Critical Presence

Those of you who were present at the spring Global Ministries Board meeting will recall the discussion related to the challenges we are facing in terms of limited financial resources. It was out of that discussion that the term critical presence was introduced as a way of determining the placement of missionaries, as well as the allocation of funds. It was Eleazar Fernandez, a CGMB Board member who introduced the term critical presence in this discussion, however my colleague, Xiaoling Zhu began his work with this understanding as he approached the ministries in East Asia and the Pacific.

Since undertaking this assignment I have learned several things. The first is that some people are reluctant to think in terms of critical presence because it reminds them of hospitals and sick people. The second is there are others who define everything as critical. The third is that there some missionaries who do not choose to think of their service as being critical to the life of the partner churches and lastly, as could be expected, this discussion has resulted in some missionaries being anxious about their future with the Global Ministries. In spite of the anxieties that have surfaced, I have been given the task to propose a tentative definition of critical presence to be used as the criteria in the appointment of missionaries. However, it may also inform how Global Ministries funds are utilized in general.

At the September Extended Staff meeting, I made a similar presentation and also I shared my proposed definition with the missionaries who participated in the Missionary Conference, which was held October 4-9 in Cleveland. I have taken into consideration comments and suggestions made by both groups as I prepared this presentation for today.

First, I would like to share with you some common understandings related to our approach to this discussion:

  1. Partners must be given an opportunity to provide in-put into this discussion. We cannot define critical presence without the critical presence of our partners.
  2. Missionaries serve as the result of specific requests from our partner churches and church agencies and we receive more requests for missionaries than we are able to fill.
  3. Critical presence is a two-way process. Congregations and institutions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ also have a need for the critical presence that our overseas church partners and church agencies may provide in sending missionaries to minister to and with members of both denominations.
  4. This discussion focuses on the placement of missionaries, however we recognize that there are other ways to provide a critical presence with our church partners, such as visits by official delegations and area executives; the adoption of resolutions in response to particular issues; working on advocacy issues identified by the partners; and the sharing of financial resources.
  5. We can not place missionaries in every place that has a critical need.
  6. Currently, there are missionary placements that are not critical to the ministry of the partner and reappointments have continued in some areas without an evaluation of the position as it relates to the needs identified by the partner and the priorities of Global Ministries.

This presentation will be divided into three sections. First, I will reflect on the Biblical understanding of presence. Secondly, I will offer a tentative definition of "critical presence," which will include an understanding of presence as it relates to the role of the missionary, and lastly, I will conclude with what I see as challenges for future missionary appointments and the allocations of resources related to this understanding of "critical presence."
Biblical Basis of presence:

We are called to participate in God's mission in the world. A mission that shares the good news of how God has acted, is acting, and will act in our lives; a mission that embodies justice for persons, communities and nations. God has always been in mission toward creation. The image of God through the Old and New Testaments is one who seeks goodness and justice. Throughout human history, we have attempted to exert our will above God's will, and we have chosen to serve other gods, be it a god of technology, a god of money, or a god of power; however, God just keeps on loving us and luring us to become the faithful community God would have us to be. The community which produced the book of Isaiah left us with a witness or a declaration of mission.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good tidings to the afflicted,
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison
to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Isaiah 61:1-2)

In Luke 4, Jesus picks up the declaration of that mission, which actualizes that mission in line with the prophets. My friends - Jesus was not merely plagiarizing.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to
preach good news to the poor,
he has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed.
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

God is calling us to an active type of presence, a presence which calls each of us to seek goodness and justice for all of God's creation. Mission is about being in solidarity with God and with all of our neighbors. The type of presence God is calling us to is exemplified in Matthew 25: 31-33 and 35-40:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."

Luke 18:4 poses the question, "And yet when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?" What kind of faith and witness will Jesus find in our churches today?

