looking, but doing it when people aren’t looking” or when the issue is not important to others and raising awareness.

Deaconess-in-residence Fay Flanary said, “I was especially pleased to have been auditing and participating in the most recent class because, it allowed me to become better acquainted with our newest group of prospective candidates. The class was small enough to allow for all voices to be heard and George skillfully led the class discussions to ensure the equal participation by all the prospective candidates. I was commissioned in 2004, so it had been a long time since I took the Theology of Mission class. Over the past few years I had heard many of the newly consecrated deaconesses and home missioners say what a life changing experience the class had been which peeked my interest in wanting to revisit this class as now being taught. I felt the class was enriched with the presence of other deaconesses who audited the class or presented a specific topic for discussion and learning.”

Teaching the Candidates

When asked what he enjoys most about teaching DHM candidates, McClain said, “First of all, DHM candidates are the crème de la crème of United Methodist laity, already deeply involved in the transformation of church and society. I learn so much from them as they share the ministries they are already engaged in and revel in the expanded work of love, justice and service they are looking forward to. I am most touched by the gift of being, albeit remotely, a part of their ministry in places I may never be myself. The geographical range is stunning—from Alaska to Florida to Kenya. The range of ministries is vast, from community organizer, to firefighter, to homeless advocate. I feel that a little bit of me is there in the profound ministries these candidates are performing. That so enlarges my spirit and touches me deeply.”

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Deaconess Laurel O’Connor Akin’s ministry is photography and writing for churches and nonprofit organizations. 

Posted or updated: 3/15/2021 12:00:00 AM