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"God was already there": an interview with Walt and Betty Whitehurst on United Methodist Volunteers in Mission

New York, July 6, 2009--Walt Whitehurst served as a missionary in Chile from 1956 to 1959 and with his wife, Betty, from 1966 to 1971. Betty served as a missionary in Cuba 1956-59, received a Ph.D. in Spanish literature from the University of Virginia in 1978, and taught in colleges wherever Walt was pastor in the Virginia Conference. They were appointed Director and Associate Director, respectively, of the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Office of the Southeastern Jurisdiction (UMVIM-SEJ) in 1995. During their tenure they led UMVIM teams to various parts of the globe. After they retired from UMVIM-SEJ in 1999, they set up and ran for five and a half years the GBGM Mission Volunteers unit's  Individual Volunteer program. They have three children and five grandchildren.

Walt and Betty Whitehurst singing Este es el diaSince their second retirement Walt and Betty have continued to make involvement in mission a priority in their lives, leading district and local church UMVIM teams in Chile, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico and disaster response teams in the USA.  In 2008, Abingdon Press published their book, Following God’s Call: Individual Volunteers in Mission, on the experiences of individual volunteers as they served in mission. The following is an interview with them by Michael DeBorja, Mission Volunteers staff member.

How long have you been involved with UMVIM and how helpful was your previous career and background?
We have been involved with VIM work since 1965, when we took a youth team from Annandale, VA,  to work in New York City, painting rooms in a church building used by a Spanish-speaking congregation. Our missionary service proved to be excellent preparation for working with UMVIM, and knowing Spanish was a great help. Also, we had led many UMVIM teams and Walt had served on the Virginia Conference UMVIM Committee. Each of us had served as Conference Secretary of Global Ministries, so that we had a broad understanding of mission.

What were your most memorable experiences with an UMVIM team?
Among our most memorable experiences was when we led a VIM team in 1993 from Community United Methodist Church, Virginia Beach, VA to Asha, in the Ural Mountains, a 30-hour train ride from Moscow. We were the first U.S. team to visit Asha, and the first Americans most of the people there had ever seen. Our role was to establish intercultural relationships and lay the groundwork for a possible faith community. A month later a group of Russians visited Virginia Beach, where they participated in church and cultural activities.

Another was when we led a team in 1995 to Báguanos, Holguín province, Cuba, where Betty served as a missionary in 1956-59. Eulalia Cook González, in her late 80’s, was with our team. She began Methodist work in that area beginning in the 1940’s. When word spread that “Miss Cook” had arrived, people began lining up each day for blocks to greet her on the front porch of the parsonage. Our team, along with 10 Cubans from Havana, repaired and painted the church building each morning, and went to mission churches each afternoon where the 5 pastors (3 from Virginia, 2 from Cuba) took turns preaching. Evenings there were services in the Báguanos church. The last night, the town government loaned us loudspeakers so that everyone, inside the church and outside, could hear the sermon preached by their beloved “Miss Cook.”

Following God's Call: IVsWhat changes have you seen in the theological understanding of mission by volunteers?
Some volunteers have gone out thinking they would take God to the people, and learned that God was already there. Most volunteers have been renewed spiritually by the deep faith of the people they worked with, despite their poverty. The practical results of theological changes include doing mission with rather than for the local people; working on projects chosen by national church leaders and directed by local persons; and after returning home, noticing needs nearby and reaching out in local mission. Also, some have felt God’s call to return as individual volunteers.

What are the long term effects of UMVIM work both on the volunteers and on the recipients?
Many volunteers return home with a new world view. They feel they have received more than they gave. Many continue to maintain relationships begun during the work project. They often begin to place greater emphasis on relationships, while still valuing the work project they felt called to do. Recipients are usually grateful for the help they have received, and often want to serve others in return. The encounter between two cultures may help recipients begin to plan ahead and work in a more organized way, while still valuing relationships.

What traits were you looking for in the individual volunteers you trained and placed?
A deep Christian faith and commitment to following God’s call; involvement in a local church; spiritual maturity; ability to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, and loneliness; flexibility; willingness to working under local leadership; willingness to observe standards of behavior acceptable to the host church; ability to relate to persons of other cultures; educational preparation and skills appropriate to the volunteer position; physical and emotional health; and a sense of humor.

What are the deficiencies that you have seen in UMVIM trips?
In teams, lack of diversity (teams ideally have some ethnic minority members); lack of adequate preparation; insensitivity to local church customs regarding issues such as drinking, smoking, dancing, etc.; inappropriate attire. In sites, lack of adequate preparation; lack of adequate advance communication.

What improvements would you suggest?
Better advance communication, with expectations on both sides clearly stated; flexibility on the part of team members; thorough team training; whenever possible, having construction materials available when the team arrives.

What kinds of problems have cropped up in UMVIM teams?
Dissension among team members; too much separation between team members and local people; team members who wander away from the team; teams that impose their way of doing things rather than following directions from local leaders and/or team leader.

How to prevent or resolve them?
Prayer, humility, flexibility, sense of humor, well prepared team leader, following advice of local leaders and depending on their help.

What would you like to see UMVIM do more?
We can continue to stress to team members and individual volunteers the value of relating to the culture where they go and of trying to understand the thinking of the people and to put more emphasis on relationships with them.

In your view, what are the prospects of the UMVIM movement?
UMVIM continues to be a growing ministry, even in these uncertain economic times. We believe it will continue to grow. UMVIM has always been a grassroots movement, and any effort to put too much control over it could be detrimental. However, we do believe UMVIM should be a high priority for the General Board of Global Ministries, and that it should be given prominence in the Board structure because so much of the work being done in mission at present is directly or indirectly a result of the efforts of Volunteers In Mission.