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when did we see you naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

Emmanuel M. Jacob, a tutor at the United College of the Ascension at Selly Oak in Birmingham, United Kingdom, writes in the January 2002 International Review of Mission the following regarding this passage:

"It seems to me that the passage suggests that Jesus identified with the "least of these," and more importantly the identification of Jesus with human beings in need. It is the identification of Jesus as one in solidarity with humanity that is the key to unlock the divine mystery of incarnation (God present through the life of the world) and in resurrection (the continuing presence of Christ). My reading of the passage suggests that Jesus is providing his disciples with a way of recognizing and relating to him after the resurrection. The least of these become the Jesus who is present in the new future......The way in which Christians respond to people in need in our situation is to recognize God with us. Hence, God is present through others." 1

We understand that Jesus was the incarnational presence of God. Yes, he was a carpenter, teacher, and prophet, yet he was much more, he was also the revelation of divine truth and power. Jesus suffered and died on the cross as part of his mission. But it did not end there. Jesus was resurrected and he sends the Holy Spirit into the world. The Holy Spirit is pressing us to interpret mission for our time. This leads to our discussion of critical presence.

I tried to find a neat definition of critical presence. I went to the dictionary and to the internet! You can find many definitions of critical presence as it relates to technology and business, however, I was unable to find a definition as it relates to our work. Therefore, I had to turn to Webster. Webster defines critical as characterized by risk or uncertainty; being or approaching a state of crisis; relating to or being the stage of a disease at which an abrupt change for better or worse may be expected; being or relating to an illness or condition involving danger or death.

There are some interesting scientific definitions of presence. Most were not helpful. I turned again to Webster, which defines presence as the fact or condition of being there; something of a visible concrete nature.

Given these definitions as it relates to our mission, I offer the following tentative definition of critical presence. Critical presence is the act of accompanying (being there, visible) our partners who are ministering to and with people who are in life threatening situations, which may include;

  • Pastoral ministries related to fear and hopelessness where people are desperate for meaning
  • Danger or death related to social, economic, or political realities
  • Partners living in countries where the Christian faith is a minority faith
  • Interfaith relations and conflict resolution

We read in the 10th chapter of John, verse 10, that "The thief comes only to steal and destroy; I came that they may have life and have life abundantly." God's mission is concerned with the fullness of human life for those who have lost it or have never had it. There is always the physical threat to life, however, there are many forces that threatens life, such as diseases, oppression of various types, including economic, political, racial, gender, and yes, even religion. These are the open wounds Christ is calling us to minister to and with as we accompany our partners around the world. For some, this understanding of critical presence may not seem possible and what difference would the presence of a missionary make anyway in these difficult situations. Maybe I can make it clear to you through a personal story. Just prior to the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my daughter, Kona, had an abnormal EKG which I learned of while attending the General Assembly. I do not think anyone knew how upset I was after learning of this with the exception of my colleagues Angela Balfour and Bonganjalo Goba because they were the only ones who saw me cry. In my tears they reached out to me and gave me the strength to function at the Assembly and Felix Ortiz upon learning about my daughter's condition, just stopped everything and prayed with me. This represented for me critical presence. At the same time, my sister Shirley who has breast cancer had to start chemo treatments again, my brother Milton, discovered lumps in both of his breasts. A family friend suffered a stroke and is now paralyzed on his left side, another dear friend and one of my mentors had just been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. After returning from the General Assembly, I learned that my childhood friend's only brother died. I became immobile and felt as if the world was pressing down on my shoulders and I couldn't fix anything! As I was sitting on my bed with my face in the palms of my hands, God spoke to me and said, "I didn't create you to carry this load, this is my responsibility. I want you to get up, stand up straight and walk." So, I got up and I visited my sick friends. I was present with them. I could make them laugh. I couldn't change the status of their health, however, I could be with them. Jesus never said we would not suffer, but he did say, he would never leave us alone. My friends this is what presence is about!

