Mission Together Celebrates Global United Methodist Connection

Attendees gather for fellowship and to hear reports of mission impact from episcopal areas in the Philippines at a Mission Together dinner on April 26.

Two dinners gather General Conference attendees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Philippines, the United States 

Over the course of two evenings, more than 500 United Methodists packed Jubilee Hall at Myers Park UMC to share meals, fellowship and stories of joint missional work and God’s transformational love. The dinners, hosted by Mission Together on April 25 and 26, provided an opportunity for United Methodist bishops, General Conference delegates and clergy and laypeople observing the proceedings in Charlotte to build upon relationships that have been forged over years of shared mission work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Philippines. 

Intentional relationship-building 

The informal group began as the spark of an idea following General Conference 2019, addressing a recognized need for open channels of communication between U.S.-based local churches and those in the central conferences. Coming out of that general conference, Rev. Rob Spencer, then pastor of First UMC Paris, and Rev. Stan Copeland, senior pastor of Lovers Lane UMC, attended a fall meeting of the Council of Bishops to better understand this need and how new bridges could be built. 

Rev. Rob Spencer speaks at Mission Together dinner on April 26“The work that The United Methodist Church is doing around the world saves lives every day, and we do that work best when we’re in communication with one another,” said Spencer, who now serves as director of Cultiv8 Community and leads much of Mission Together’s organizing efforts. “Coming out of that meeting at Lake Junaluska, Stan and I had invitations to visit the Philippines and several parts of Africa. To all of us, it was important that we meet our United Methodist siblings in their mission fields, understand the needs they’re addressing and the impact they’re making, and identify how we could be helpful partners in their work.” 

During fall 2019 and spring 2020, Mission Together teams made up of lay and clergy representatives visited the Philippines twice, including during the Cavite Annual Conference, where they witnessed the birth of the Christmas Covenant. Rather than focusing on a specific project or piece of legislation, though, these trips were fundamentally rooted in relationship-building. 

“We’ve learned just as much – if not more – from the central conferences and brought that back,” said Jessica VIttorio, a lay member of First UMC Dallas who participated in the first trip to the Philippines. “We had fruitful conversations around how to engage young adults and structure effective youth and young adult ministries. We saw what it looks like to get back to the heart of our ministries. Historically, mission work has been primarily U.S.-out – Mission Together conversations aren’t like that; they’re changing the dynamic and laying the foundation for long-term parity.” 

Mission Together also organized a trip to sites across the DRC, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in spring 2020. While COVID-19 travel restrictions scuttled their visits to the latter two countries, the team was able to spend a few weeks meeting United Methodists in the DRC and witnessing the vital missions in action throughout the country.  

Attendees hear a presentation at a Mission Together dinner

“The conversation around our shared commitment to missions is one of the most important conversations we need to be having,” said Rev. Collins Etchi Ako, a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries serving in the DRC. “Whatever we may disagree on, I think all of us in the United Methodist connection, and certainly in the parts of Africa where I work, would agree that mission is a vital component of who we are.” 

These trips, designed to intentionally connect United Methodists around the globe, allowed Mission Together participants, including Rev. Spencer, Rev. Copeland, Vittorio, Rev. Dr. Owen Ross and Rev. Rachel Griffin, among others, to establish relationships with their UM siblings that would withstand even a global pandemic and enable powerful mission work to flourish.   

Celebration and fellowship moments 

The Thursday night dinner prioritized listening, with representatives from each of the DRC’s four episcopal areas – Congo Central, East Congo, North Katanga and South Congo – presenting stories of evangelism, mission and impact. Their accounts underscored how important the presence of United Methodist-affiliated institutions is in providing access to healthcare and education and lifted up the value of United Methodism around the globe. 

“It’s important as we continue to be the church together, that we are all bringing our distinct strengths and resources,” said Etchi Ako. “That’s how we live out our faith together as the missional church.” 

The dinner also made space for the Holy Spirit to act, leading many to comment on the spirit of connection, hope and vitality that pervaded the event. 

“I surely saw the hand of God present that evening," said Etchi Ako. “I don't know how else to explain the presence of the people we saw gathered around the tables and the conversations we heard. If everyone engaged in conversations like these, I believe our church and our world would look very different today.” 

Participants fellowship over dinnerOn Friday, a similar program saw presentations from each of the Philippines’ three episcopal areas – Baguio, Davao and Manila. In addition to updates on the church’s growth in the region and its work on justice issues like human trafficking, attendees heard moving stories and music from representatives of the Philippines Central Conference Board of Women's Work.  

Karen Prudente, executive director of the Kapatiran Kaunlaran Foundation, Inc., and lay member of Christ Church United Methodist in New York City, spoke to the value of Mission Together’s work in building relationships across countries and cultures. 

“Kairos moments happen on the General Conference floor, in legislative committee work and most especially during fellowship meals and moments,” said Prudente. “Mission Together has enabled these special Christian exchanges for the last five years and again during their hosting of the Filipino and Congolese festivities at Myers Park and through National Association of Filipino-American United Methodists gatherings at General Conference in Charlotte. Great respect, human understanding, God’s love and mutuality in mission take place with these Mission Together partnerships.” 

Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in the Great Plains Annual Conference, also spoke at each dinner, providing words of hope and underscoring the Wesleyan theology that all United Methodists hold in common. 

“I have hope for our United Methodist Church because I believe that we have a theology and an approach to scripture that can speak to 21st-century people,” said Hamilton. “A church built on grace, and a church where we can bring our questions, disagreements and doubts is the sort of church that I want to be a part of and want to pass on to our grandchildren.” 

Attendees pose for a photo at a Mission Together dinner

That message of hope was a common theme at the Mission Together dinners, both around the tables and from the microphone. 

“I'm excited about General Conferences where rather than focusing so much attention on rules and legislation, we spend much more of our time celebrating and sharing what God is doing through our connectional ministry and missions in our church in every region of the world,” Copeland said in his closing remarks. “I’m looking forward to General Conferences in the future that look more like what we’ve seen tonight – listening to one another’s ministry and mission stories and strengthening our relationships.” 

Published: Monday, April 29, 2024