Global Episcopal Mission Network addresses ‘God’s mission in tension times’ in virtual conference

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Mar 25, 2024

The 2024 Global Episcopal Mission Network conference centered on the theme “Joining God’s Mission in Tension Times,” and highlighted efforts to engage in mission companionships in places of civil unrest, violence, war and persecution including stories from South Sudan, Haiti, Pakistan, Mozambique, Iraq and Jerusalem. About 70 people participated in the March 20-22 virtual conference. Photo: Screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] The 2024 Global Episcopal Mission Network conference centered on the theme “Joining God’s Mission in Tension Times,” and highlighted efforts to engage in mission companionships in places of civil unrest, violence, war and persecution. Plenary speakers shared stories from South Sudan, Haiti, Pakistan, Iraq and Jerusalem. 

About 70 people participated in the March 20-22 virtual conference. GEMN is an association of individuals, parishes, dioceses and organizations that works to equip and encourage the church’s work in global mission. The annual conference started and concluded with prayer on each of its three days. Each three-hour day included two plenary sessions and small group discussions in breakout rooms. Participants had the opportunity to ask guest speakers questions.

The conference started with a conversation between Archbishop Samuel Peni of the Internal Province of Western Equatoria in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, retired Iowa Bishop Alan Scarfe and the Rev. Kathleen Milligan, rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Newton, Iowa, and a member of the Diocese of Iowa’s One World One Church Commission.

“I have been born in war, and I’ve grown in war. I’ve had my children born in war as well, and now I have three grandchildren who were also born still in war,” said Peni, who also serves as bishop of Yambio. “[In seminary] we were being trained to face the difficult situation that we were going to minister to. We are returning to people who have been going through a lot. We are returning to people to preach the word in a difficult situation.”

Peni, Scarfe and Milligan addressed the challenges the Episcopal Church of South Sudan faces in the aftermath of South Sudan’s civil war

South Sudan continues to face a humanitarian crisis since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. Even though the civil war ended four years ago, the country is still experiencing violence and food insecurity. Millions have fled the country, and today 2.4 million South Sudanese people are refugees, 65% of whom are children.

After a short break, conference participants reconvened on Zoom to listen to the Rev. Jean Berthol Phanord, priest-in-charge of Bon Samaritain Church & School in Bondeau, Haiti, and Beth Shires, executive director of the nonprofit South Florida Haiti Project, discuss how church and community leaders continue partnerships to serve Haitians as Haiti faces increasing gang violence and enduring political instability. Criminal groups have cut off the food and water supplies in Port-au-Prince, the capital. Now, gas stations are out of fuel and hospitals have limited blood supply. Few Haitians have been able to leave the country during the ongoing crisis.

The second day of the conference began with Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters of the Church of Pakistan’s Diocese of Peshawar addressing the Peshawar province’s history of extremist violence against religious minorities, including Christians. The third largest religion in the Muslim-majority Pakistan, Christianity comprises of about 1.27% of the country’s population.

During the plenary, Peters spoke with two members of Bridges to Pakistan, the Rev. Reagan Cocke and the Rev. Robin Reeves-Kautz. Bridges to Pakistan is a Texas-based mission agency that supports the Diocese of Peshawar’s ministries.

“We are trying our best with friends like [Bridges to Pakistan] to maintain our survival and existence in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” Peters said. “It’s a very big challenge, very difficult.”

The conference continued with the Rev. Helen Van Koevering, rector of St. Raphael Episcopal Church in Lexington, Kentucky, discussing the history of civil rest and ongoing terrorism in Mozambique with Bishop Manuel Ernesto of the Anglican Church of Mozambique and Angola’s Missionary Diocese of Nampula. Koevering worked in various missionary roles in Mozambique between 1985 and 2015.

Rampant violence and attacks by armed groups in Mozambique have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. More than 850,000 people are now internally displaced in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world.

“The themes of this conference, mission under pressure, resonate with our situations here in Mozambique, but it also resonates with our history and the mission leaders,” Ernesto said. “It’s important to see together how companionship is a sense of the Eucharist in communities. Companionships are very important.”

Koevering said The Episcopal Church can learn much from the church and the people of Mozambique.

“We can learn from the people who are already there and have had experience there and are up to date with what’s going on,” she said.

The conference’s final day started with Buck Blanchard, board chair, and the Rev. Christopher Bishop, the founder of Stand with Iraqi Christians, discussing their experiences working on mission companionship in Iraq amid continuing risk of religious extremism against religious minorities in the predominantly Shia Muslim country. SWIC is an Episcopal nonprofit that serves to financially and spiritually support Christians in Iraq. 

“We have the opportunity to learn from another culture, and they have the opportunity to learn from us,” Blanchard said. “There are many times in a mission relationship as you’re discussing things that someone will describe something you don’t really understand, and then they’ll describe it in their own circumstance. And when you hear them say something to that effect, it’s equally powerful.”

The final plenary addressed mission companionship amid the ongoing war between Palestine and Israel. The Rev. Jameel Maher Khader, rector of Good Shepherd Anglican Episcopal Church in and St. Philip’s Anglican Church in Nablus in Palestine’s West Bank, and the Rev. Max Sklar, a Young Adult Service Corps member who recently returned from Jerusalem, both spoke during the plenary.

During the conference, GEMN offered participants a chance to pray for communities experiencing unrest, violence, war and persecution through an online prayer wall.

On its final day, Titus Presler, GENN’s executive director, asked participants: What have we learned about companionship under pressure, and how can we integrate these learnings into our mission companionships?”

The 2025 GEMN conference will take place April 30-May 2 in Honduras.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.