Critical presence can not be addressed in the abstract. Things are going crazy in the world. Many of our sisters and brothers are struggling to survive, to find meaning and a reason for being, while some of us have so much that we do not know how to utilize our resources, and are also looking to find meaning and a reason for being. There is a faith crisis. In chewing on this topic, a song with a tune came to me in a dream and I am not going to sing it, however, I am going to share the words I was able to recall:

Lord, I have been broken in so many places,
That I don't know if I'll ever mend.
Then, I remember I serve a great healer
Who has healed me time and time again!

Do we not believe? Does this not give us hope? What does faith demand of us? We are able to respond to these crisis out of our understanding of God. When we see so many crisis around the world, it is our individual and collective commitment that enable us to respond out of faith and hope.

Look at our brothers and sisters in Palestine who have been stripped of their land and property in order for others to live free and prosperous lives; in the fall 2003 CWS Program Report, it stated that "Before 2000, Palestinian employment averaged 20 percent. Today, it is as high as 75 percent... rates of chronic malnutrition for Palestinian children average 13.2 percent ...drinking water for allocation in Israel is five times higher than allocation for Palestinians." One way in which we support the ministry of our partners in Israel/Palestine as they work toward peace and co-existence is through the presence of Catherine Nichols and Marla Schrader as they stand with those who are calling for and working for the release from the captives, the so called "least of these."

When one visits the Congo, a country with little infrastructure, where Global Ministries is supporting 6 hospitals that are providing life and death health services, we are participating in an act of solidarity with the least of these. Look at the devastation HIV/AIDS is having on Africa. Forty million people worldwide are living with AIDS, 30 million of whom live on the continent of Africa. Twenty-five million people have died of AIDS worldwide, 18 million of those in Africa. Globally, a child dies of AIDS every minute. That's 1,440 children everyday. I have been moved personally by our missionaries David and Roxie Owen, our colleagues Angela Balfour and Bonganjalo Goba as they have described how in Southern Africa, you do not schedule meetings on the weekends because this is a time for funerals and how families cue up at funeral homes to bury their loved ones because so many are dying from AIDS. One funeral after the next. We stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Southern Africa through the funding of HIV/AIDS health and educational projects, and through the ministry of Adore Lee, as she is working to establish a training program for HIV/AIDS education. We are participating in an act of solidarity with the least of these. "For I was sick and you visited me."

When one looks at the National Spiritual Council of Churches (CONASPEH) in Haiti and notes their work in health care and community development as they attempt to respond to the needs of the poorest country in the Americas, where eighty percent of the rural population live in absolute poverty, where the life expectancy is estimated at approximately 54 years, where coups are seen as "the national sport," missionaries Daniel and Sandra Gourdet are walking along side of our partners, participating in an act of solidarity with the "least of these." "For I was hungry and you gave me food."

Critical presence may be seen when one reflects on John and Karen Campbell-Nelson's presence in Indonesia at the time of the liberation of East Timor from Indonesian occupation and how they provided a sanctuary for those struggling to liberate their land, and how they were hunted by the militia and had to seek sanctuary themselves. This was a crisis in the life of the church and their presence was crucial and helpful as they stood in solidarity with the least of these. Their continued presence is critical in both West Timor and East Timor in the rebuilding efforts and in the development of the church. "For I was in prison and you visited me."

Another example of critical presence is the ministry of Mary Schaller Blaufuss. She is training pastors at United Theological College in Bangalore, India in the field of mission and ecumenics. Because of her presence the seminary was able to offer this field of study. Her presence was very crucial for the seminary and their programs at a particular moment.

In our ministry with the Tibetan people through the work of Doug and Elizabeth Searles in China, we are participating in interfaith relations at a time when religious conflicts are escalating, and at the same time accompanying people whose very environment works against the established means of development.

The Evangelical Church in Angola is assisting in the reconstruction of the country following 27 years of war. There is a need to resettle more than 3 million civilians, including 100,000 handicapped people and thousands of children who have lost both parents and to assist in developing opportunities for the people to take care of their basic needs, while at the same time the church is face with the development of the church and its leadership. This is why it is important for the Board to appoint Wayne and Ingrid Wilson to work along side of our partners in Angola as they labor to respond to "the needs of the least of these."

