For nearly every July since 1996 that our family resided in central Ohio, attending the historic New Wilmington Mission Conference began the countdown to the beginning of a new school year. Our younger children grew up with the highlight of their summer joining mission-minded people of all ages, international guests and missionaries from around the globe for one week on the campus of Westminster College in the small town of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. From the open windows of un-air-conditioned dorm rooms where families resided we could watch people visiting in the quads, children playing on the campus sidewalks, and often hear the clip-clop of the many Amish buggies that share the streets of the quaint Western Pennsylvania town.
In 1906, four Pittsburgh school teachers were the main visionaries and organizers of the first gathering which is now the sole surviving of its type. The conference emerged out of the late 1800’s Missionary Movement when dozens of summer mission conferences existed to recruit young people to support and travel to far-away places by steamer ships to live amongst people whose cultures were so different and languages unknown. They were motivated by their desire to share the good news of a loving God who cares deeply for all people. I grew up with an understanding of cross-cultural missions since my parents were among the numbers of young people who responded to that movement’s invitation and served as missionaries in Africa, an area now known as South Sudan.
I have been focused for months on the 2022 New Wilmington Mission Conference for which I now serve as director. In that role I am responsible to identify, vet, and invite speakers for every program, recruit and equip coordinators of each age group, connect with missionaries who will share their stories and vision, plan programs and to oversee the 80-plus people serving in speaker or staff positions. With COVID-19 lingering and reports of new variants, we wondered what to expect and how to best prepare. Although our numbers were down from pre-pandemic times, we were able to conduct a full and successful 117th conference last week.
I want to share a few reflections on this reunion week that followed two years when COVID-19 limitations required a virtual-only 2020 conference and a hybrid 2021 with off-campus housing. Participants traveled from Asia, Africa, Europe, Mexico and states spanning this country, this year. We heard from pastors, practitioners, professors, missionaries, and saints from around the globe. We listened to stories of bright lights shining in the darkest places of the world, like war-torn Ukraine, intense ethnic and religious persecution in Pakistan and India, ongoing famine and displacement in South Sudan, and the plight of refugees, the homeless, and disenfranchised in our own country. We asked God to break our hearts for what breaks his and our hearts now ache with fresh knowledge of human suffering, but our hope is ignited when we heard the stories of God’s faithfulness.
As in so many years past, we will find sawdust in our shoes throughout the year from the floor of the lakeside outdoor amphitheater where daily intergenerational meetings are held. This year, it will remind of a week of rebuilding and reunion after those pandemic interruptions and innovations. We pray that we would hold onto treasured memories but most of all commit to live out what we learned. In the words of our keynote speaker, Prashan De Visser, a young Sri Lankan visionary and agent of reconciliation, founder of Global Unites that began in his own troubled country and serves in countries around the globe, we must “major on the majors!”
I closed the conference last week with this prayer reflecting on our theme verse from Colossians 3:12: Therefore as God’s chosen people holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. O God help us to wear and keep updating our wardrobes with radical kindness, unending patience, tender gentleness and the humble love of Christ so that we might be agents of transformation as reliable examples and effective witnesses of our living and loving God. Amen.
As we prepare for a new school year in these times of fear, fragmentation, dissonance and uncertainty, this is my prayer today for all of us.
Rev. Ginny Teitt is pastor of Concord Presbyterian Church in Delaware and director of the New Wilmington Mission Conference.