We can see from these brief examples that a number of the missionaries of the Common Global Ministries Board are involved in accompanying our partners who are ministering to and with people in life threatening situations. How do we understand the role or roles of the missionary in the context of God's mission today? I propose the following:

  • A missionary is a visible presence!
  • A missionary is an embodiment of companionship!
  • A missionary shares what God is doing in the partner church and also God's faithfulness in the midst of their work!
  • Missionaries work along side of our partner church members, sharing their gifts and skills and receiving the gifts and skills from those they accompany.
  • A missionary shares with the congregations in the United States and Canada what God is going is doing in the partner church and also God's faithfulness in the midst of their work.
  • Missionaries represent a different view of North Americans than what may be seen in the U.S./Canadian foreign policies.

We understand that missionaries are sharing Christ's love for the people they are engaged in ministry with and in return are receiving love from those very same people; be that a ministry of teaching, health work, social ministries, agriculture, etc. It is our hope that the missionaries of the CGMB serve with love, integrity, courage and humility. This is the type of presence we would like embodied in our missionaries.

This brings us to our current missionary appointments. We have a visual breakdown of the categories of appointment by area, which includes the following: medical/health, theological education, secondary/college education, community development, pastoral ministry, social work, interfaith, and ecumenical/church relations. Each slide indicates how many missionaries we have working in each area. We have a total of 108 fully supported missionaries serving in 41 countries. If we are on the right track in defining critical presence, we may pose this question, why do we have 14 out of a total of 108 missionaries involved in secondary/college education in East Asia and the Pacific? Why are there few missionaries working in the area of interfaith relations? Why do we have such a small number of missionaries working in medicine/health related ministries in Africa? I am not going to attempt to answer these questions at this time, this is just to prompt us to think about how our current missionary assignments relate to "critical presence" and how future missionary appointments will relate to "critical presence."

Also, we must always reflect on how this understanding of critical presence relates to our mission statement, which is "Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ are committed to a shared life in Christ; to an ecumenical global sharing of resources and prophetic vision of a just and peaceful world order, joining with God's concern for the poor and oppressed." I understand the tentative definition I have proposed to be consistent with our mission statement. The goal to share life in Christ relates to all aspects of critical presence, the prophetic vision of a just and peaceful world order is reflected in the area of economics, human right, interfaith relations and conflict resolution.

We have many challenges related to this understanding of critical presence. How will our future appointments relate to this definition? Will we simply reappoint people to positions because they have served several terms in a particular assignment or will this new definition serve as a criteria for reappointments as well? Will we reassign current staff as their terms are completed to areas that demand a critical presence? How will this new criteria for missionaries effect our relationships with our historical partners? Will it take into consideration a long-term vision in terms of the priorities of the partners and the Global Ministries Board, which impacts the amount of investment the Board makes in providing language training for missionaries? Will we allocate resources to reflect our commitment to this understanding of critical presence? Can we move beyond our own self-interest or portfolios as we work with this understanding of critical presence?

I will conclude with this tentative definition of critical presence: Critical presence is the act of accompanying (being there, visible) our partners ministering to and with people who are in life threatening situations, which may include:

  • Pastoral ministries related to fear and hopelessness where people are desperate for meaning;
  • Danger or death related to social, economic, or political realities;
  • Partners living in countries wherein the Christian faith is a minority faith;
  • Interfaith relations and conflict resolution.
  • My sisters and brothers, may the presence of the Holy Spirit guide, inspire and free us to come to some common understanding of critical presence as it informs our work, and may all that we do that is good and righteous be done for the glory of God. Amen.

Julia Brown Karimu

November 5, 2003


Jacob, Emmanuel. Discipleship and Mission: A Perspective on the Gospel of Matthew, International Review of Mission, Volume XCI No. 360, January 2002 page 105.

Quadrennial Highlights and Program Updates, Church World Service, Fall 2003.


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.